Home > General Politics, Law > Should those most affected by an issue lead on it?

Should those most affected by an issue lead on it?

There was once a quote from civil rights campaigner Ella Baker which went:

Those most affected by an issue should lead

Undoubtedly this brings up images of historical figures such as Martin Luther King, who risked his life for the belief in equality between races. Had a white person led on the campaign, it would have been unjust to view it necessarily as paternalism, but certainly the issue held more weight by being represented by one most affected.

However taken to its logical conclusion, Baker’s quote is not without problems.

I remember watching an episode of The Big Question on the BBC where euthanasia was being discussed. Opposing it was a former doctor, now retired, able to take a rather objective view that for all intents and purposes it might be unfair to burden a professional with assistance in somebody’s death. Having all proximity to the issue removed, the man weighed the pros and cons and reached the conclusion that euthanasia should not be implemented in the UK.

Against the motion, however, was a person with a terminal illness, who – for obvious reasons – was unable to hold quite the same amount of reserve as the former doctor, instead displaying a very emotional appeal to the audience about why her case proves the need for the right-to-die in this country.

By being affected by the issue, did the woman not make it problematic for herself to lead on it?

Take another example: a family were once on the news who had recently lost their child to an abductor. It was later realised their child had sadly been killed by the man. They then appeared on the news advocating the death penalty for child killers. Many would understand or at least sympathise with their grief, but conclude their proximity to the issue does not put them in good standing to lead on the issue – particularly as they advocate a system of punishment long, and rightly, opposed in this country.

Given the examples I’ll throw the question out, and hopefully get some interesting feedback in the comments thread: Should those most affected by an issue lead on it?

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  1. Julian
    May 20, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Two completely different cases. One is a matter of someone being denied the most personal of choices simply because they are physically incapacitated. The other is a matter of the whole structure of the bourgeois criminal justice system, with all the historical gains and limitations it implies, being dismantled in favour of populist retribution. The general point is that the principle doesn’t work precisely because you can’t generalise it; everything depends on the case.

    • May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

      They are different cases sure, but that’s the point, perhaps the difference in cases preclude someone from taking lead given the severity of their proximity to an issue – no?

  2. redpesto
    May 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Not necessarily. Being directly affected by an issue might create the ‘fire in the belly’ to do something about it, but it doesn’t equip that individual with the understanding or knowledge (if not the ideology) to do what’s best in response. The obvious example is criminal justice policy (see ‘Megan’s Law’, ‘extreme pornography’ legislation or arguments in favour of capital punishment).

    Secondly, it also gets in the way of building a movement based on a common purpose – the Civil Rights movement is one such example – where an inclusiveness helps build support and weight of numbers.

    • May 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

      You’re absolutely right – yet again. Another example I was thinking of was Reg Keys, who stood as an independent candidate in 2005 against Tony Blair after his son died in Iraq. He, I felt, was the exception to the rule, at once being directly affected by an issue but perceptibly calculated enough to hold a campaign and an electoral effort. Of course, rather than this being a concern about people who are immediately affected by things, it’s rather a question of how extreme an action seems to be, and how emotionally charged it can be at the expense of being noticeably thought-out.

  3. redpesto
    May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Reg Keys is an interesting example. By rights, what should have happened was a two-man run-off between him and Blair, much like the Tatton 1997 election between Martin Bell and Neil Hamilton. Keys was the ‘non-party’ candidate for all those against the war, who couldn’t associated with the ‘obvious’ anti-war groups.

    Secondly, there isn’t a correlation between being affected by an issue and being able to lead: ‘authenticity’ of experience may have some force (usually emotional or moral), but not necessarily when it comes to arguing what to do next.

    • May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      By other candidates stepping aside and allowing Keys to frame the election around the war would’ve have made it very interesting – I’ll have to look and remind myself what the combined percentages was for Keys, the LibDems and the left groups (and perhaps adding on a few percent for anti-war Labour party supporters – though as a party member myself even I would’ve had trouble voting Blair, loyalties can only go so far).

      And you’re absolutely right, though television programme commissioners obviously think its a good idea to invite as representatives of an issue someone for whom there is only an emotional proximity.

  4. May 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    The problem is that emotion and logic often cancel each other out. For example, were something to happen to one of my own family I would probably in my mind want the death sentence for the perpetrator/s. Logically, however, I am opposed to the death penalty as I think it inhumane and don’t think it works – were I impartial my emotional side would not cancel out this logical side of my brain.

    Of course, it’s not as straightforward black and white as this. You can make logical decisions on issues you are passionate about. What is true however is that emotions often cancel out logic – we subsequently backwards rationalise as to why what we emotionally felt was the right thing to do at the time.

    • May 20, 2011 at 7:59 pm

      That’s an interesting conclusion James, reminds me of Kierkegaard’s quote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. As for the logical side of your brain, is it passion or proximity which seems like the problem? I’d plump for proximity to an issue, because, depending on the amount of other factors at play, passion can sometimes heighten your decisions.

  5. May 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    I think the reason this is an issue at all is because there hav e been so many areas where those most effected by an issue have been excluded from the discussion.

    The most obvious example of this is mental health services where users were completely denied any real say in the kind of treatment they received or service they used.

    I think, however, this is something that’s worth being pragmatic about rather than attempting to set up some sort of principle. In the case of the death penalty, for exmaple, it is both a personal issue for the family concerned and a social one of interest to everyone – and therefore we all get a say (if indirectly even in a democratic country).

    What would it mean for illiterate people to lead on illiteracy? Or for drug users to lead on drug laws?

    There needs to be a balance where all voices are heard but where we focus on the best outcomes not fetishise who delivers those outcomes.

    • May 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      That’s interesting, particularly while so much is being cut without public consultation. On a similar note, when Ken Clarke was busy saying that rape victims want less court time rather than harsher sentences for rapists, he later admitted he hadn’t consulted any victims to see what they wanted. At first I was furious, then I wondered whether only consulting rape victims was sensible, then I felt bad for thinking that but I still partially agree. I haven’t made up my mind whether I’d rather see tougher penalties for rapists but longer court cases (to secure those harsher terms), less time (and thus incentives for pleading guilty early) for rapists, or whether there is some third way I could root for.

  6. Tim
    May 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    I think that deaf people should run deaf organisations because they better understand the issues we face. There is also the principle of self-determination to consider.

    That said, such a prospect would not be without problems. I often get angry and frustrated at how slowly things progress, and my loose cannon can compound the problem.

    But then again, I am merely reacting to other people’s poor attitude.

    • May 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      Your ‘loose canon’, Tim? Are you publicly admitting to a short fuse sir?

      In the instance of issues facing deaf people/organisations I can’t see who else would be better placed than deaf individuals themselves to take lead. If it’s enough to get you angry, then frankly it’s your right to be angry and impatient. No one deserves a slap more than this government for putting these, and many other, services at risk.

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