When Facebook first came into existence we were—each of us—required to create a profile. As I recollect, it was displayed fairly prominently. We entered data like: name, birthday, religion and political beliefs.
I remember thinking about that last one a lot (probably too much). Initially, I opted for the term apolitical, because I wasn’t keen on needlessly pegging myself to a political ideology.
Later I landed on a quote by the eminent Gregory Jacobs (AKA Shock G AKA Humpty Hump):
Hypothetical, political, lyrical, miracle whip
And here, all these years later, I think I made the right choice. 1
There is no doubt that our word politic originates from the Greek word polis (πόλις) or “city”. More abstruse is whether the term polis originates from the the Greek word polys (πολύς) meaning “many” or from the Greek word polemos (πόλεμος) meaning “war” or “fighting” (from which we get our word polemic).
And yet what is abundantly clear in our day is that politics can serve as a synonym for againstness. In the Manichean world of politics there is no such thing as different, only right or wrong. And there are not real people, only allies or foes.
And this is a matter of deep human concern, especially if one’s political identity becomes primary.
Here’s what I mean. If our identity becomes enveloped into the purview of the political, then it inhabits a reality defined by againstness. It becomes the lens through which one looks out into the world. Thus we are always identifying and classifying the “us” and the “them”. To even question this binary paradigm is to self-identify as a “them”. (See what I did there?)
In the us/them world one cannot offer those most human faculties of reason, empathy or even love—the definitive expression of valuing another—and we devolve into tribes; worse, packs! The political identity, and it’s resultant instincts infect like a zombie virus, replacing reasoned empathy with mindless craving.
This alone explains how tragedies are turned into “talking points” and how we can make child-sacrifices of the offspring of our opponents. These are not humane reflexes, are they?
I’m not referring to politics proper here (the business of the polis) nor even political engagement, but rather a dehumanizing politico-centric microscopism.
In his ingenious little book The Great Divorce, CS Lewis envisions a realm between Heaven and Hell where residents of each place meet to converse. While Heaven’s residents seek to persuade their loved ones to join them, a bewildering obstinance emerges from the residents of Hell. (Described by Lewis as an endless suburban sprawl where people get exactly what they want, but are entirely isolated from one another.)
At one point the main character asks why those dwelling in Heaven won’t travel to Hell on their mission. He’s told it is because they cannot fit into Hell.
All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world; the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.
And for all of the bluster and self-importance that would issue from the political realm, it is only a Drink Me Potion which would shrink us like Alice—minuscule.
In his day Jesus confronted the self-same microscopism among religio-social elites.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart… [Mark 3:1-5]
Their petty political posturing made them infinitesimal beings; incapable of conceding as a starting point that good was better than harm or saving better than killing. All the while a real person stood in front of them, his arm deformed.
Of course Jesus healed him. And they set out to destroy him for it.
Can we not see how trying to fit our humanness into a politically-centric identity is such a lamentable tragedy? And haven’t we felt its constriction ourselves; or maybe its whittling us down to nil? A people who can neither be human nor see human? (Which of course is the same thing.)
New York Times columnist David Brooks (an increasingly needed voice these days) critiqued this antagonistic “dominant identity” tendency:
But there has to be a rejection of single-identity thinking and a continual embrace of the reality that each of us is a mansion with many rooms.
A mansion with many rooms! And wouldn’t those things that compromise our ability to see this and be this be more ridiculous than the political identity I’ve listen above?
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