When you are confident in your beliefs, it becomes very hard for you to scrutinize them and very easy to object and chastise people who disagree with you. Sometimes you might catch yourself even criticising your opponents for things that you do yourself. Sensible criticism therefore has to be regulated in some way: some objections are appropriate and others are downright puzzling.
Last week we heard a lot about the choice of words used to describe Liz Kendall MP, one of the four candidates for the leadership of the Labour party. While contemplating politics and policy we’ve also been presented with descriptions of her figure and fitness habits. It’s hardly the first time that women in high positions have received unusual commentaries on their dress sense rather than their performance in the job at hand. As Laura Bates points out for The Guardian, we never seem to hear about how attractive Andy Burnham MP is or see the results of investigations into leading men’s selection of hair gel. I would wager that male politicians need to be as overweight as Eric Pickles MP before comedians and pundits roll out the gags; but there would be no end of criticism about weight, ugliness, hygiene or age for a woman, and that’s upsetting.
Without pretending that sexism doesn’t exist, I think that this is an aspect of a huge problem with how we perceive our politicians. We always seem to be asking the wrong questions. Who cares if Liz Kendall jogs, swims or runs to keep her “lithe figure”, a Daily Mail description? None of the criteria that certain media outlets are keen to report really matter to anyone who takes politics seriously. Kendall was not amused.
Jeremy Corbyn MP is also the recipient of some perplexing inquiries reported by the press. Widely described as the “veteran left-winger”, probably because he is genuinely left-wing (Burnham, Cooper and Kendall seem like Burkeans in comparison), Jeremy Corbyn is hardly going to be popular with the more right-wing newspapers. As expected, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and other sources are keen to pour on the scrutiny. But for the second time, it seems that the Daily Mail really are scraping the barrel when it comes to criticism. In an article written by Dominic Lawson – not The Yorker‘s Deputy Editor Dominic Lawson, I should add – I found yet another instance of anything but politics being used to drag down a man’s reputation.
Lawson flits between sophisticated criticisms and irrelevant pokes into the private life of that veteran left-winger. The core of his comment piece concerns just how dedicated Jeremy Corbyn is to his occupation and his constituents. Dedication is welcome, but over-dedication is to Lawson a blunder. All of this is fine, I feel, but then Lawson chooses a bizarre fact about Corbyn’s life with which to mow down his credibility: his marriages.
According to Lawson, Corbyn’s dedication to politics and his principles has resulted in marital problems. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant – does it matter? It’s Who really cares if Jeremy Corbyn has married once, twice or thrice? Maybe Corbyn hasn’t had much luck with marriages, to put it bluntly: can someone explain to me why this means that Corbyn is unfit for politics? Or that his socialist beliefs are rubbish?
Lawson refers later to an awkward interview with Channel 4 News present Krishnan Guru-Murthy, during which Corbyn called the line of questioning ‘tabloid journalism’, according to Lawson, “in a tone of voice that suggested he regards that as a worse practice than blowing people up”. Does the journalist really think that rational people would believe that Jeremy Corbyn would rather people were exploded than British media were more professional? Later Lawson goes on to refer not to Corbyn’s political beliefs in detail but instead his facial features:
Indeed, Corbyn’s hirsute features are almost unvaryingly fixed in a scowl. This accurately represents his miserablist view of the world, which is that it is entirely under the control of multi-national big business determined to oppress the rest of us into interminable destitution.
Trying to ridicule a politician by carefully discussing the shape of his face, accompanied by an inaccurate one-sentence dismissal of his supposed world view, shows that one really has no sophisticated, sensible argument against them. Any intelligent reader should know that this pithy swipe should not lead us to think that Corbyn’s views are a “joke”. It is playing the man rather than the ball, and cheaply at that.
Making any old attempt to bring someone down, especially because you know, without doing any research beyond the knowledge that you disagree with their principles, with reference to their marriages, children, smoking habits and so on are desperate ad hominem mumblings written to con the uninformed voter into agreement. I might not be a professional but I’m not afraid to say that it’s bad argument and bad journalism.
This problem is especially difficult for female politicians, who face unfair commentaries on their weight, children (or lack of), appearance and figure; but overall the widespread problem concerns how we scrutinise our statesmen. The exercise routines, marriages, sex lives, names of their children, hobbies etc. of our public figures tell us little about the kind of people they would be kind of people if elected into office, and while it may be interesting to read about, it should be about in other parts of the newspaper, not the ‘Politics’ section. When Labour Party members vote in the September leadership they will probably not be thinking to themselves, Andy Burnham looks a bit more muscly than that left-wing bloke, I’ll vote for him. Politics is about politics, not prettiness.