Ad Hominemphobia




From top: Joan Burton at a candle light vigil for slain Labour MP Jo Cox; Derek Mooney

A rush to simplification and the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix.

Derek Mooney writes:

As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally and slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focussed on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today?

But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader.

Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary to shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio.

It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate soundbite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


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47 thoughts on “Ad Hominemphobia

  1. Fully Keen

    I had to have a lie down mid way through this.

    Still not a clue what it’s on about.

    U.K. Politician is like our politician?

    And online discourse is bad if it’s negative and ting??

    1. rotide

      It’s fairly simple.

      ‘People like Dav are bad. There has always been people like Dav. The media and politicans behave like Dav sometimes.

      Don’t be like Dav’

  2. Eoin

    I think one disturbing aspect of the Jo Cox murder is how the Bremain campaign are USING it to con Brits into voting for their cause. Even going as far as to link it with the Brexit campaign. Like wanting to leave a corrupt bureaucracy is somehow akin to Nazism? That’s a great idea by the way. Label half your population as Nazis (as Osborne has). I sincerely hope people do not allow this to cloud their judgement. They’ll still be getting robbed blind by the anti democratic EU either way. And even if the Brits stay it won’t make any difference. There is no desire fro reform in the EU and other member states are currently electing parties that want out. So only a matter of time for the EU I fear.

    1. MoyestWithExcitement

      ‘We actually send £190mill a week when you consider rebates and the money they EU sends back and the UK will have to spend close to that amount anyway just to access the common market if we leave’

    2. Barry the Hatchet

      “Like wanting to leave a corrupt bureaucracy is somehow akin to Nazism?” Nobody’s really making that point though, are they? People are saying that the tone of parts of the Brexit campaign has had a whiff of the Third Reich about it. Like “we want out country back” or the infamous “breaking point”, or this actual enormous fupping swastika:

  3. Clampers Outside!

    I thought it was a decent post overall, thanks Derek

    I quite liked this…. “Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio.”

    PS the link at “anonymous posting” doesny-werky

  4. moroccan rug dealer

    The polls show that the irish dont trust irish politicans . There is good reason for this. There is a severe lack of transparency and “tribunals” even if finding politicans are corrupt are a waste of public money . The law has to be seen to be fair ( at the very least) but arrogance, unaccountability, “jobs for the boys” is the norm. The mass protests against irish water was the tipping point, ….its galling to read of child poverty , homelessness, scandals in an garda and what do we get from politicans? Waffle. Im not surprised Regina Doherty’s business went bust……any “business”such as HSE etc drains taxpayers money. I mean we paid 3,000 for a x mas tree o/s limerick hospital , “management” had to have outside caterers deliver their buffet for “meetings”…..again picked up by taxpayers. Doddle along and pay for your own grub dearies like the rest of us do.

  5. topsy

    Written by a man who was a Ministerial adviser to FF government which oversaw the bankruptcy of this country. Those ministers then retired with extraordinary pensions without any consequences for there actions. This ” former adviser” has some neck.

  6. DubLoony

    Comments on social media is the equivielent of yelling at your TV, shouting at another driver while your drive or a conversation down the pub. What they all have in common is that the commentor is removed from the subject and the subject of the comment is not able to hear.

    But on social media, the subject does hear. Day in day out.
    And it does get absolutley vile too frequently.

    Disagree all you want, be pasionate in arguing. But don’t do death threats, bomb threats, wish self harm on someone or their family. Don’t think that is too much to ask.

  7. Eoin

    I think being able to comment on online stories, and have your comment appear as part of that story is pretty revolutionary stuff. I often go straight to the comments to get a broader perspective/ more info. Far cry from shouting at yer TV.

    1. rotide

      You going to the comments for the broader view is equivalent to watching googlebox for a broader view of the events they are viewing.

  8. Sheik Yahbouti

    Disgruntled ex Labour voter myself, but can’t fail to notice that the Author condemns ‘shinnerbots’ whilst making no mention at all of the FG and FF Fraperooms manned by the so called “youth” element of their parties. Could it be that his firm does not expect a commission from Sinn Fein? No matter. My personal opinion is that our cosseted politicians do not receive half enough abuse – on line or off. They signed up for the rich rewards, let them put up with the downside, which incidentally has nothing at all to do with the heinous murder of Ms. Jo Cox in the UK, but will be leaped upon by our own sensitive darlings.

  9. Eoin

    ….also, saying that nobody has been compared to Nazis but the ‘tone’ has been compared to the Third Reich is pure double speak. THAT IS accusing people of being like Nazis. However subtly.

    1. Barry the Hatchet

      …the tone of specific parts of the campaign. Like the bits I referred to. Like the actual swastika hanging on someone’s house.

      You were trying to suggest that everyone who favours an exit from the EU is being called a Nazi. Not so.

      1. CousinJack

        Most of them aren’t Nazi’s or even right wing though, the north of england will no doubt be more leave than remain and the south of england more remain. So labour voters facists?

        Surely the EU is more like the 3rd Reich than any other government in the EU, where the unelected elite determine who the leaders are, the commission and the presidency of the EU have preety much zero democratic mandate and frequently overrule the elected EU parliament

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          “Most of them aren’t Nazi’s or even right wing though”

          Maybe not nazis but the main Leave argument is about immigration. Immigration is a right wing concern.

          “Surely the EU is more like the 3rd Reich than any other government in the EU, where the unelected elite determine who the leaders are, the commission and the presidency of the EU have preety much zero democratic mandate and frequently overrule the elected EU parliament.”

          I wouldn’t disagree but Leave is about English nationalism and fear of immigrants. Voting Leave will empower the right wing leaders of the conversation. It’s sort of like when the Aussies voted against leaving the commonwealth. They weren’t against being a Republic per se, but they were against the proposed new constitution. I’d give serious thought to voting leave if I was over there but the massive downside is seeing the county led by Boris Johnson and his elite class friends.

          1. some old queen

            Maybe not nazis but the main Leave argument is about immigration. Immigration is a right wing concern.

            No it bloody well is not. When the accession states joined last, Ireland like Britain was awash with immigrants. Now, there are entire factories on Ireland where not one person is a national. Nobody voted for this?

            I fully understand why immigration has become such a huge issue in Brexit. Working people have had their living standards cut because of cheap labour from elsewhere. Dismiss the most obvious sign of the erosion of national sovereignty so far as being right wing if you chose but to most people, that anger is perfectly justified.

          2. MoyestWithExcitement

            I suppose the response to that is that whether it be fear or neoliberal economics, it’s still right wing. I’m sure the working class are angry but their anger is misplaced. The existence of other poor people is not to blame for the cut in living standards of the working class. The middle class have seen their share of the pie drop as well. Meanwhile the very top, the millionaire and billionaire classes have gotten richer. The rise of neoliberalism has seen wages get relatively smaller since the 70s and 80s and economic migration existed long before then. Privatisation of public services, deregulation, the cutting of tax, the crushing and demonisation or unions. These are the things to blame. Not other working class people.

          3. some old queen

            @ Moyest. The existence of other poor people is not to blame for the cut in living standards of the working class.

            At one stage you couldn’t even sign up to a doctor in a certain surgery in Stoneybatter if you were not Polish. That is what happens with economic migration and I am not blaming them as I have the t shirt but when the government has no idea how many people are in the country, what is the point in government at all?

          4. Harry Molloy

            It’s not a right wing concern, it’s a concern that many people may hold for various reasons.

            Labeling it is such is done so it can be dismissed as something unreasonable even though some of the concerns are very reasonable.

          5. MoyestWithExcitement

            Except as I outlined above, their reasons are based on false information. Immigrants are not to blame for what’s wrong with their lives. Neoliberalism is.

  10. Mulder

    The first casuality, in war as in politics, is the truth.
    Cause it would appear most folk do not know what it be and even if it, jumped up out of the long grass and bit them on their big ass, they still would not know.
    Small country, small circles and similarly agendas.

  11. some old queen

    It may be argued that the short attention span of Social Media and especially Twitter has dumbed down communications but I personally think the opposite. It takes a certain intelligence to be concise and I can think of a number of accounts which people are very effective in making their points without waffle. Contrast that to Dáil Éireann where overpaid clowns drone on for half an hour and still say frig all.

    Like it or not, we are now in the information age. That means spin doctors are much less effective because when the likes of RTE try to slant a story, they get called out. In my mind that is generally a good thing.

    1. :-Joe

      Ye agreed, we definitely need to revise our auld procedures and make things more modern and fluid.

      Any extra accountability and oversight would always be welcome too..

      or just any at all…


  12. :-Joe

    He’s talking about the intentional practice of ” CONCISION ” in the media and it’s been going on for donkeys years all the way back to Edward Bernaise and the fantastically damaging effects of the PR industry since he had the chance to affect it…

    Intersting article, an ex FF spinning top begging for attention while having a sly jab at people who prefer to be anonymous online that support FF’s arch enemy, OH NO! It’s the big scary monster that is SF.

    I still don’t know what Moany Moany Mc Joany had to do with it…….


  13. Mé Féin

    Fianna Failure complains about Sinn Fein and FG. So we’ve got him and the other fat-faced eejit Dan Boyle who were in government and drove the country into bankruptcy writing for Broadsheet. And the poor darlings don’t like being criticised?

    1. Frilly Keane

      How’s that for a tidy mouthful Derek?

      The real problem here is that Derek, like Dan, needs a job.
      A job that is massively overvalued
      Yet useless
      A job with loads a’ perks, allowable expenses and time off
      And one that gets them on the telly and wireless and into the papers a lot

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