Hannah Arendt on the role of reflection in political and moral behavior

Socrates, however, who is commonly said to have believed in the teachability of virtue, seems indeed to have held that talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage, and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more just, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or “values” to direct further conduct.  What Socrates actually believed in in such matters can best be illustrated by the similes he applied to himself. He called himself a gadfly and a midwife, and, according to Plato, was called by somebody else an “electric ray”, a fish that paralyzes and numbs by contact, a likeness whose appropriateness he recognized under the condition that it be understood that “the electric ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself.  It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.”

[…]

The trouble – and the reason why the same man can be understood and understand himself as gadfly as well as electric ray – is that this same wind, whenever it is aroused, has the peculiarity of doing away with its own previous manifestations.  It is in its nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hence, the paralysis of thought is twofold: it is inherent in the stop and think, the interruption of all other activities, and it may have a paralyzing effect when you come out of it, no longer sure of what had seemed to you beyond doubt while you were unthinkingly engaged in whatever you were doing.  If your action consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases as they arise in ordinary life, then you will find yourself paralyzed because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought. To use once more the example of the frozen thought inherent in the word “house”, once you have thought about its implied meaning – dwelling, having a home, being housed – you are no longer likely to accept for your own home whatever fashion of the time may prescribe; but this by no means guarantees that you will be able to come up with an acceptable solution for your own housing problems.  You may be paralyzed.

This leads to the last and, perhaps, even greatest danger of this dangerous and resultless enterprise.  In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias – God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils – and they turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly.  What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism. They had not been content with being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine, and they changed the nonresults of the Socratic thinking examination into negative results: if we cannot define what piety is, let us be impious – which is pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to achieve by talking about piety.

The quest for meaning, which relentlessly dissolves and examines anew all accepted doctrines and rules, can at every moment turn against itself, as it were, produce a reversal of the old values, and declare these as “new values”. This, to an extent, is what Nietzsche did when he reversed Platonism, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still Plato, or what Marx did when he turned Hegel upside down, producing a strictly Hegelian system of thinking in the process. Such negative results of thinking will then be used as sleepily, with the same unthinking routine, as the old values; the moment they are applied to the realm of human affairs, it is as though they had never gone through the thinking process.  What we commonly call nihilism – and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts” – is actually a danger inherent to the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product.  Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current, so-called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.  But this danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results which would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.

However, nonthinking, which seems to recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its dangers.  By shielding people against the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society.  What people then get used to is not so much the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, as the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.  In other words, they get used to never making up their minds. If somebody then should show who, for whatever reasons and purposes, wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will find it easy enough provided he offers a new code, and he will need no force and no persuasion – no proof that the new values are better than the old ones – to establish it.  The faster men held to the old code, the more eager will they be to assimilate themselves to the new one; the ease with which such reversals can take place under certain circumstances suggests that indeed everybody is asleep when they occur. This century has offered us some experience in such matters: How easy it was for the totalitarian rulers to reverse the basic commandments of Western morality – “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler’s Germany, “Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy nature” in the case of Stalin’s Russia.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 173-178

Okoye’s Judgment Call

Warning: Black Panther spoilers.

Elle Magazine gets it right: one of the best scenes in Black Panther is between Okoye and Nakia, after Killmonger has defeated T’Challa in combat and legally taken control of the country.  Nakia has gotten the royal family to safety, and turns to Okoye for help, but Okoye refuses.  “I am loyal to that throne,” she says, “no matter who sits upon it.”

Let’s leave aside the wisdom of a hereditary monarchy.  It’s a system ripe for abuse, but any system can be abused, and one can imagine Okoye and Nakia’s debate taking place in any government during any period of destabilization.  At its heart, the debate is whether one should go outside a system in order to save it.

R. Eric Thomas, the author of the Elle Magazine piece, says that Okoye eventually comes around to Nakia’s point of view:

Ultimately, she and the rest of the Dora Milaje turn on Killmonger and fight for Wakanda because he reveals through his actions that he is less interested in a political shift in the country—one that aligns more closely with Nakia’s missions to save those in peril in other countries—than in destroying the nation, and perhaps the whole world, as a grand act of damaged vengeance.

That’s one reading.  But when T’Challa returns he immediately makes a legal argument, that because he neither died nor yielded the challenge is still active.  When Killmonger refuses to continue the challenge, he’s violating the rules of the system which Okoye is loyal to.  Okoye’s motives in this moment are certainly complex, but it seems plausible, even likely, that she’s driven not by a reassessment of Killmonger’s character but by the change in Killmonger’s relationship to the system.

In some ways, this is a cop out.  It allows Okoye to avoid the question of when to go outside the system by offering her a resolution within the system. But I’m okay with her avoiding it.  In the United States we place a lot of emphasis on the distinction between military and civilian power.  The answer to “When should the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff act outside the system in order to save it?” is “Pretty much never.”  As the country’s most talented fighter and as the head of the its military force, Okoye is the character most analogous to our military leadership.  She should remain a loyal enforcer of the system longer than any other character.

But this denies the fundamental complexity of the situation.  Whatever Wakanda’s rules actually are, they likely do not contain a clause covering ‘what to do if you think a combatant for the throne is dead but they re-emerge days later’.  Once T’Challa returns they are all already, irreversibly ‘outside’ the system.  All Okoye can do is make a judgment call about what course of action is most consistent with the system’s traditions and values.  And so in that moment she’s analogous not just to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs but also to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – the chief interpreter of law.  It’s a tremendous amount of power, and it speaks to Okoye’s integrity that she hesitates to use it.

In a working system, people can specialize and act according to their roles.  T’Challa can wield the power the system gives him.  Okoye can enforce the law neutrally.  But when the system breaks down we may be called upon to act as a whole individual: to use whatever power we have according to our own judgment.  This can be restorative, or it can be deeply destructive.  It all depends on the situation: on the specific decision being made, on the character of the person making the decision, and on whether the decision is made with the aim of returning the system to a state where such judgments are no longer needed.

Shades of gray

What shade of gray would you say this is?

Considered in isolation, and without the help of a photo manipulation platform to tell you the precise CMYK values, it’s hard to say.  We reach naturally for points of comparison.  It’s lighter than a slate gray, we might say, but darker than a gainsboro gray.  Cooler than warm gray but warmer than cool gray.  Is it lighter than light gray?

Maybe?  Probably?  Let’s take a closer look:

That’s our custom gray on the left, and light gray on the right.  So it’s just a smidge lighter than light gray, but we can only tell when we put them right up close.  Put it up against a different gray, and it looks darker rather than lighter:

This is of course a metaphor.

When it came out last week that Al Franken had sexually harassed and assaulted Leeann Tweeden, people naturally reached for the most obvious point of comparison: the other Senator/Senate candidate recently accused of sexual assault, Roy Moore.

Some people have claimed that Moore and Franken are similar.  They both have used their power to violate the boundaries and consent of women.  Others have claimed that they’re dissimilar: that when you put Franken’s behavior up against Moore’s systematic stalking and molestation of girls as young as fourteen years old, he might as well be a saint.

But is Moore a useful point of comparison?  It’s not like Franken’s running against Moore.  And “the ideal public servant” is not all that useful either.  After all, no public servant is perfect.

So what is a useful comparison for Franken’s behavior?  Given that the question on everyone’s lips is whether Franken should resign, I submit the following point for comparison: the minimum acceptable standard for a US Senator.

Only 15 Senators have ever been expelled from Congress, the majority for making war against the United States by supporting the confederacy.  A larger number have resigned rather than face expulsion. Most of these cases were about bribery and corruption, but some were due to sexual misconduct.  Take for example Bob Packwood of Oregon, who resigned when the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously recommended his expulsion for gross sexual misconduct.  The chair of that committee, none other than Mitch McConnell, spoke about it four years later during the Clinton impeachment:

During the Packwood debate, we made the tough choice. And, I have to say, that decision was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my career in public service. To recommend expelling from the United States Senate a colleague, a member of my own party, and most importantly, a friend with whom I had served in the Senate for over a decade.

We sent a clear message to the nation that no man is above the law. That no man is so important to the well-being of our strong and prosperous nation that we have to compromise the fundamental, founding principles of truth and justice. We chose to rise above, not sink below. Rather than change our standards, we changed our Senator.

Let me also make a political point, here. We Republicans were aware during the Packwood debate that we would likely lose that Senate seat if Senator Packwood was removed from office. So, we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice today. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority?

For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

What happened?  Twenty years later, McConnell has chosen dishonor over and over again, not least by supporting the leader of his party, Donald Trump, who has been accused of assault and harassment by 15 different women and has been caught bragging about harassing women on tape.  Perhaps if you asked McConnell, he’d say that Democrats started the moral race to the bottom by refusing to hold Clinton to the same standard as Packwood.  But what is the “standard” to which Packwood was held?  One could likely articulate a standard for behavior that Clinton passed while Packwood fell short of.

Packwood and Clinton and Moore and Franken are all different people who committed different types of wrongs. The same is true of Trump, and Dennis Hastert, and Anthony Weiner, and the many other elected officials who have been accused or convicted of harassment, assault, or abuse.  The question is not how they compare with each other but how they measure up to our standards for public officials, and whether we are strong enough to enforce our standards when people fall short.

I believe that our elected officials should be held to high standards.  Specifically, I believe that any type of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment should be disqualifying.  I am open to the idea that those who have done these things in the past and have made reparations should be able to hold office, though I’m not aware of any official or candidate who meets that description. I’m also open to the idea that those accused deserve an impartial investigation, although the strength of the evidence against both Moore and Franken make that point moot.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I think Franken should resign, but I think it’s worthwhile to sketch out the framework through which I came to that conclusion, so that I can hold myself to it in the future.

Compromise and its discontents

It’s easy to complain about “purity politics”.  It’s easy to complain about “neoliberals” and “sellouts”.  But we live in hard times, and the easy route’s not going to get us anywhere.

Here are two things that are both generally true: you need to compromise sometimes and sometimes you need to stick to your principles.  This question is, which times are which?

I thought about this recently when I read, back to back, two stories.  The first was about Cyrus Vance, the corrupt Manhattan DA who recently ran unopposed as a Democrat.  “Get him out of office!” I thought, angrily.  “Even if he gets replaced by a Republican!”  Then, I read about the DFA withdrawing their endorsement of Ralph Northam because he came out against sanctuary cities.  “That’s terrible,” I thought, about both Northam and the DFA.  “I disagree with him on this issue but we’ve still got to get him elected.”

Whenever a Democrat does something wrong (or a Republican does something right) you will find people on the left arguing over whether or not we should support them.  There’s always someone saying we need to take our allies where we can get them, and someone saying that this or that is a bridge too far.

This dynamic is especially heated right now, thanks to the Republican party.  They’re fueling both groups.  The compromisers say, “Look, look at the other option.  We need to do all we can to resist these hateful, violent, reckless people.”  And the principle-stickers say, “Look, look at what happened to Republicans when they embraced that mindset.”

So how can we figure out when to compromise, and when to stick to principle?  We need to get better at articulating the specific context that’s driving our arguments, rather than falling back on statements like “We can’t sacrifice our principles!” or “We need to compromise sometimes!”  Not only are those statements obviously true, they read like an attack.  No one wants to be told they’re unprincipled or impractical.  No one needs to be told that, either.

In that spirit, here is just a starter list of things to consider when making a specific judgment call:

  1. What good/bad things will happen if we don’t compromise?  What good/bad things will happen if we do?
  2. Of the things that might happen, how much of them will affect us personally?  If most of them will affect other people, what do those people say about the dilemma we’re in?
  3. How set-in-stone is this decision?  Are we electing someone for a one year term or a six year term?  How hard will it be to roll back this legislation?
  4. Will our actions change the fundamental structure within which we act?  If we support someone who is corrupt, or who won’t enforce constitutional checks and freedoms, will we have the institutional tools to take them down if we change our minds, or is now our best or only chance?