On the degradation of public discourse

Ruth Colker, The Public Insult Playbook: How abusers in power undermine civil rights reform, University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2021, pp x and 265.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

This thoughtful book is shaped by left-wing, liberal and progressive values. Ruth Colker’s open partisanship does not detract from her arguments: it is honest positioning which helps readers assess them.

Colker’s concern is that those campaigning against forms of social oppression and inequality have ‘failed to account for the power of public insults’ in their ‘strategies to attain progressive reform’.

She identifies and analyses multiple examples of put-downs, lies, ‘jokes’, negative comments and abusive tirades in current public discourse. These been directed against ‘people with disabilities, immigrants, women seeking abortions, individuals who are sexually harassed, members of the LGBTQ community, and, of course, African American people’.

Systematically working through detailed case studies from different areas of the law, Colker shows how public insults are deployed by ‘power bullies’. They act as a ‘headwind’ to ‘make the achievement of effective reforms quite difficult’ and, then, ‘after such reforms have been crafted into law, they act as a dead weight to preclude their effective enforcement’. More generally, they form part of the ‘playbook’ used by those who want to undermine civil rights ‘by deflecting attention away from the erosion of or need for structural reform’.

Sometimes, insults attempt ‘deflection’ through changing the subject. For example, when reporter Serge Kovaleski carefully and cogently criticised unsubstantiated claims which Donald Trump had made (in this case, to back his racist anti-immigration policies), Trump didn’t deign to respond to Kovaleski’s arguments, but flapped his arms and grotesquely mocked the reporter’s congenital joint condition.

At other times, the intention of public insults is to argue that there are justified or at least understandable ‘reasons’ for oppressive actions which violate civil rights, human dignity – and life. For example, when George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, some politicians and journalists emphasised Floyd’s criminal record and the accusation that he had tried to use counterfeit money.

The Public Insult Playbook is full of material which will be useful to those who are working against oppression. Colker pinpoints the cynical manoeuvres of those who want to block people from exercising their rights – such as those who characterise people making fully justified claims for disability discrimination as ‘bounty hunters’, or who counter the testimony of women who have suffered sexual harassment and assault with irrelevant ‘evidence’ about their previous (consensual) sexual relationships.

Her detailed discussion of legal and policy terrain means that campaigners can precisely identify key moments and stress-points which can occur when they are promoting, using and defending progressive legislation: it is to be hoped that this may help them work more effectively, address and counter the risks which Colker highlights, and thus establish such legislation more solidly in future.

It does need noting that Colker sometimes presents the issues she’s talking about in somewhat ahistorical terms, as ‘nothing new’. But whilst examples of politicians insulting each other and indulging in vitriolic abuse can be identified in many times and places, the forms, extent and consequences of such practices do vary significantly over time and between locations. Colker’s approach would benefit greatly from a complementary account explaining the particular reasons why the kinds of crassness displayed to the world by Trump throughout his presidency has misshaped the politics of the USA over the last period: what are the factors, drivers and contingencies that led to the degradation of political culture in the States to the point that such a moment was possible?

Colker also has a tendency to downplay one of the difficulties of negotiating the terrain she describes: sometimes those who have reactionary agendas are pointing to real problems and actual inconsistencies in the arguments or moral standing of those who are on the progressive side, or who are the victims of the major oppression which shapes the situation. These criticisms need to be acknowledged, incorporated and transcended through developing the progressive case, rather than always attempting to discount them as attempted ‘deflections’. We need to accept and address our own subjective weaknesses, rather than simply ‘calling out’ the objective difficulties and oppressions which we face from others.

These, however, are minor criticisms. Colker’s accounts of important issues are detailed and comprehensive, reflecting her record as a leading scholar in the areas of constitutional law and disability discrimination in the USA: this focus does of course mean that readers in other countries will need to ‘read across’ to consider how her points and insights relate to their specific situation.

In the UK, where every few weeks sees new attempts by people with power to disparage campaigners who oppose discrimination and prejudice as ‘woke’, and where a liberal or leftist who questions well-established and dominant narratives about history or criticises the practices which perpetuate structural oppression can expect to be accused of indulging in ‘cancel culture’, her book – unfortunately – is all too relevant.

Review published March 2022