The Mordancy of Political Irony


I love it when people say politicians ought behave better.  It usually involves either hypocrisy or a certain unconscious irony.  Not always, but usually.  Either way, when faced with such exposition I can’t help but be entertained, or maybe just bemused.

Such was a case in point at the AIM Network  a few days back.  In the comment section of the article ‘We won so you have to do what we say‘ – about which I will say everything by saying nothing – a comment appeared that caused my irony and hypocrisy alarms to make so much noise that dogs in adjoining suburbs started howling:



Yes, indeed, if only politicians could serve and represent their constituents.  This said on one of the most biased, tribalistic and adversarial political blogs in Australia (on the “left” side of politics at any rate).  It’s almost as though the poster (for whom I otherwise have genuine respect) was being satirical.

5 minutes on Twitter will give you an education into the revolting, repulsive, belligerent and grossly sophomoric nature of  Australian social media political discourse.

5 minutes at the blog where the comment was posted will show that same reality.

I heartily admit to a special distaste for people who demand that those that “represent” them behave better than they’re prepared to.  What they really mean is they want their representatives to be fake.

Hypocrisy offends me deeply.  It may be the human vice that I detest most.  That may involve a measure of self-loathing.

The truth is politicians do accurately represent and embody us.  How could they not?  They are us.  Politics isn’t some alien invention.  Politicians aren’t Ickeian Lizard People.

How dare they engage in adversarial behaviour! How does that represent or reflect us?



Now, I appreciate some espouse the philosophy that those that seek to represent us ought represent and display the best of us, but how is that representative of us when the best of us doesn’t constitute the most of us?  Where is the onus on us?  Is this one of those tedious scenarios where we desire to experience personal virtue vicariously through others?

This complaint about political behaviour might have some moral and conceptual legs if it weren’t for the hypocrisy and egotism inherent in it (I happily concede this is not true for everyone and those for whom it isn’t are entitled to make these complaints).

Perhaps there’s a moral version of the Dunning-Kruger effect that causes people to falsely measure their own behaviour against that of others, especially those from whom they appear to groundlessly demand a higher standard of propriety, even when those people are functioning in a context that makes no special ethical claims for itself.  i.e. politics.

Please note I have not, and am not, including honesty in this ethical analysis.  That is a matter unto itself with its own peculiar set of difficulties.

Speaking of honesty, let’s at least be honest about one thing (assuming you actually agree with this point): that our judgements, and their severity, regarding the behaviour of politicians, almost always falls down political lines.  They are almost always seriously sectarian.  We tend to see the comportment of compatriots in a better light, or at least through slightly rosier rims, in much the same way many parents see their own children as cherubic.  It’s natural and expected, but hardly ideal.

That said, might it be argued that in the general run of things, “lefties” have more to complain about in relation to the behaviour of the representatives of “the other mob”?  I’m going to quite possibly indulge in a massive exercise in confirmation bias and say “yes”. But, again, that’s a matter for another time.

In the fair dinkum stakes, if the best example someone can find to make a point about the horrible behaviour of politicians is a perfectly innocuous “jelly on a plate” metaphor, then they’re trying too damn hard.  It strikes me as petty.   It’s just a fucking metaphor for Christs’ sake.  What about Shorten’s lame-arse “zingers”?

The real question there is whether or not the metaphor Cormann employed is a reasonable and just way to characterise Labor’s position on so-called “budget repair”.   And guess what, the answer to that question will inevitably and almost invariably fall down political lines – both in the professional and social media commentariat arenas of political discourse.  There’s surely a deep and abiding lesson in that fact.

When all’s said and done, would I like to see our politicians behave “better”, be more reasonable and measured, more honest and authentic?  Yes, of course I would, but I’m not going to make a song and dance about it if it places me in the firing line of a legitimate claim of hypocrisy.  I would like to see those things be true of society more broadly, and indeed of myself.

Much like the rest of us, politicians are human beings, not robots, possessed of all the failings and frailties we associate with being humans.  Politics isn’t something politicians do; it’s something they live.  It’s not a job they just walk away from at 5:00 every prevening.  To expect of them some sort of superior ethical and behavioural standard than that which we demand of ourselves in just pure vanity as far as I’m concerned.  It’s an utterly unreasonable expectation given what politics is and the fact that politicians are doing it 24/7.

The problem for nations like Australia is that the concepts and dynamics of politics and governance have become too intertwined, too symbiotic.

When people on social media assert that politics is too adversarial, I can only suggest they stop and recall Matthew 7:3-5

Politicians make no promises and take no oaths regarding their political deportment, and nor should they – while in some cases making particular claims about their personal character, which may be judged against that deportment.  We’re all free to make our own personal judgements regarding that, and, of course, to set our own standards.

My point is simply about the dangers of hypocrisy we face in doing so, and to some extent the naive and, I think, delusional notions we have about the ineluctable reality of politics.

Politics is adversarial, not just our two-party system, but politics per se.  And so it damn well should be!  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or utterly indifferent.  I mean, do you really want Bill Shorten to speak as though Peter Dutton “might have a point” and “isn’t such a bad bloke” for, well, just about everything Dutton says?  I don’t.  I want to be assured that Shorten has the ethical credentials to characterise Dutton’s pronouncements exactly as they should be.  But that is necessarily and automatically adversarial.

  1. involving or characterized by conflict or opposition.
    “the adversarial nature of the two-party system”

Oh, and speaking of the naivete I perceive being expressed by people when speaking about the dread “two-party system”, I leave the last word, as I have promised to do in these articles, to someone else, but in doing so suggest one keep in mind our new Senate.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.


About Dan Rowden

Dan Rowden is a freelance writer and philosopher who has been active in philosophical and political discourse since Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet in Australia. For the last 15 years he has contributed to and administered Internet philosophy forums. Politics is a secondary interest, but he recognises moments of significance in Australia's political history.
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1 Response to The Mordancy of Political Irony

  1. randalstella says:

    The whole basket-case of presumptions about being a ‘progressive’ site is raised by conduct on AIMN.
    Although this is not much of a consolation for those who want to debate issues, or offer experience, the obvious should not be overlooked or undervalued: such a site as AIMN does bring into one place a scattering of Johnny-one-notes, whose views on everything are predictably generalist. This includes unpleasant and even malign obsessives who can then spend their time squabbling irrationally and oppressively against any mere reservation about their sledging categorisations.

    It should not be disregarded how otherwise not only some of the nags, but moreover the browbeaters and dogmatists, could be at large, making nuisance and mischief for others who cannot voluntarily come and go like anyone can on these blogs.

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