Sunday, April 10, 2016

Crossing a line

A couple of decades ago, while I was a member of a health authority, I had to act as a manager of local mental health hospitals for the purposes of Section II and Section III of the Mental Health Acts.

In other words, I was one of the tribunal members who had to hear appeals against the orders under Section II or Section III detaining people in mental hospitals. (It was usually Section II.)

One of the people we had to interview while I was part of such a tribunal was a convicted killer: another had committed a serious act of arson.

Despite their mental problems, the majority of the people we interviewed were calm and lucid - often appearing very rational indeed.

So much so that after I had taken part in half a dozen such interviews I made a resolution never to use them to make a cheap crack at a political opponent.

If I hadn't made that resolution, I could have found myself saying, not just occasionally but regularly, to political opponents,

"I've signed orders keeping people in mental hospitals who made more sense than you!"

And what's more, it would have been true!

But it would still have been a dreadful thing to get into the habit of saying, and I would have deserved the flak which would have been aimed at me for saying it.

There is a line, which people involved in politics should try never to cross, between telling someone that the argument they are putting forward is absolutely wrong, even ridiculous, and casting aspersions on the mental health of those who disagree with you.

And once you cross that line you have started down the slippery slope of believing that you have a monopoly of wisdom. The least worst consequence of that is that you will rightly be accused of extreme arrogance, and it can easily lead to much worse places.

It is particularly important not to cross that line when there are good reasons to treat the people who are opposing you in the current debate with respect - as for example in the debate between Conservatives on whether or not Britain should leave the EU. After which Conservatives on both sides of the issue will have to come together or risk handing the government of our country to Prime Minister Corbyn and Chancellor McDonnell.

Sadly a few people on both the "leave" side and the "remain" side have crossed that line in the last couple of months and I regret that whichever side did it. I was not impressed when someone alleged that Downing Street thought Michael Gove was "mad" although I note that the allegations about what the Prime Minister supposedly thought about the Justice Secretary were dismissed by a number ten spokeswoman in the clearest possible language. Similarly I regret some of the language used against Brexit supporters, as I have already said on this blog in earlier posts.

But the most egregious crossing of this particular line has come today in an  article on Conservative Home by Michael Fabricant.

Fabricant, referring to the work of a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford, purports to psychoanalyse "Remain" campaigners and concludes that they are displaying seven psychological flaws.

OK, you may say, "It's only a laugh" and would I be equally stuffy about it if a "Remain" campaigner had published an article about the seven psychological flaws of "Brexit" campaigners?

Yes, actually I would.

If Michael Fabricant had published a very similar article which took out the references to psychiatry and replaced them with a criticism of the logic employed by leave campaigners, I would not have made the slightest squeak of protest.

In fact, if you recast his "psychological flaws" as "errors in logic" my only disagreement with him is that in my opinion all seven are regularly made by many people on BOTH sides of the EU referendum debate.

But there is a difference between "I think you are making this mistake" and "You are psychologically flawed."

Fabricant crossed a line today. I wish he had not written his article in those terms. I am deeply disappointed that quite a few people who I respect have jumped in today and said what a good article it was. No: it was a disgrace.

And for exactly the same reason which motivated me to make that resolution all those years ago not to compare my political opponents with patients detained under section II, I hope we will have less of that kind of cheap crack from either side against people who take a different view on BREXIT.


Jim said...

Whilst I am not going to start asking if they are not of full mental health. Because as you rightly point out its wrong to do so, and is about as tasteful as Cavorting in a graveyard, or wiping ones backside on a swan.

You can possibly understand why I am now wondering if there is a bit of planned sabotage going on within the main leave groups.

This post from Rhichard explains a lot, and is full of links to help you see my point

Chris Whiteside said...

I have to say that I see Richard's point. And of course, while people like Nigel Lawson are saying things such as he said, then for "remainers" to point to the possibility of lost jobs through losing single market access, or border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island, is not scaremongering.

Fell about laughing at your post on that site, by the way (laughing with you, not at you.)

Have just put up a my comments on the government leaflet, including the view that although I personally think it was right to send it, they should have included an equivalent leaflet from the leave side in the same mailing. Frankly, if the quality of material put out by Vote Leave, Leave EU and GO has the same effect on other people who have not quite decided how to vote yet as it has on me, the government's mailing would probably have done more to shore up the Remain vote if they HAD included such a leaflet.

Jim said...


Even when we are pinned down at the pass by the heaviest "friendly fire". There has always been room for a little humour within the ranks of the Leave Alliance.