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Thinking Challenge Submission- Steven Tatum

I would like to conduct a poll: “If you had to describe political life today with one word, what would it be?” My hunch is that popular responses from both sides of the isle might include variations on ideological gridlock, frustration, partisanship, self-interestedness and impotent.  In any case, with the approval ratings of congress at an all time low, there is a general sense that there is something seriously wrong with politics today.  I worry that we are growing increasingly tolerant of our dysfunctional at worst, frustrating at best, political life.  Is this just the way it has to be?

While much of Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics” is devoted to an examination of the disintegration of political life that sounds all to familiar to a contemporary reader, she concludes by defending what she calls “the actual content of political life.”  For Arendt, associating with others in public with the goal of making something new together can give rise to feelings of joy and gratitude.  So what has gone wrong?  Why is it that any attempt at political engagement today leaves us frustrated, resentful, and cynical?

I believe Arendt makes a strong case that the quality of our political environment has deteriorated because of our understanding of what it means to tell the truth.  One easy way to see what Arendt is talking about is to consider comedian Stephen Colbert’s understanding of what truth is and where it comes from.  When he coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, he went a long way toward explaining our society’s attitude toward truth.  In Colbert’s satire, the proper source of truth is not reason or fact, but conviction and instinct, “know[ing] with the heart.”  Extending these themes in his address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Colbert argues that truth exists only in the “no facts zone” of personal conviction.  By this definition, truth is no more than our personal understandings of the way the world appears and how it works.  In other words, truth is just a very strong opinion.

It is precisely this tendency to blur the lines between truth opinion that Arendt believes undermines the “common and factual reality” which gives meaning and balance to our lives together in public.  In a world where opinions are held to be true and truths debated with as if they are opinions, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth, and the common ground on which we stand erodes even further.  A disinterested truthteller, who tries to make facts known to the public with no motives besides the desire to establish the existence of a common world, finds him or herself in danger of being swept up into politics.  If one political group or another notices that the truthteller’s facts either to support or oppose their personal convictions, the facts themselves can be disagreed with as matters of political opinion.

Consider the climate change debate in this country.  When scientists presented evidence that the global climate is changing and that human activity is a main cause, liberal environmentalist politicians quickly adopted their findings as justification for regulation and investment in alternative energy sources.  When criticism of climate researched emerged in the scientific community the political right capitalized on the doubt, which is a normal part of the scientific process.  Once science blurred with political opinions, it was subject to debate just as any other political opinion, and we could no longer look to science as a source of unbiased truth.

To the extent that we locate the truth with one political interest or another, we find ourselves in danger of destroying the concept of truth altogether.  This is essentially what Colbert shows us.  Truth has disappeared from our world.  This should be shocking.  And yet when Colbert dismisses books and their cold facts and celebrates truth that comes from the gut, we laugh.  It’s as if we always knew that this was the case, but no one was audacious enough to say it.  When a funny guy on comedy television announces it point-blank to everybody, even to the White House Press Corps, he made us aware of our unconscious worry that politics was really a farcical struggle for power that had nothing to do with what was true. We laughed because he showed us we were right all along.

Hannah Arendt isn’t laughing.  She understands that people living in a political environment that is not grounded in apolitical facts will eventually lose faith in the existence of any truth whatsoever.  Without the firm ground of truth, we literally lose our bearings in the real world that we share with others.  In search of stability, we tend to strengthen our belief in a consistent narrative of opinions and lies that provides a satisfying explanation for the way things are.  Since, for example, many climate scientists found themselves sucked up into political debate and subsequently lost their authority as truthtellers, we are left to orient ourselves by whichever political ideology that matches what we want to believe.  In this situation, conversation between opposing groups becomes nearly impossible.  Without reference to a shared factual reality, and individual or group that is convinced of his/her/its political opinions literally lives in a different world than someone who holds a different opinion.

I believe this loss of the ability to communicate with one another is largely responsible for the loss of the joy and gratitude that political life offers.  As we feel more and more that we are living in differing realities, the opportunities for coming together, affirming the existence of a common world and taking action to make our new contribution to it become fewer and fewer.  By associating more and more with people who share our political opinions, we make it more difficult to exchange opinions with someone with whom we are likely to disagree.  How, then, in today’s political climate can we reclaim some of the joy in doing something together and gratitude for living in a world in which we act with others?

Obviously we won’t find that all our differences will vanish if we just start talking with one another.  The emphasis on civility in politics today may change the tone of debate, but it will not help us find common ground.  In fact, speaking nicely to one another may just make it more pleasant to stay in our separate worlds, convinced that our view is the right view, but polite enough to let others believe in their views.

One thing that can begin to reverse the trend of defactualization is increasing our awareness of the limits of political action and our sensitivity to the non-political experiences in our lives.  If we were a little more willing to lay aside our political views and temper our conviction enough to experience facts and events as they are without the filter of political interpretation, we would begin to recognize that however powerful our capacity for understanding may be, the world of facts and events that stretches into the past defies our attempts at total explanation.  Neither can we change or undo what has happened.  Ultimately this contemplation of reality leads to the experience of wonder at things as they are.   This experience of things as they are is the experience of truth.  We make sense of this experience by selecting certain facts and events to incorporate into our own narratives and opinions.  But the world as it is always serves as our starting point for political debate and the renewal of our world.

Arendt underscores the importance of maintaining institutions devoted to this contemplation of things as they are.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, judges, and reporters must forfeit their roles in political life in order to be faithful truthtellers.  But unless everyone cultivates their own sensitivity to the world that we share as it is, either through solitary contemplation or through dialogue with someone who has a different perspective, we will cease to live in one common world and all attempts at renewal will fail.  Nothing less is at stake here than the continuation of the world of human affairs.  As political debate reaches into more and more aspects of our lives, from health care and taxes to which television channels we watch and which newspapers we read, we lose more and more of the already rare opportunities to lay aside politics and be alone long enough to be overtaken by the world as it is.  If everyone experienced a little more non-partisan care for and commitment to the world and a little less conviction that we know what is best, we might rediscover the joy and gratitude that Arendt tells us are meant to come with the task of renewing our common world.


Steven Tatum

Posted on 4 October 2011 | 12:15 pm

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