We have just gone through quite a tumultuous season of politics. As I write this, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took place a few days ago. On January 6, the constitutional certification of the 2020 election was violently interrupted by a seditious mob with no regard for truth, democracy, or justice. I wrote about that here. It would make sense to assume that a post about being political was motivated by these events and the general political climate in which we have been dwelling. The fact is, to the contrary, it is just coincidental. I planned to write a few posts about different words and, specifically, how we use them in a way that tends to obfuscate their meaning; and, thus, obfuscating how we understand (interpret) the world and how we conduct ourselves within it. The first on my list is what it means to be “political” or to engage in politics. That said, if what I write here has any merit to it, it might reflect a better body politic than we have recently endured.
I am sure most of us have heard someone say something to the effect of, “When the family gets together for the holidays, best not to talk about politics.” We have all also heard someone say, and perhaps said ourselves, that some public official or another is “playing politics.” Or how about “Whoa there! This is getting too political!” We talk about the political in companies in which we work. In these and similar uses, all of which are quite common, politics and the political are cast in a negative light. Being political is bad. Being political means to be cunning, clever, and wily so as to have the upper hand in advancing one’s agenda (without regard for ethics or goodness).
But is this the best way to look at being political?
Politics or the political is rooted in the Greek concept of the polis, that is, the city. When a group of people choose to inhabit the same space and agree on rules for sharing that space, they become “citizens” in contrast to a grouping of isolated, autonomous individuals where the only rule is power and survival. I have liberty, but my liberty ends where yours begins. If I hold my liberty to be a good, then I must hold that yours is, too. If we are to inhabit the same space, it is good that we protect the liberty of all individuals. This means that we are going to have to have some rules and to organize ourselves in such a way that every individual can live free amongst all the other free individuals who share the same space. It is a false dichotomy to pit individual liberty against the collective good. Each contributes to the viability of the other. Individual liberty is protected in an environment of the collective good and the collective good is made healthy when the individuals within it have liberty. The “one” and the “many” are not competitors, but necessary counterparts.
How we define the collective good and individual liberty is what it means to be political. That we dwell together is unavoidable. How we dwell together is the art of politics. Being political in its truest sense means to act like citizens. In Latin—civitas. Civitas can be described as the bunch of us all living together, willingly bound by the same rules so we can live together in relative peace. If we have disagreements, we have things like courts, for example, to settle disputes. I may not like the outcome and courts can make mistakes (no one is infallible, which is why we have appeals), but such a fallible apparatus is to be preferred. It helps us remain “civil.”
Granted, everything I have written here should be understood by anyone who has had 9th grade level civics in high school. However, if my social media feeds are any indication, there are a lot of grown adults who need to revisit 9th grade civics. A little revisit to the humanities, such as literature or philosophy, would not hurt them either.
Certainly, there are much more nuanced discussions to be had. There are sharp disagreements in political views, economic views, and morality for which easy answers are not available. It would be naïve to think otherwise. But the greatest chance of success we have is when we learn to be political in the truest sense of the word. If we cannot get “political” at the family gathering, especially when divergent views are present, it is because we are not good at being political. Like everything, politics has its proper place and time, and recognizing that is itself good politics, good civitas.
Not everyone will be political in the same way. Some will become politicians and leaders. Others will simply get out and vote when it is time while being a good citizen each day in the workplace and at home. You and I each have to find our way of being political, but not being political is not a choice. As a writer/musician whose use of words I am very fond of wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” He also wrote that “the men [and women!] who hold high places must be the ones who start,” but the blacksmith, the artist, the philosopher, and ploughmen must also do their part to bring us “closer to the heart.” (Neil Peart).
Let us not avoid being political. Let us learn to be good at it. It is long overdue that we put being a citizen back in the citizenry.