An article made the rounds on social media this week about leading Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson that shows everything wrong the state of political discourse in our country today. In it, Bill Palmer (publisher of the website Daily News Bin) made the accusation that Carson is mentally ill. It is not written as satire. Palmer states with an assumed air of expertise (he is not an expert in mental health, nor a licensed medical professional as far as I can tell) that “At least once a day [Carson] says something that doesn’t merely paint his views as insane, but paints him as an insane person, in a way that has little to do with politics or issues and distinguishes his from perhaps any of his republican counterparts.”
The reason the piece is disturbing isn’t merely because of what Palmer wrote—if anything it’s simply a reflection of the current way in which people talk about politicians in an increasingly dysfunctional country. What makes the piece so unsettling is the fact that it went viral. In spite of the fact that Palmer failed to include even a single actual quote from Carson himself, the piece was shared over 40,000 times in a few days.
There is nothing, I repeat nothing, that rises to the level of evidence of a diagnosable behavioral pathology cited by Palmer. And yet, the piece plays into the all too readily accepted narrative that any person with whom we disagree on a vitally important issue must be a flawed, damaged, and ethically compromised human being.
Let me be clear, I am not endorsing Carson as a candidate, nor am I intending to make any statements for or against positions that he has taken on any subject. My position on Carson and his political views are a separate matter, and nothing in this piece should be taken as endorsement – implicit or otherwise – of his candidacy. Like the man or dislike him, however, there is no foundation or basis for Palmer’s attack on Carson beyond Palmer’s own prejudice and bias. The explosive popularity of this piece reflects a broad appetite in the public for precisely this kind of character assassination. While there’s nothing new about taking pot shots at famous people, in the past there was at least some line drawn between attacking a person’s politics on the merits of their beliefs and simply using unfounded speculation over someone’s health as a means of attacking their positions.
In the run up to the 1964 elections, a popular magazine with similar editorial perspective to Palmer called (ironically)FACT polled over 20,000 psychiatrists in the US to gauge attitudes about conservative candidate Senator Barry Goldwater. Despite receiving less than 20% of the surveys back, FACT’s publisher Ralph Ginzberg proudly proclaimed that “1,189 Psychiatrists declare Goldwater psychologically unfit to be president!” (Quotes and details on this story are from Dr. Richard Friedman’s NY Times OpEd on this scandal published in 2011, during the run up to the previous presidential election). Goldwater successfully sued the magazine in a case that became a landmark for free speech limitations, and led the APA to issue what is known as the “Goldwater rule” that states “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
Sadly things have shifted in the past 20 years in our political discourse. Where once there were legal and professional sanctions for crossing this line in, today we have come to celebrate precisely this kind of destructive rhetoric. Where once comedic voices like George Carlin’s and Barry Crimmins’ attacked substantive issues and made people really question whether the status quo should be tolerated, our political satire today has turned into toothless outbursts of cathartic frustration over a status quo people feel cannot be changed. The celebration of baseless prejudice like Palmer’s attack on Carson grants validity to his simple-minded hatred (it should be noted that there may well be a racist element to Palmer’s attacks as he was more than willing to presume the sanity of Donald Trump and Carly Forina).
"Nowhere in the public sphere is there currently room for meaningful dialogue across party lines on how to make changes—even imperfect ones—that can at least move us a step in the right direction."
When credibility comes more from entertainment value than form actual truth we all suffer. We live in a world where the line between an Onion headline and the truth is becoming harder and harder to define. This threatens the very possibility of agreement and progress on pressing social issues because people can no longer find refuge from scrutiny and mockery in the truth. More and more the acid test all candidates and issues must pass is how one’s position sounds in a 5 second sound bite divorced from context. As this becomes the reality of our political process, it should come as no surprise that compromise and dialogue across the political aisle become harder and harder.
In these times, compromise on a single political issue has come to be treated like a mortal sin (even if you are not a conservative evangelical). And as our country descends into destructive partisan chaos, a more and more disgusted majority disengages from the political process entirely. We are only roused from this apathetic slumber by acts of horror that cannot be ignored. Sadly, even then, all that happens is the exchange of hollow statements of collective outrage, or worse, banal assertions that “stuff happens.” Nowhere in the public sphere is there currently room for meaningful dialogue across party lines on how to make changes – even imperfect ones – that can at least move us a step in the right direction.
What is clear from recent events such as the spate of mass shootings we have witnessed is that there is a critical need for dialogue and partnership across partisan lines to address what seem like intractable social challenges. But the more that we allow important guidelines such as the Goldwater rule to be thoughtlessly cast aside in the search for cathartic releases for out communal frustration, the more we are actively creating a less tolerant, more abusive, and more toxic culture. Instead we need to be making safe spaces for political dialogue where disagreements on hot button issues such as gun control, mental health, reproductive health, and social justice can be held without presuming someone who disagrees with us is immoral and intellectually compromised.
The problem isn’t that solutions to the challenges we face don’t exist, it’s that our intellectual and political biases are taking on the tenor of toxic prejudice that echo the kinds of abuse against “other” groups that went unquestioned in earlier periods of our history. I may not agree with an individual republican or democrat on a certain issue, but I refuse to see them as sub-human. That was a perspective that humanity should have grown out of long ago. Dressing up intolerance and hatred in political guises doesn’t make it right, any more than so than when it was plain old unenlightened prejudice based on racial or gender stereotypes.