Every once in a while, a listener of The Partially Examined Life complains that that our liberal political proclivities — and occasional outright partisanship — are not consistent with our being philosophical, which should make us more neutral about such matters.
I do agree – after listening recently to the first few PEL episodes – that in the wrong context, political opinions are neither entertaining nor pretty. Absent a context of justification or an audience that feels precisely the same way, they will seem irrational and ugly, merely brute expression of preference. If good reasons led to these opinions, these reasons are lost in the expression of the result. We might say this even about political opinions with which we agree, for example when expressed as slogans on signs at a political protest.
We could broaden this conclusion to opinions in general: “opinions are like assholes,” the saying goes. We all have them, but having does not entail showing. Opinions are, in a sense, indecent, when they concern anything more controversial than the weather. People refrain from talking about them in the polite company of strangers in the same way they avoid getting naked, barring certain dis-inhibiting rituals. We are told not to talk about religion and politics with people we don’t know well. This means, ironically: don’t get too personal. Such opinions are in one sense about the most public of things; in another, they simply reveal too much.
Arguably then, political opinions are opinions are their most indecent and asinine. We might advance this notion a step further with an appeal to psychoanalysis: political opinions are not just like assholes; they are like feces. They’re the products of anal sadism. They are ugly because the often are constructed of little more than a regressive tantrum performed vaguely in the direction of authority. Typically they’re merely vehicles for the expression of rage (not to mention paranoia) that predates any specific political affiliation. If you’re on the left, your bugaboo is big business; if on the right, it’s big government. Either way, the relevant notion here is the struggle against malevolent power.
On this account, political partisanship — which we’ll take to be an unreflective, intemperate attachment to political opinions — is inherently childish. Political partisans — like yours truly — are just addicted to being angry and doing imaginary, righteous battle against the objects of our anger. We save the world one politically-oriented Facebook or blog post at a time, computer-bound hypo-heroes. We are engaged in the civil-uncivil war, the battle of sphincter against sphincter. The point of this anger is avoid ceding power and control to something larger than us — including the ultimate authority figure, fate itself. If we were more mature, we would, through a process of mourning, give up this fight.
Add to these psychological arguments against partisanship, some philosophical ones. Partisanship seems inherently un-philosophical. The role of philosophers is to deliberate carefully until they realize that it’s impossible to reach any definite conclusions. The philosopher’s method is that of doubt, and their endpoint is suspension of judgment – pure open-mindedness. We philosophers ought to be skeptics.
I do believe that these psychological and philosophical arguments against partisanship have some force. And I am a fan of the related concepts of mourning, open-mindedness, and skepticism. It’s just that I don’t think that, properly understood, these concepts demand that we withdraw from political life or even that we abstain the kind of passionate engagement with politics that others will regard as partisan.
As I’ve pointed about before, we can take some guidance from Sextus Empiricus and the Ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics: while they affirmed that nothing can be known absolutely, and that judgment at the theoretical level ought to be suspended, they also thought that we must still live by “habit” or “custom” and hold beliefs for pragmatic purposes. To truly suspend all belief and become a skeptic about everything would mean being incapable of action, because we would doubt that anything at all was worthwhile doing.
Arguably, the mature form of this brand of skepticism is pragmatic (and so neo-Kantian): we can make all the claims we want about experience, as long as we acknowledge that these claims are defeasible and not applicable to “things in themselves.” We do not give up on our values: we acknowledge their provisionality, regularly subject them to critique, and maintain our ability to understand what motivates those who hold opposing values (which is to say, we preserve empathy). Above all, whatever our commitments – political and otherwise – we do not let them consume us to the point where they damage our lives, including our ability to think straight and get along with others. For Nietzsche, this meant balancing out our rational with less rational proclivities: by fusing them into a “gay science,” in which the stance we take toward the world is at least in part aesthetic. (Relatedly, Freud talked of the fusion of life and death drives). We take ourselves less seriously, and our approach to the world has an element of irony – in the sense that we can believe something passionately and yet maintain the ability to take a dispassionate, reflective stance toward this belief.
This sort of open-minded, skeptical position is arguably the best approach to life. But it does not require that we treat controversy as some journalists do, with a false balance that that demands that every opinion be given equal weight with every opposing opinion. Likewise, we must avoid withdrawal, and the kind of political nihilism in which political parties are said to be indistinct and so corrupt that political participation is pointless. Political systems are naturally highly imperfect and fraught with problems, and often the positions of parties are closer than some of us would like and beholden to similar interest groups. But there is a great distance between this imperfect reality and the notion that there really are no differences between parties and their policies. The point of such pessimism is actually just the sort of regression I have attributed to partisans, taken to its logical extreme: instead of splitting political parties into good and bad, we draw these lines much closer to home — between what is internal and external. The world is run together in a soupy badness, and only the righteous protest of the individual counts as something good.
So voters who claim to be “undecided” or “independent” are not paragons of rationality and neutrality. At best, they are ill-informed or have not figured out what they value; at worst, they’re sadly unrealistic about what a political system can do for them. They can’t bring themselves to choose between parties because they can’t give up an infantile requirement that one of their options be ideal. The real world is a disappointingly mixed bag. Whether ill-informed or unrealistic, these “independents” are actually worse off than their partisan fellow citizens.
So yes, partisanship can be poorly informed and poorly motivated. But so can indecision or pessimism. The virtue of partisanship is that it need not be. Thoughtfulness does not require that we abstain from belief and value; we can’t really abstain anyway, and abstention usually amounts to dishonest pretense. Thoughtfulness merely requires that we lay bare our commitments and notice when they conflict with each other or lead to poor results. The process of exorcising ourselves of irrational commitments — therapies of Socratic or Freudian pedigree — are not something quick and easy. In the end, the goal is to make ourselves more sensitive to evidence — and capable of adapting to it; not in order to live without beliefs, but to become more capable of refining them.
For all these reasons, The Partially Examined Life would like to make a bold presidential endorsement: not of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, but of Naked Political Partisanship itself. Because in the right light, political opinions are not so ugly after all.
— Wes Alwan (N.B.: Mark, Seth, and Dylan have not endorsed his endorsement)