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August 2014 Issue
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Aristotle’s Field Guide to Political Droppings

Although the appropriate amount of high quality political droppings can help the environment, too much can be disastrous for places like this. Photo: Mark Banaham

We can learn a lot about which creatures are active in the New Zealand environment by the droppings they leave behind. Politicians are no different, writes Mark Banham

One of the greatest spectacles in the natural world is about to take place in New Zealand – the National Election. That means it’s the perfect time to observe the behaviour of those most misunderstood of animals: the politician.

In the election season, politicians are at their most active. But although their elaborate rituals designed to establish a pecking order amongst themselves are famous, their excretions are much less well understood.

Political droppings are often confused with bovine faeces (commonly known as ‘bulls**t’), but that’s actually a bit of a myth. Domesticated cattle consume grass and produce fairly homogenous droppings, while politicians, on the other hand, consume money in the form of donations and excrete what’s known as ‘rhetoric’.

This rhetoric comes in an amazing array of consistencies. If you know a little about it, you can tell a lot about the politician in question and its environment.

The first person to really think about rhetoric as more than just crap was Aristotle way back in 400BC. His fieldwork manual The Treatise on Rhetoric is still a handy guide for politician watchers today.

Aristotle noted that the placement of the rhetoric is telling. Politicians generally try to direct their droppings towards things that will help their position in the group’s hierarchy – it’s a little like urinating on trees to claim territory.

So for instance, when the OECD’s stats for 2013 showed the New Zealand economy had grown faster than its peers, National party politicians quickly claimed it as “our results”, implying that the figures are a direct consequence of their shrewd economic management.

The less desirable territory of questions like: ‘Are those statistics related to our our lacklustre performance in tackling greenhouse gas emissions?’ and ‘how much of that growth came from farming intensification?’ were noticeably avoided.

Of course if a politician finds itself with nowhere good to direct its rhetoric, it’s in trouble. But they’ve evolved a clever solution to that problem: they just move on to something else, if necessary inventing something more interesting. Aristotle called this behaviour Ignoratio elenchi. Today we know it as ‘a red herring’.

The most common types of red-herring droppings you’ll see include: ‘Why don’t we change the flag?’ and ‘Let’s get rid of the Queen’. They’re most often seen when unpalatable topics like greenhouse gas emissions and deep-water drilling are on the agenda.

Like all animals, politicians eventually run out of droppings. In a social system where being number one requires you to have a steady supply of number two, that can be a big problem. But again, nature always finds a way. When politicians are caught short, they simply throw mud instead in what Aristotle called Ad Hominem behaviour.

Over the years, our esteemed leaders have called each other “cheap little twerps”, “fascist dictators”, “snotty nosed little boys” and as someone who “could go down the Mount Eden sewer and come up cleaner than he went in”. This Ad Hominem throwing is an extremely common behaviour among politicians and seems quite effective, despite the fact that someone can be all of the above mentioned things… and still be correct.

Think about it like this: Attila the Hun was a filthy barbarian who killed thousands and terrorised millions before eventually drinking himself to death. But that didn’t mean he was always wrong. In fact, some of his quips like, “Chieftains must understand that the spirit of the law is greater than its letter”, and “It takes less courage to criticize the decisions of others than to stand by your own,” still ring true to this day. But I digress.

If you listen carefully when you’re around politicians you’ll often hear frightening noises that sound a lot like impressive rhetoric, but aren’t really. The most famous of these was “Iraq’s got WMDs!” but these days it’s much more common to hear outbursts like “1080 kills everything”, “Fracking causes earthquakes!” and “If we don’t let them drill, someone else will!”

These eruptions, technically known as Argumentum ad metum, are designed to obscure what the politician is really up to (a bit like squid ink) but don’t worry, they’re entirely harmless.

About now, you’re probably thinking “Okay, I now know more about political excrement than I ever wanted to… so what’s your point?”

As anyone with a basic understanding of ecology will know, a little bit of good poo is great for the environment, but too much low quality crap kills it. That’s why farmers string up electric fences next to creeks to stop the cows doing their business in it.

But in this enlightened age of PETA and the RSPCA, herding politicians with electricity is considered to be inhumane. But fortunately we do have another way – you.

When you see politicians spreading bad rhetoric around our environment, get on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, write a letter to your local paper or Wilderness… and give ‘em a shock they won’t forget.