I’ve been carrying these ideas around for a while now and am still thinking through them. With Trump, Brexit, Orlando, anti-trans bathroom laws, and other issues cycling through the media–or at least my media–lately, I keep coming back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, written in 1958 as a defense of philosophy’s role in “the active life” and a critique of its preference for “the contemplative life.”
Arendt opens the book discussing Sputnik. Being the first human-made object to leave the Earth, Sputnik represented, in the words of one reporter, the first “step from men’s imprisonment on Earth.” Arendt goes on to argue that science and technology have increasingly tried to make human life “artificial.” Extending lifespans, splitting the atom, in vitro fertilization, etc., for Arendt, “offer a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”
I’m not as concerned with this “rebellion” and would side with others in the post-human view that technology and artifice have always been part of the human condition. Instead, what interests me more is Arendt’s next critique: “The trouble concerns the fact that the ‘truths’ of the modern scientific worldview, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” In other words, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can do things, like a split an atom or raise an embryo in vitro, but can’t talk about it as a public.
This focal point represents the crux of Arendt’s larger point in the book. In the ensuing 320-something pages, Arendt evokes a taxonomy to characterize different spheres of engagement and activity. Using ancient Greece as her model, Arendt ultimately argues that we have lost touch with the public aspect of politics, the polis, and the “action” that takes place there. Public forums, face-to-face engagement, and articulate debate are difficult to implement in today’s democracies, though they were the core of many early Greek democracies, including Athens–and many Central New York tribes that also influenced the U.S. In these societies, citizens worked as citizens, leading the polis in a public forum.
In modern times, though, the state controls more private aspects, and people tend to leave politics to politicians. Arendt argues this poses a problem, as we all should be political animals, or “zoon politikon,” and seize on the “action” and “work” required in democracy. Neglecting this potential limits us to less fulfilling modes of action, action like “labor” that represents little more than subsistence.
While I don’t agree with with all of Arendt’s analysis and see some issues and absences, I feel like there is something to her critique of public engagement, especially when aligned to her opening reflections on technology and our inability to communicate some of the progress we’ve made. If I were to make a thesis, though it is really more of a funky idea it’s this: as our world grows increasingly complex, for a democracy to succeed, we need to develop ways to communicate this complexity.
Increasingly, we can’t be “citizens” in the Athenian sense because we need experts. I am not a policy expert on the Middle East. I am also not a climatologist. Or an economist. Or a sociologist. Or a public health expert. Or, to bring in standpoint theory, I am not a transgender person of color growing up in the Deep South, nor a logger in Acadia, nor a Syrian refugee, nor a person in Southeast Asia affected by transnational palm oil subsidies. Yet, these are all issues that everyday citizens must deal with as economics and public policy link the world.
The ancient Greeks, in a way, had it easy. They had major issues, like starvation, trade, crime, and Persia, but these societies were not nearly so complex or racially, sexually, and economically diverse. Sure, we divide labor through bureaucracies, offices, representatives, etc., but ultimately, I think some of that face-to-face, rhetoric-wielding public engagement always remains. We see it through referendums, like Brexit, and petitions. We also see it through widespread social movements, like Black Lives Matter or the continued fights from LGTBQIA coalitions. I see it whenever a mass shooting causes my mom to call legislatures requesting regulation.
But these sorts of “actions,” in Arend’ts sense, aren’t what we often call “political discussions” or politics as usual. On social media, for example, political discussions are not political in the Arendt sense, but really more of a private catharsis, a sharing of common ideas with similar people. In “The ‘Other Side’ is Not Dumb,” Sean Blanda puts it well: “Sharing links that mock a caricature of the Other Side isn’t signaling that we’re somehow more informed. It signals that we’d rather be smug assholes than consider alternative views. It signals that we’d much rather show our friends that we’re like them, than try to understand those who are not.”
But it’s not just private citizens. I’m not sure who Trump’s Twitter audience is, but it’s certainly not me, people of color, Muslims, or believers of climate change. Yet, if he hopes to be president, all of these opinions–and the people who hold them–represent polis.
Smug opinion-sharing and impassioned, uncritical assertions can’t decode complex issues and formulate cohesive political action. We do a lot of political tweeting, blogging, and posting, and sometimes passionate flame wars take place, but I have a hard time seeing this as “polis.” Instead, it feels like a private spat in a public place or like someone walking into a cafe and yelling, “I hate Trump/Obama/Clinton/Sanders/etc” to a room of incredulous strangers. Exceptions do exist and many writers are brilliant pundits and thoughtful theorists, but there’s a reason why we are often told to “avoid the comments.”
Politics has always been rough. People getting beat up over bills, straw dummies of Thomas Jefferson getting set fire, coups, fights, defenestrations. In other words, violent articulations of a political point is not new. Today, we just have more access for many people and more outlets, more “forums” in a sense. But, with the complexity of our current issues we need to do better.
This insight struck me after hearing about a local local trial regarding a 14-hour attack by church members that left one dead and another injured. Apparently the two victims were charged by the church for various sins, including voodoo. The D.A. compared the beatings to a “modern-day witch-trial.”
Hearing about the trial, I remembered Carl Sagan’s last book, The Demon-Haunted World, which argued for the value of education–particularly skepticism and scientific literacy–and critiqued the mindsets behind witch trials and UFO sightings. I’m more critical of science and Enlightenment ideals than Sagan’s book, careful of the scientism these may breed and the experiences they may minimize, but the book points out how quickly our world can turn into a “demon-haunted world,” a phrase Sagan draws from the Upanishads. This sticks with me. How ideas, actions, words, movements, institutions, etc., can create their own momentum, their own banal evil, that starts to speak instead of humanity.
And I suppose that this may be the ultimate message that I draw from or add to Arendt’s critique: that if a healthy polis–a polis capable of thought, communication, savvy listening, and inclusive commonality–cannot speak, something else will. Perhaps an elite group. Perhaps an uncritical ideology. Fear. Misplaced hope. Systemic categorizations. Cognitive biases. Harmful traditions. Technology. But what seems most “human” in Arendt’s writing is the existential plurality of human potential and the tense, messy way this plurality can co-exist. It’s more than the “live, let live” ease that many profess. It’s the live, let live together that constitutes society.
As the poet Charles Olson would say, “Polis is This.”