Will The Pittsburgh Shooting Affect The Midterms? It Shouldn’t.
Lots of people are asking how the Pittsburgh shooting will influence the midterms. Here’s a thought: They shouldn’t.
I believe that’s how Hannah Arendt would respond. As a German Jew in the 1920’s and 30’s, she saw first-hand what happens when politics and emotion mix. And she spent the rest of her life looking for an antidote to the madness that resulted, an antidote that drew a firm line between passion and politics.
Even though she passed away in 1975, Arendt’s looking glass would surely have seen our current situation coming. Arendt once said that “political questions are far too serious to be left to the politicians.” It wasn’t just a quip. She was talking about the need to filter emotion — raw, unbridled emotion — out of the factors that figure into how we as humans run the world we live in. And it’s politicians who funnel emotion into the public space.
Arendt of course was a big believer in the importance of the political sphere, the place where individuals come together to act out their shared lives in front of one another to create the world we all live in.
But she loathed politicians and their methods. “Power does not corrupt, but power attracts those who are already corrupt,” she once said.
This is not to say that Arendt thought humans should be automatons or robots. Far from it. She loved the emotional and the mysterious, among friends, lovers, family, even social groups. But when it came to the kinds of emotions politicians employ to create “power” — she believed it was poison, because emotion, when mixed with a dash of bravado and a heavy media schedule, has the effect of causing everyone to run to one side of a crowded ship. It upsets balance and leads to capsizing.
Emotion robs people of their ability to think. That’s what’s so wonderful about it — in its right place. When playing with your kids, spending time with your friends, listening to a symphony, or making love, emotion is where you want to be. But when you use “irrational” appeal to galvanize mobs into an action-oriented tsunami, or to galvanize lone wolves to pounce, when you use emotion in politics to foment frenzy or to chill people into sheep-like obedience, you’re playing with fire.
Emotion is a shorthand. In the hands of a skilled communicator, it’s a velvet sledgehammer. In times of crisis, as a rhetorical tool, it can work wonders (think of Churchill’s “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”)
But when emotion condenses the messy plurality of truths that make up our shared world into one solid, scary, big, bad, wolf (or one glorious, triumphant superhero), it breeds discord instead of discourse. Or worse.
And like most of Arendt’s thoughts, this is so simple, and so radical, it’s almost beyond our comprehension. “Of course politicians should use emotion,” you might think. “What is a political rally after all?”
Well, yes, emotion and political movements are so closely linked you may not be able to envision them apart. But ask yourself, what’s the blend of irrational frenzy and politics that drums out issues like health, education, the environment, a comfortable, humane old age for everyone, and a million other issues working?
The fact is, as Arendt noticed, reality is nuanced. I have my vision, you have your vision, everyone has their vision, and we must roll up our sleeves and work out all these visions, together, without the exclamation points. Arendt came to a very particular view of how we as human beings need to manage our affairs, and, to say that this method was dispassionate would be an understatement.
Because “the difficult work of thinking,” of taking in the other person’s point of view, needs the space and calm frenzy robs.
This more “thoughtful” way is not only a good way, but may be the only way. Feel things yourself. And then, throw yourself into the public arena and try to convince, even persuade, your fellow humans that your way is the right way. But, and here’s the catch, listen to their ways too. All of their ways. May the best way win. And then, as things change (which, they inevitably will), repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
Or, to look at it another way, as we approach November 6, put on your noise-cancelling headphones and keep the politicians and their simple emotional battle cries out of the mix. Because, well, when it comes to pulling that lever, you know what Hannah Arendt would say.
_ Ken Krimstein draws cartoons for “The New Yorker,” and is the author of the recently published graphic biography “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt — A Tyranny of Truth.”_