political

Following a horrible tragedy, you’ll often hear people say, “This is no time for politics” and “Let’s not make this political.”

The point some of them are making — that we shouldn’t base our laws on freak accidents, statistical anomalies, or the violent outburst of one disturbed person — is a good one. We are generally very bad at making decisions about the future, and we’re even worse at it when we’re upset. Many ridiculous, alarming laws have roots in times like these.

But the word “political” usually means self-interested, manipulative, opportunistic. Saying “This is no time for politics” presupposes that the people demanding new laws are preying on the angry and the vulnerable, that their ideas would seem unreasonable to us if we were not so sick with grief.

Many politicians are indeed self-interested, manipulative, and opportunistic. Fortunately for the rest of us, people’s motives have nothing to do with whether or not their ideas are any good.

If you think an idea is bad, you should be able to state clearly why you think so. “Stop politicizing this” is not a valid criticism of an idea. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of “Hey, look over there.”