Problems of Political Polarisation and Poe’s Law

When people want to talk politics, it often boils down to people stating their positions and then being classed, usually by someone else, as ‘left’ or ‘right’. It goes without saying there’s more than that (extreme right, moderate left, right-leaning, etc.) but it’s simple and, most of the time, effective. In recent years, I’ve been seeing a trend in U.S. politics, one of polarisation. It may very well be a case of the loonies shouting louder than the moderates, but so many people seem to be either A: an antitheistic pro-gay rights pro-universal healthcare pro-social security leftist, or B: a social security hating evangelist at odds with science who wants to remove government funding (unless it’s for their farm or ex-gay clinic), is more than a little uncomfortable with a coloured guy in the White House and believes most laws should be derived from the 6,000 year old scribblings of some Jews (while hating the Jews themselves).

Frankly, that simply can’t be the reality of the situation. I’ve seen a lot of people try to turn the Occupy movement into left v right when there are people from all parts of the political spectrum involved. Part of it is probably because I’m looking from across the Atlantic. Irish politics is pretty mild outside of the Greens (no prizes for guessing what they stand for) and the Socialist Party (ditto, except these guys have even more trouble getting votes), and compared to the U.S., U.K. politics doesn’t suffer the same degree of polarisation. There’s even a lot of in-party conflict on actual issues rather than arguing who gets to be the front runner, the most recent being conservative leader David Cameron coming out (heh) in favour of same-sex marriage. Broadly speaking, no U.K. party stands out constantly as being extreme. Well, maybe one or two do.

The British National Party: Being overtly racist so you don’t have to.

Fantasy or Reality?

Naturally, in politics satire, exaggerated strawman representations and other parodies are going to crop up, sometimes for an innocent laugh and others as smear campaigns. However, parody and extreme polarisation (or at least, the most polarised people being the most vocal) simply don’t go well together. One results in batshit craziness, the other is a portrayal of batshit craziness. It’s time to invoke Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law is as follows:

A poem should be short enough that the reader’s mind does no-

Whoops, sorry, wrong Poe.

“Why is a parody like an actual politician? Poe explains both.”

Here’s what I’m looking for:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

It’s a law that was popularised by rationalwiki, named for Nathan Poe. Originally it was used to refer solely to creationism on the internet, but is now championed by sites like ChristwireLandover Baptist Church and the current state of Conservapedia. The former two are parody sites that can (and have been) taken seriously, whereas the latter started as a serious project, and now it’s impossible to tell the difference between what’s parody and what its demographic actually thinks: Poe’s Law in action. In reality, Poe’s Law is invoked whenever someone says “You’re joking, right?” Poe’s Law is what makes a budding evolutionist fear asking “Why are there still monkeys?” in genuine search of an answer even though it’s a pretty legitimate concern for those relatively new to the science. An abridged explanation can be given with a single image macro:

When political climates become so polarised that different sides seem to oppose each other on everything for the hell of it (and / or to soak up voters just because they don’t like ‘the other side’) Poe’s Law dominates. It’s impossible to tell right-wing from a parody of itself, and the same on the left. After a 200 post spat on a facebook wall against a proponent of free third-level education, Poe’s Law was invoked on account of some of the crazy things that were said.

Believe it or not, this isn’t a modern reimagining of Red Scare tactics. At the time, people genuinely thought vaccinations, water treatment and mental health awareness were communist plots to destroy America. Come to think of it, some of them probably still do.

Poe’s Law extends to commentary. One particular example stands out: U.S. conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh. He’s often been compared to Bill Maher, most notably on account of some statements that were considered ‘misogynistic’ (who completely missed the point of Limbaugh’s ‘apology’ and Maher calling Palin a ‘dumb twat’, mind you), but Poe’s Law goes a much, much longer way with the pill-popping college dropout.

Limbaugh’s program is satire. He mocks and cracks jokes with his oxycontin-addled voice. Though he does offer a lot of his own commentary, the point of his show is to make people laugh. And herein lies the problem: because he mixes the two so often, with the political situation we’re in it’s so easy to take everything he says seriously. I follow The Young Turks on YouTube and on more than one occasion I’ve seen them fall victim to Poe’s Law when talking about Limbaugh. Because he spends so much time espousing his (usually crazy) genuine beliefs, when he ‘jokes’ it’s not hard to misconstrue it as him supporting the killing of civilians or being overtly racist when it’s thrown in alongside his serious comments. It ended badly, but Limbaugh was most likely trying (and failing) to be humorous when he called Sandra Fluke a slut. He probably did know the facts of her testimony but ignored them in favour of being a satirist. When Rush accused Obama of spearheading “a war on traditional marriage”, he could have been completely aware of the irony that he was with his fourth wife.

Limbaugh was once mistaken for being a Republican candidate, even head of the party. In fairness, he has more balls than this year’s candidates. With the possible exception of the dropped-out Michele Bachmann.

Acceptable Insanity

However, even Poe’s Law has its limits. A few months back, Lincoln, Nebraska was host to a debate on passing a law that added sexual orientation and gender identity to its anti-discrimination laws. The blogger aksarbent uploaded many parts of it to their Youtube channel, and one particular clip went viral.

Said clip features an elderly woman, Jane Svoboda, making a speech during the open mic session. What ensued was the most hilarious homophobia I’ve ever read, the absolute fringe of lunacy backed up with the pseudo-facts and non-facts often espoused by the anti-gay right. It’s impossible to pick a ‘best of’ Svoboda’s speech, because it’s all solid gold. Prepare for the most ridiculous five minutes of your life.

Let’s be honest, outright deranged bigotry is ten times funnier when in a pleasant granny’s voice.

After the clip exploded onto the net, it transpired that Jane is a diagnosed schizophrenic who is legally incompetent. She speaks at open mic events and is known locally as the “Crazy Blue Protesting Lady”. Her dismayed brother, Patrick, commented on the reception she received.

“To me, it shows how little society really cares about people with mental health issues. She does have a very tender heart… but anything she says is certifiably schizophrenic … she’s not some crazy conservative.”

Though Patrick has my sympathy, the response to Jane is a result of Poe’s Law. It can be forgiven that people seemed uncaring with regards to her condition because we weren’t aware the condition was there. Her mental illness was not self-evident in her speech which showed some degree of preparation and research. It was just like any other Christian conservative right-wing rant.

Allow me to rephrase that:

We have reached the point where it is impossible to tell the difference between vocal standard-fare, if eccentric, social conservatism and genuine mental illness.

Poe’s Law has been stretched to its extreme in politics. It’s reached the point where crazy ideals can make one considered for White House candidacy and the legitimately crazy (like Svoboda) seem to be one of their own.

“Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government.” – Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine, Michele Bachmann’s Holy War

Maybe it’s just the religious right being louder than it has been in the preceding twenty years or so on account of same-sex marriage, but I predict that this polarisation is going to continue for a few years, especially if Obama gets a second term. And when that trend continues, it’s eventually going to collapse under its own weight. I’d wager that one (if not both) main American parties will end up reforming to something that isn’t just antagonism for antagonism’s sake. Because, quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s genuinely happy with this insanity.


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