Mob Mentality

Teapartier Protest

This will be the last post on the issues raised on Sunday’s post and its comment thread, I promise. I’m sure Jim is feeling picked upon by now, but he should think of this as a compliment. He’s given me a fair amount to think about, and I’m writing it down here.

If you will recall, Jim was prompted to write after I praised the passage of Obama’s health insurance reform proposals in Congress this past Sunday, and criticized the Republican Party and its Tea Party movement for its obstructionist tactics, and its refusal to consider the opinions of those many Americans that voted Obama into office. I inadvertently referred to members of the Tea Party movement as “teabaggers”, making an admittedly salacious pun, but honestly believing that this is the official name of the movement. Certainly, it’s a very media-friendly name, such that the term has acquired a life of its own, and is very, very difficult for me not to use.

In the course of his comment on my comments, however, Jim made a number of assumptions about my thought process. One of them was to sarcastically say, “But I am a zealous, ignorant, racist, bigoted, self-centered individualst who wants to see poor people die in agony, so I guess my opinions don’t count.”

The thing is, at no point did I call Jim a zealot, a racist, a bigot or even a self-centred individualist. More importantly, at no point did I call the movement as a whole the same. Go back to my post: the words “racist”, “zealot” and “individualist” don’t even appear. Jim is reacting in my post to criticism posted elsewhere — criticism which commentator Jack Cluth supplies, but after the fact. I can understand Jim’s frustration. It’s frustrating to have legitimate concerns about government policy, only to have my arguments undercut by accusations that I support the misbehaviour of my ideological colleagues. But that such examples exist to cloud the argument is not my fault; nor is it the fault of Jack.

It’s true that I have little respect for the Tea Party movement as a movement. There is little that I see that is constructive about their platform, in my opinion, and the behaviour of some of their supporters has been downright appalling, from booing an individual who had the temerity to ask a congressman a question in Spanish to mocking a man with Parkinsons as a leech on society. Video evidence exists of both incidents. There have been numerous posters at these events likening Obama to Hitler or Stalin, and flagrantly racist material has been posted by supporters in the movement. And let’s not forget the many placards advocating violence if this movement doesn’t get its way. For many speaking on behalf of the Tea Party movement, this isn’t about constructive advocation to challenge assumptions and try and change people’s minds, this is about intimidation.

I’ve seen various activist groups in action, but I’ve seen very few with behavioural problems on the line of the Tea Party movement. And until they clean up their act, and until they show themselves to be more than just an angry, incoherent mob, until they show respectful disagreement with dissenting opinions, I will continue to disrespect them.

And, frankly, I’m not holding these people to a higher standard than what various progressive movements have been held to. We all know various individuals or groups who have gone overboard in protesting the Iraq war, or the various government policies towards the poor. We know that if individuals in these groups behaved as badly as individuals in the Tea Party movement have behaved, these individuals would be paraded up and down by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and various conservative blogs as examples of “the intolerance of the left”. We know this, because it’s already happened.

And, you know, to some extent, it’s justified.

A recent case of such fell across my desk yesterday. Earlier this week, controversial (and bat-shit insane) political commentator Ann Coulter came up to speak at the University of Ottawa. A crowd of about 200 protesters came out to meet her.

Fair enough; people engaging in a peaceful demonstration are doing nothing more than expressing their own rights of free speech. Unfortunately, things did not remain peaceful for long. The crowd got raucous, someone pulled the fire alarm, people swarmed the doors and people had to be arrested (correction: there were no reported arrests). Organizers, on the advice of police, cancelled the event, and the protesters had the audacity to cheer as though they’d won some great victory.

Many of Coulter’s strongest critics from this side of the border noted that the victory didn’t belong to the protesters. Warren Kinsella called the actions of the protesters dumb; over at Dawg’s Blawg, Antonia Zerbiasis said, “I have no time for Coulter… …but I genuinely believe (she) won a victory here.” Why? Because the protesters made Coulter look rational. No matter what the woman has said in the past, the fact remains: to shout her down, the mob didn’t use words. Instead, it threatened people’s security, and it broke the law. Coulter and her supporters can now play the persecuted victim, and these protesters will have to wear it. And in all of this, a rebuttal of Coulter’s hateful speech gets lost.

There is nothing courageous about pulling fire alarms and intimidating individuals in order to shut them up. If you want real courage, look to the young Muslim woman who stood up in front of a crowd at the University of Western Ontario and challenged Coulter on her assertion that all Muslims should not be allowed to fly. That took real guts (Coulter’s response was “take a camel”, which highlights another benefit of allowing people like Coulter to speak. If you want proof of their irrational hate, just let them open their mouths. Just be ready to open your own mouth to challenge that hate). That’s not what happened at the University of Ottawa.

It just goes to show how important it is to behave yourself when it comes to political engagement. There is a fine line between righteous action and mob mentality. One gets respect, and the other doesn’t. Witness how effective the extremely well-behaved protests against prorogation this past January were. The organizers very publicly told their attendees to behave themselves, specifically so as they would not give their opponents room to criticize the movement. As a result of this careful preparation, these events were welcoming parties that average Canadians could safely walk alongside.

And while it might not be fair that an entire movement be tarred by the brushes that paint the idiots and loudmouths in their midst, that’s still the reality and the movement ignores it at its peril. Both sides of the political debate need to pay better attention to their activists, and warn them which activities are effective, and which are self-destructive. It needs to make it clear that those individuals who aren’t interested in playing nice — who are more interested in breaking a few windows than actually making a political point that most people will understand and potentially agree with — are not welcome in the movement. When it comes to political activism, the better behaved mob wins.

Now that I’ve said that, I should point out that a number of critics of Coulter have come forward to condemn the activities of this mob (update: although, perhaps mob would be too strong a word). It would seem that they are doing their part in maintaining a rational political discourse. On the other hand, this past weekend, protesters against America’s proposed health insurance reforms hurled racial epithets at former civil rights activists and mocked a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Should these people be the yardstick upon which the entire Tea Party movement is measured? Perhaps not. But where has the condemnation of these incidents been? Where has been the requests that people channel their anger constructively, and show themselves to be better than a dangerous group of spoiled children?

Until this happens, the Tea Party movement will not win the respect of moderate Americans. Until they can rehabilitate the image that they themselves present to the media, even my very libertarian friends will consider this mob too crazy to associate with.

And the fault ultimately lies with the movement.

Updates and Further Reading

If anything, this enhances the point I was making. Pretty instantly, we had people from the centre to the left speak out against what we saw as mob violence against a political speaker — even though the facts that emerged later on suggest that the extent of such criticism was unwarranted. On the other hand, we have video evidence of considerable misdeeds by individuals at a number of Tea Party gatherings. Has there been similar condemnation of these excesses from their fellow travellers? If so, where?

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