There was a time when the things our political leaders said and did carried with them the threat of censure or rebuke. The slightest misstep could presage disaster, while a proper, world-ending gaffe was like political kryptonite, something that could down even a seasoned heavyweight in seconds.
They seemed to come less often back then, and the sillier ones we rejoiced in most of all. It’s widely accepted that Neil Kinnock’s time as Labour leader never recovered from the accidental dip in the sea he took on his first day in 1983. When Howard Dean tanked his 2004 bid to become Democratic nominee by yelling in a slightly weird way, we held street parties to celebrate his misfortune and he was launched into space to think about what he’d done. We all remember Ed Miliband losing the respect of the entire political class when, in 2014, he ate a bacon sandwich in approximately the only way it is possible to eat a bacon sandwich. Swallowing huge handfuls of popcorn, we pulled a giant red lever that exiled him to Twitter, where a sad, sarcastic squad of young interns soon reduced him to being a sort of plush doll mascot version of himself, doomed to tweet self-deprecating comments about his own calamitous misfortune, which we now mostly ignore.
If appealing to the decency of indecent people is the only weapon in our arsenal, then we must learn a few new tricks
These days, such things seem quaint, since it’s 2019 and a frothing torrent of errant nonsense emerges, sluice-like, from all the people who seek to run the world. It’s not only true that those older, milder missteps would no longer prove fatal – but infinitely more sinister words and actions now go unpunished too.
In the past week, Donald Trump told four sitting legislators, all women of colour, to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime[-]infested places from which they came” – a position he hasn’t budged from since.
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, took to live television to issue a fizzing geyser of scat jazz bollocks, with the diffident swagger of a man who has worked out that he will never be held accountable for a single garbled word. It’s not just the thousand-year career of racist or hateful things he’s said, it’s that every conversational gambit with Johnson fades to entropy and, left to his own devices, each sentence becomes increasingly evacuated of sense, empty words with their meaning removed; his mouth a factory floor churning out the grim, inedible husks of a thousand whey-free Mars bars. In Brussels, Ann Widdecombe used her maiden speech in the European parliament to issue a torrent of claims so patently divorced from reality that the Lib Dem MEP who debunked them looked genuinely worried for her health. No one in their right mind anticipates any resignations, apologies or even a clarification for any of these recent incidents.
When people peddle duplicitous or hateful speech, they’re responsible for their own actions, but there’s plenty of blame to go around for the social order that allows that speech to flourish. It doesn’t help that some political operators succeed by making their vileness a feature, not a bug, rendering them immune from scrutiny. When then-Ukip leader Henry Bolton’s girlfriend was found to have written racist texts about Meghan Markle last year, he was removed on the understanding that he risked bringing the party’s reputation into disrepute. Had he only possessed the foresight to go for the Tory leadership rather than Ukip’s, he could have written those sentiments himself in the form of a hilarious Telegraph article, and he’d be in line for the top job. It seems that bad faith actors, who once feared the censure and scorn of an observant press, now know that the 24-hour news cycle has diluted the impact of their vitriol to near homeopathic levels. If all the talking heads can do is make you feel bad about yourself for a few hours, then you just need to be the kind of person who doesn’t mind when people try to make you feel bad – soon enough, those very same talking heads will be forced to discuss some other, newer scandal, quite possibly of your own making.
Serious-minded journalists attempting to shame a Johnson or a Trump now seem like hapless substitute teachers, desperately trying to regain control of the class. It hurts to single out the BBC, but it sometimes seems that its preferred tactic for dealing with the increase in false or racist rhetoric being spouted by politicians and pundits is to invite them on to all of their programmes for ever. This, while allowing other, nicer people to speak immediately after them, who will hopefully say that Muslims don’t look like letterboxes after all, or that Boer war concentration camps were actually bad, so that it all balances out in a sort of “one in, one out” revolving door of normalised hatred and dishonesty. If indecent exposure suddenly spiked all over the UK, one wonders if the producers of Question Time would include at least one frantically masturbating man on the panel each week, to better represent this kooky new craze for frenzied onanism sweeping the UK. They would probably consider it, so long as they made sure they had at least one other person on the panel who would make sure not to masturbate, and in the strongest possible terms.
The consequences of allowing these kinds of ideas to propagate, unanswered, in the public sphere, are not just rhetorical. Some people like to point toward today’s society and moan that political correctness is stymying free speech, invading our college campuses, and ruining our best-loved telly. If anything, they say, we’re too tolerant of others. It’s quite clear that the opposite is the case, as race-hate crimes are rising in England and Wales, and crimes against the LGBT community have doubled since 2014 – none of which is offset by a female Doctor Who and more black people in period dramas.
It has been a boom year for bigots and liars, and we need to stop coddling those who think otherwise. In a post-shame political landscape, we can’t run political coverage like an honesty-box fruit stall in a small village churchyard.
If appealing to the decency of indecent people is the only weapon in our arsenal, then we must learn a few new tricks. The old kryptonite’s not working, and a new race of shameless supervillains is flourishing before our eyes.
• Séamas O’Reilly is a writer from Derry