What does it mean to politicise a tragedy?
We often hear this phrase used as a deflection whenever a political figure suggests a systemic cause for a recent tragic event. The implication is that politics, often seen as a trivial thing by those who wield it in a trivial manner, is not to come within ten kilometres of a real world catastrophe.
In December 2012, Adam Lanza shot twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in what was one of America’s worst ever massacres. On the very day of the shooting, President Barack Obama, his usually calm demeanour flecked with a passion he rarely displayed outside of campaign rhetoric, said the following:
“We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
Naturally, no meaningful action was taken because America’s parties could not agree on what the meaningful action should be. A watered-down version of a bill proposing increased background checks on those purchasing weapons failed to pass the Senate the following April.
The mood after Sandy Hook felt different. We were beyond the point of being able to pass these off as isolated incidents, and if US gun control was ever going to happen, it was then. It will never happen. Republicans and gun advocates accused the President of politicising the tragedy. No debate would be entered into, because the cynicism of pushing a political agenda as parents grieved was considered too outrageous.
Back in Australia, we’re halfway through spring and New South Wales has already caught fire.
Greens MP Adam Bandt, writing in The Guardian, drew a direct line between Climate Change and the recent bushfires, and claimed that newly-minted Prime Minister Tony Abbott was, thanks to his plan to repeal the Carbon Tax, failing his duty to protect the Australian people.
In response, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt accused Bandt of politicising the tragedy.
Meanwhile, photos emerged of long-time volunteer fire-fighter Tony Abbott in his uniform and on location, devoting fourteen hours last weekend to fighting the fires with the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade.
Social media lit up with accusations that it was Abbott who was politicising the tragedy.
Accusing someone of politicising a tragedy is to accuse them of cynicism, but it’s the accusation itself that’s cynical. Because making such an accusation ignores the fundamental truth: these people are literally hired to politicise issues. That is why we voted for them, why we pay them.
Your own political leanings may cause you to scoff at one of the above examples and forgive the other, but the fact is that Bandt and Abbott last weekend were the very embodiment of, “Think global, act local”. Bandt reminded us of the very real human cost of worldwide Climate Change. Abbott literally put out fires.
The complaint against politicisation stems from the belief that a politician is capitalising on someone else’s tragedy in order to push a personal agenda. That personal agenda could take the form of either a controversial ideology or a photo op, but we view these reactions through the prism of partisanship. What feels to us like a cynical transgression is often filtered through a subjective premise: I don’t like what that guy’s selling.
On the other hand, if you do like what that guy’s selling, you tend not to mind the method in which it is sold. The ends justify the means.
Capitalising on tragedy is what politicians are supposed to do. It’s why John Howard was able to introduce major gun control laws in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Or why the United States’ 1933 Glass-Steagol Act came in following the Wall Street crash. Politicians react, and they react politically.
This is not to suggest that, in the grand tradition of news, that all viewpoints are equal as we allow the controversy to lead the story. To ignore the effects of Climate Change—as Abbott himself did when he rebuked the head of the United Nations’ climate change negotiations Christina Figueres when she pointed out the link between rising temperatures and bushfires—is dangerous.
But the danger also lies in the rhetoric. The suggestion that tragedies should not be politicised is a smokescreen. It is the fear that the public, faced with the very real aftermath of a tragedy, will be swayed by a speech, by an argument, by a photo op.
That those in shock after a shooting will support gun restrictions.
That those threatened by bushfire will reassess their position on Climate Change.
That those who feel politicians are perpetually ineffective will be moved by seeing the Prime Minister fighting a fire.
Whether these predicted shifts in public opinion are driven by an emotional clouding or a sudden absence of emotional clouding, those on the other side of the political divide recognise that arguing the point is useless. It plays to the opponent’s rules, whilst accusing them of politicisation is to demolish the idea that the debate should be had at all.
Dismissing any argument as “politicising a tragedy” is to shut down the fundamental right to put forward an argument. In doing so, in crippling the discussion before it can begin, we truly harm those who have suffered tragedies, and those who will suffer tragedies again in the future.
More on the politics of tragedy:
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah