The Hole-Digging Theory of Political Conflict

The Hole-Digging Theory of Political Conflict

Konstantin Kisin
Konstantin Kisin

In Russia we have a saying: “Don’t dig a hole for another because you’ll be the one that falls in it.”

I have been very fond of this proverb since childhood when my parents shipped me off for my summer holidays to stay with my Ukrainian grandparents on their farm. There, over a period of three long months, I became friends with a local boy who introduced me to a game that all the kids in our village played.

The objective was simple: to dig a hole, conceal it with leaves, branches, and other debris and then guide your chosen target into it—typically a girl you fancied or, better still, a competitor for her attentions. Whoever said chivalry is dead has never been deliberately walked into a hole by the boy of her dreams.

Over the course of the summer, the game became more and more elaborate and the risks and rewards spiralled out of control: It turned out Ukrainian adult villagers were not fond of twisting their ankles in holes dug by their offspring and, despite their historically-ingrained distaste for any notion of collectivisation, were quite capable of organising a mass campaign of prophylactic spanking for all the children.

Nonetheless, the game went on and as participants we learned valuable lessons.

First of all, creating holes for others is tremendously enjoyable. The satisfaction of digging, concealing, plotting, and finally watching your quarry stumble into it is indescribable. The look of shock, replaced with relief and eventually hilarious rage on the victim’s face, very familiar to you as a previous target of a similar “holing,” was quite something.

But more usefully for adult life, digging holes for others is also dangerous. For a start, all the time spent carefully crafting your trap is time taken away from the important reconnaissance work of identifying the holes being dug by your enemies. A single-minded focus on digging your hole means you’re more likely to end up shocked, relieved, and enraged in someone else’s. The other problem, of course, is that hole-diggers were considered fair game by other hole-diggers, while non-combatants were generally treated as civilians and left alone. In other words, digging holes for others inevitably leads to others digging holes for you.

I believe those who imagine politics as a battleground between two gladiator armies, battling it out in open combat, are naïve. Our party political system is far better described through the medium of mutually-assured hole-digging destruction. Often, the destruction is done by the victims themselves by virtue of their own hypocrisy. Some memorable examples of this are John Major’s Conservatives in the early-to-mid-1990s, who presided over a “Back to Basics” campaign that emphasised traditional values only to be engulfed by a tsunami of sleaze, and American evangelicals who preach family values and abstinence from the pulpit with all-too-predictable consequences. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, “Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.”

Those still reading despite the unwholesome imagery who are not day-to-day followers of American politics may, nonetheless, vaguely recall the brouhaha over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice in 2018. In September of that year, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings to approve his nomination and the Democrats on the committee, several of whom later unsuccessfully attempted to become their party’s nominee for president, got their shovels out and started digging. In an attempt to derail the hearing, they produced three women who alleged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted them and immediately declared that all of these women must be believed.

Despite the allegations, none of which were substantiated, Kavanaugh was confirmed by the committee and became a Supreme Court Justice. The media circus moved on, but the hole that had been dug is captured by the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen. At the time, those who expressed concern about basing decisions about whether to appoint someone to public office on allegations that have never been examined in court were summarily dismissed as being complicit in sexual assault. You either believed all women or you were part of the problem. There was no middle ground.

Less than two years have passed and we now see why hole-digging is a dangerous pastime. After a long and arduous campaign, the Democrats have finally settled on their nominee in the form of Joe Biden. The Party ignored corruption allegations involving Biden’s son, his painfully obvious cognitive decline and the fact that he is an old, straight, white man, which won’t be a problem for the American electorate, but could well be for the Democratic Party’s activist base. Instead, the Party banked on his experience, wide appeal, and association with President Obama. But no sooner had Biden’s competitors for the nomination dropped out and endorsed him than a woman came forward alleging that Biden had sexually assaulted her.

This has left all those who tweeted #BelieveAllWomen in a frenzy of self-righteous moral fury in a bit of a quandary. It has been painful to watch the collective contortions of the people who publicly declared their complete faith in Kavanaugh’s accusers being forced to confront the choice between their principles and their presidential nominee. Some, like outspoken actress Rose McGowan, have come out of this dilemma with their dignity just about intact. Most have not.

While this episode is important in and of itself and the women and men involved in both cases deserve justice, the broader lesson here remains the same: The throwing of stones by the inhabitants of glass dwellings is not a good long-term strategy and since we all have a glass pane or two in our houses perhaps we ought to consider putting our rocks down every now and then.

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Konstantin Kisin

Konstantin Kisin is a Russian-British comedian based in the U.K. and the co-host of TRIGGERnometry. You can follow him on Twitter @KonstantinKisin.