Having said this, politicians are often embarrassing because they fail so spectacularly to hide their more serious failings: witness Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, cheerily claiming credit for marriage equality after a needlessly painful postal vote.
As citizens, we can feel this embarrassment by proxy. We’re not the ones eating a raw onion like an apple or nodding silently with paralysis during an interview, but these leaders represent our polity. We might believe that the nation is a bourgeois instrument of control, but still feel head-shakingly awkward watching our representatives bungle existence. Even if only indirectly and superficially, we share in their public clumsiness.
Importantly, the imagined public here need not be the actual international community. Instead, they might simply represent our own standards. To wince at our leaders’ buffoonery, or at our own clown culture, is to see these from the perspective of civilised observers. It is to say something like: we think this is normal and fine here, but actually we are the drunk uncle at the global barbecue. We are embarrassed, not because we lack standards to judge ourselves, but because our standards are revised by alien perspectives; because we are not dulled by proximity and regularity.
So the feeling of political embarrassment arises, not necessarily from some cultural cringe, but from a species of confidence. We welcome outsiders’ criticisms. Put another way: it’s because we back our own existence that we know we’re capable of being better. The more serious forms of political embarrassment often come from watching our country steadfastly refuse to be better; seeing the state double down on stupidity and idiocy.
Perhaps the very height of political embarrassment is when leaders don’t even know they’re embarrassing. They continue to act exactly the same way, even though their desperate ploys to seem cool and collected – from prime ministers talking about broadband to ex-prime ministers doing almost anything – so often fail. They exist in a constant state of “kick me”, having stuck the own sign to their backs.
What’s the value of examining political embarrassment, given the triviality of some of its crimes? For example, the problem with John Howard is his callously opportunistic xenophobia and warmongering, not his inability to bowl a cricket ball.
Most obviously, identifying political embarrassment is important because it gives a little clarity to our judgements. It’s easy to lambaste someone for irrelevancies (having a harsh accent, speaking clumsily), while avoiding their disastrous policies (pushing single mothers onto Newstart, torturing asylum seekers). Politics involves a mass of feelings, which can be confused. This allows us to be more clear about exactly what species of mistake or transgression we’re responding to – and whether it matters.
The feeling itself also has some value. At the very least, it reveals that we have a stake in the political community. Rather than being utterly indifferent to the polis, we find ourselves cringing at the deeds of our leaders, or our fellow citizens. Without wishing to be embarrassingly Pollyanna about this, it suggests that the public sphere still matters in some way (if only as a replacement for The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Perhaps embarrassment also provides a welcome relief from the usual contempt, disgust, horror, numbness and so on. That is to say: from politics in Australia.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. damonyoung.com.au
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