Deceitful Words: Disqualifying

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about words and phrases that should make you suspect that someone is trying to get something past you. I’m starting with one that we heard a lot of during this last election: “Disqualifying.”

People kept saying things like:

  • “Hillary Clinton’s risking American lives by mishandling classified emails should be disqualifying.”
  • “Gary Johnson’s ‘What’s Aleppo?’ moment should disqualify him as a serious candidate.”
  • “Donald Trump should be disqualified as President for accepting support from white supremacists.”

All of these comments cite bad behavior, but “disqualifying” implies that they were a special kind of bad. We normally encounter the concept of disqualification in situations where something is being judged, and disqualification usually means that some kind of balancing mechanism is being overridden by a hard rule.

For example, equestrian competitions are scored using a complex system of faults, timing, and subjective observations, but if any rider is found to have over-used the whip or spurs to the point that a horse is bleeding, they are simply kicked out of the competition. Their score no longer matters. Another example of disqualification occurs in competitive contract bidding. Normally, the bids are compared on the basis of things like price and compliance to requirements, but bidders can also be eliminated for missing critical milestones or failing to meet certain crucial requirements regardless of price. The disqualifying condition overrides all other considerations.

Elections don’t work that way. The scoring mechanism is very loose — everyone can vote for whichever candidate they want for whatever reason they want — and the vote is the only thing that matters. There are no disqualifying events because there are no rules for how voters should judge the candidates. There are technical disqualifications for conditions like not being a citizen or being unable to perform the duties of office (because of, say, illness or incarceration), but that’s not what these cries of disqualification are about. Thus, describing some politician’s behavior as “disqualifying” is usually just wishful thinking: We’re so appalled that we hope everyone else will feel the same way about it.

But labeling a politician’s behavior as “disqualifying” can also be a disingenuous attempt to smuggle in the overriding decisiveness of disqualification to win an argument: “Sure, you have a list of ten ways your candidate is better than mine, but yours did that awful thing, and that should be disqualifying.” The hope is that others agree the behavior in question is awful, and are thus unwilling to challenge your implicit argument that the awful behavior overrides other considerations, or that they can be convinced to think of the behavior as analogous to technical disqualification.

It’s temping to try to come up with exceptions to this. For example, surely outright racism should be disqualifying, shouldn’t it? Or are even Ku Klux Klan levels of racism not disqualifying? I don’t think they should be.

Don’t get me wrong, on the scale of evil, the KKK is pretty damned awful and should lose to almost any other contender. But the key word is almost, because there are a lot of things out there worse than the KKK. The Nazis, for example. It may not be a good idea to summarily disqualify a KKK Imperial Wizard if the alternative is a Nazi with plans to exterminate millions. The abyss of totalitarian evil is very deep. Sometimes the lesser of evils is all that’s possible.

Finally, there’s a difference between doing horrible things and wanting to do horrible things. The awfulness of a candidate is going to be limited by the fact that elected officials do not have absolute power. They are embedded in a system of checks and balances, so however awful their desires, depending on their role, they may not be able to do very much damage. Thus a crazy state governor who wants to re-institute slavery or nuke Mecca, for example, can’t do nearly as much real world harm as a governor who wants to drastically disrupt services to the poor in their own state.

(The converse is also true, so it’s a fair criticism of my KKK vs. Nazis comparison to point out that the KKK might have been worse than the Nazis if they’d ever had the power.)

The point is that even something as reprehensible as outright racism may not be as bad — might not be disqualifying — when viewed in context. Consider that when former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke ran for Governor of Louisiana in 1991, four percent of black voters looked at his opponent, the notoriously corrupt Edwin Edwards, and decided they’d be better off with a Klansman. Presumably they figured that the legislature and the courts would keep his racism in check.

And if that wasn’t disqualifying, nothing else should be.

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