An illusion of transparency

Graphic by EJ Chong | Mercury Staff.

A week ago, I was listening to The Ben Shapiro Show, a conservative podcast. For those familiar with Shapiro’s sharp wit and rapid speech, it shouldn’t come as as a surprise when I say that I had to rewind to fully process something he said in passing.  In reference to President Trump, Shapiro noted, “You can do nothing to destroy a man who has no character.” Shapiro’s statement is accurate. When reputation and character are perceived as synonymous, our assessment of a politician’s personality is far too flimsy a concept upon which to base our vote. Instead, we should base our vote on whether a candidate’s track record is one of getting things done and sticking to policies.

 Let’s take a step back and analyze the weight of Shapiro’s statement. It implies that being renowned — or infamous, as it were — for rudeness, selfishness or some degree of depravity makes you immune to attacks against your character. Somebody who is unapologetic about their behavior is incapable of being degraded. 

In politics, leadership and life, our reputation defines a great deal of who we are in the minds of other people. If our reputation precedes or even follows us, people who haven’t known us individually will make judgements with the resources available to them — that is, our reputations — a resource which may not always be accurate.

There is, of course, a delineation between one’s reputation and their character. The former is the rumors or opinions believed about someone; the latter is the actual mental and moral qualities of an individual. Possible fiction versus possibly verifiable fact. But in the dozens upon dozens of people we interact with every day, it’s difficult to know everyone personally given a limited amount of time. It becomes more efficient, then, to categorize people based on surface judgements and the hastily gathered rumors we hear from the sources we trust. To many, the difference between reputation and character is all but non-existent. The distinction disappears. 

Take, for example, State Rep. Victoria Neave’s DWI in June 2017 or Sen. Beto O’Rourke’s DWI in September 1998. Making a handful of mistakes in their past — or their present — has proven to be detrimental to their reputations. In these cases, having an initially good reputation proved to be more harmful in the end. Having an infamously bad reputation, on the other hand, makes candidates, leaders and media personas seem almost transparent. People are confident they are seeing all there is to see. Unlike having a reputation for being good, there is nothing sinister hiding underneath. It’s all out in the open.

In this way, by inoculating themselves against defamation, these types of leaders can focus their attention on elevating their political platforms, since they don’t have to spend time defending their character. On the other hand, leaders with good reputations run the risk of constant media and public scrutiny. They have further to fall, and it’s easy to be suspicious of a filtered, perfect picture. One could argue, then, that the best candidates are the ones that can’t be defamed more than they already are. 

It seems that we’re then faced with a conundrum. Should we risk voting for people we think are good who potentially could have done bad, or vote for the twisted assurance that comes with someone who can’t stoop any lower? 

The answer lies in changing our judgements. We can judge character. We can look at someone’s reputation, note the apparent alignment of principles and good behavior, fill in the bubble and move on. Or we could judge policy. We could compare candidates’ proposed plans to actual issues, look at feasibility of implementation and analyze the candidates’ track record for getting things done. In a perfect country, where candidates are undoubtedly flawless, this wouldn’t be a necessary practice. But we’re humans governed by humans.  And in our less-than-perfect country, where a bad character can appear to be more reliable than good character, rationality, as citizens, should be our first priority.

As you head out to the voting booths in the coming weeks, consider how your perception of a candidate’s reputation is influencing your perspective. Don’t vote based on whether they seem nice or not. Vote based on campaigns that are built on objective and factual platforms.

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