This Article Is Beyond The Pale

1 April 2004

By Stentor Danielson

On Sunday, John Kerry preached a brief sermon on James 2:14 -- "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?" Kerry contended that, for all George W. Bush's professions of belief in Jesus, he doesn't pass the Bible's test of faith -- true faith will motivate one to act in accordance with God's love. The Bush campaign's response was not to defend the president's record as consistent with God's will, or to challenge Kerry's biblical exegesis. Rather, a campaign spokesman claimed that Kerry's citation of Scripture was "beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse."

It's a pattern that has been repeated many times. Kerry had just come through a bit of heat for saying that the "Republican attack machine" is made up of "crooked liars." Rather than rebut the charge, the supposed crooked liars claimed that it was beyond the pale for Kerry to call them what many Democrats believe they are. The statements ruled unacceptable have ranged from the mundane, like Kerry's cursing at a secret service agent after the two men collided on a ski slope, to the provocative, like then-candidate Howard Dean's assertion that Americans were no safer after the capture of Saddam Hussein. No wonder Kerry is so fond of weasel words and "nuance" -- look what happens when a politician tries to say something uncalculated.

Lest you think that declaring the other side's statements to be unacceptable is purely a tool of the right, it seems that the recent upsurge in the politics of "beyond the pale" was fueled by Democrats. An out-of-power party has few options for getting its way, so it is perhaps not surprising that the left turned to outrage after Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) praised segregation at a party for Strom Thurmond. After their resounding success in getting Lott demoted from Senate Majority Leader to Committee Chairman, they turned to Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Penn.) statement that acceptance of homosexuality would lead to allowing "man on dog." That attempt at generating shock at a beyond-the-pale statement didn't go over as well, perhaps because half of Americans agree with Santorum's bigotry.

The politics of "beyond the pale" is threatening to stifle substantive debate. The point of the "beyond the pale" tactic is to define the boundaries of acceptable viewpoints so as to exclude those of your opponent. Certain ideas, like the possibility that attacking Iraq did not help the War on Terror, are taken off the table. In other cases, the idea is to undermine the credibility of a public figure by suggesting that he or she has at some point wandered outside the bounds. Statements outside of the presumed mainstream are treated as not just wrong, but shocking and offensive. The upshot is that politicians spend their time backtracking, reading insincere apologies, and smoothing ruffled feathers.

Political statements become exercises in harmless platitude and truism, rather than attempts to provoke debate and challenge the public's preconceptions. Are Iowans' egos so fragile that they can't handle Dean saying that their caucus system is flawed? Do Mississippians really prefer blissful ignorance to knowledge of what segregationism lurks in their Senator's heart? The trend is fed by lazy journalism, that goes looking for sound bites and scandal, and lazy media consumption that makes such things profitable to print. Digging up a "gotcha" quote is easier than studying the real problems facing the country.

The trend has also been fed by blogs. Blogging has been touted as a forum in which real participatory deliberation can occur, as bloggers read and respond to each others' arguments in comment features or on their own sites. And to some degree that has occurred. But all too often, bloggers are intent on simply showing how awful the "Rethuglicans" or "Idiotarians" are. The short, rapid-response nature of the typical blog post inclines them to bringing up snappy shock quotes from the enemy. It's no coincidence that the Lott scandal was pushed into prominence largely by the work of bloggers.

There's certainly something to be said for civility in public discourse. But a forced formality is not helpful either. We can't choose policies by listing our options and scratching out the ones that are impolitic to say in public.

The politics of "beyond the pale" evidences a basic lack of respect. To respect a person as a rational agent is to recognize the sincerity of their views and to believe that their wrongness can be shown. It is not to resort to shame outrage to silence them. To respect someone is to believe that they're capable of hearing outlandish things. It is not to aim for inoffensiveness. Giving up the politics of "beyond the pale" does not mean giving people with bigoted or dangerous views a pass -- rather, it means addressing the substance of their views.

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