How To Not Be Political

The moment we post anything on social media, we are performing an experiment in abstraction. We are divorcing embodied thinking from its contextual narrative, and further, we are placing it in a context that has no narrative whatsoever. This makes political conversation difficult. In other words, the political conclusions people state online are unavoidably severed from the months, probably years long embodied story that helped establish those conclusions in the first place. No one concludes that universal healthcare is a terrible idea overnight. No one really decides they believe Dr. Christine Ford or Brett Kavanaugh overnight. There’s a story there. Importantly, one’s body is that which situates a person in that story.

Real political dialogue must take into account the embodied narrative of the other in conversation. My suggestion is that social media precludes this due to its nature: it’s disembodied.

If that’s right, stating political conclusions online is already a loss in coherence. But into what platform are these conclusions launched? Reimagine the facebook wall or the twitter feed: A scholar’s published article is followed by a Comedy Central video is followed by someone having their first baby is followed by a Bill Clinton meme is followed by a tweet announcing someone is getting married in Thailand for free. Flashing in between these disconnected abstractions are ads. The initial abstraction from our experience into a statement online plus the randomized environment into which it goes form a doubly fortified barrier against good political dialogue.

This is the context for what passes as political discussion these days. What is posted is as limited as the responses to it. The reason why political dialogue fails here does not necessarily point to the state of our education or the state of American democracy. The perpetual failure of political dialogue on social media is due to its disembodied, abstract nature.

Most conclusions come to people as they reflect on a long train of experience, whether from work or reading or a past conversation, anything. Very few people arrive at their conclusions about life based on valid rational arguments. One’s ideas have histories that function as implicit or explicit premises in their arguments. One might vote for Proposition 42 because the wording reminded them of something their dad used to say which they took to heart. Thus, no one enters politic with a neat set of arguments and evidence to support; they come with their stories, the imprint of parents, compassion for those they’ve known. It’s not that our ideas are the mere effect of our environment; it’s that our ideas can only be engaged with truly in light of deep components of our being — our body and our story.

People assume their embodied story is present when they post online. Our ideas, experiences, feelings, and arguments are very clear to us — why are the others so blind?  It’s not that people won’t see the other, they cannot. Some feel they are being missed and compensate by oversharing online. They are still missed. Only a diminutive sliver of who you are is present to others online. Fragmented people fighting fragmented people will never lead to real politic, and real politic is what we want.

Embodiment is a condition for politic. If Stewart Clem is right and politic is simply the “Practices, interactions, and shared goals among the members of a community,” your body is what situates you to practice, interact, and seek the good of your community. And God bless Abraham your online connections are not your community.

In embodied conversations all of our experiences are with us. They figure in the overt and the subliminal our neighbors perceive as they see us. Our stories can be affirmed and cared for and yet at times our conclusions disagreed with. What is said and how it’s said takes into account the self-revealing other, and perhaps most things are revealed without being said. In no other context can a fully human politic take place. Practically speaking, one can’t leave a conversation in person the way frequently practiced online. Vitriol spewing would end quickly with a slight beating [That’s the Texan in me speaking]. In person one can’t avoid a look in someone’s eye, their children, or their story. One can’t avoid another’s story coming to be part of their own.

Embodiment is necessary but does not result in politic by itself. Ironically, being around others in person can lead to less “political” dialogue than on social media. Real people are scarier than online fragmented ones. One professor I have (she teaches in the History of Education) is clearly angry about issues that I take different sides on. Thinking she privileges a certain political narrative at the cost of truth, I almost posted about her on my facebook. What an injustice! As I typed out my political angst I remembered an essay recently penned by my friend, Stewart Clem. It’s called “How to Be Political.” He gives a compelling argument that my movement should not be away from real disagreement into abstract internet land, but that it should be towards, always towards others in friendship.

Stewart recognizes that the only kind of friendship able to stomach the difficult work of politic is what he calls friendship of the good. Embodied friendship is the best and perhaps only context for real politic. Listen to Stewart describe this friendship:

But the highest form of friendship is one in which your friend seeks your highest good, and you return that effort. This [friendship] isn’t some saccharine, romanticized relationship unable to see the flaws in the other person’s thinking or behavior. Quite the opposite, in fact. The true friend is one who will challenge you when you hold views based on faulty reasoning or behave in a way that isn’t conducive to true virtue. “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). And such a friendship is one that will necessarily keep you engaged in politics — not the shallow discourse of campaigns and elections, but the actual stuff of life.

Instead of posting on social media, I now plan to schedule office hours with her. My professor is not a political ideology. She’s not the problem with America. She’s an embodied person with an embodied narrative and she’s a member of my community now. Real politic is what I want, and embodied friendship is the only way.

And if you think my posting this is a contradiction, you very well might be right.


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Jacob Carr