Why We Are So Frustrated in Political Conversations (trigger warning: contains some big words)

After reading some of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology: An Introduction, I’m beginning to look at political discourse differently. Eagleton not only shows the breadth of peoples’ understanding of the term “ideology,” but also strategies used by their ideology.

Two strategies of ideology (let’s for the sake of discussion assume that ideology means something like 1) certain propositions are true, 2) certain narratives are taken as good explanations, and 3) these two assertions both fulfill certain desires or resolve emotions) I want to hone in on are universalization and naturalization. Universalization means something like understanding one’s own position not as one among many, or as sectarian, but simply that from which one can generalize. Universalization is thus closely associated with naturalization, for that which one takes as universal can easily move into the category “natural,” casting any aberration from this frame as “unnatural,” “innovative,” or in moral casting “wrong,” “evil,” or maybe seemingly neutral like “irrational.” Universalization requires the move of naturalization to establish itself, so that competing narratives are considered fantasies beyond the imaginable

So let’s take this topic of ideological strategies and see how it could cast light on interchanges among friends from very different political persuasions. For the record, when ideology gets thrown around, one usually hears it lobbed at one’s opponents as something “they have”; we are the rational ones. If we take a cue from the strategy of naturalization, this makes sense for marking social boundaries. Our ways are so familiar to us, that how could anyone look at the evidence we’re looking at and not come to our same conclusions? This is one of the unfortunate legacies of the Enlightenment, that information speaks for itself, obscuring that information is never neutral. It is always and ever collected, maintained, explained, and brought to bear for certain reasons. Another word for “reasons” that will make its ideological nature more apparent is to replace “reasons” with “interests.”

The very sources we take as authoritative and the interpretations of these sources we take as authoritative are not native to the sources/data themselves, but constitutive themselves of our social groups. Who are we but the sources we cherish and the values we tell ourselves we value, the conclusions of which we have derived from sources we have already picked? To put this more plainly, let’s assume two people are talking about Donald Trump. What is obviously/naturally great to one person is puzzling or even evil to another. I definitely see Trump one way, and it wouldn’t be hard to track down how I feel about him, but that attitude is the result of what sources I already buy into, the friends I cherish, the communities I am in solidarity with, and ways of assessing I take as legitimate. If these fundamental elements aren’t discussed overtly, is it any wonder how our “obvious” talking points go over the heads of our interlocutors or infuriate us because they don’t play by our rules, just as we don’t play by theirs?

What prompted this post was a discussion some of my close family and friends have had over Trump, a recent post on algorithms, and another post on the use of language. Burge, in his article on algorithms, found that there was a strong correlation between being evangelical and being Republican. I asked my friend who posted this that if these identities were as “fused” as they appeared, would a Republican (who also happened to be an evangelical) take a critique of her political views as an attack on his faith. If so, “dialogue” would probably be nigh impossible, nigh if we always keep our prior commitments obscured in discussion. However, I only came to Burge’s article after reading a post by Nongbri concerning the use of language and the communities which constitute the language. Rather than try to look at ways in which “others” distort meaning, he pays attention to the rhetoric employed by groups to establish a stable meaning in the first place. In other words, he doesn’t see meaning as stable at all as much as the social boundaries/indentifiers of particular groups.

So what of all this? Without understanding how groups work, how they include and exclude, how they construct their own boundaries and deconstruct that of others, “dialogue” will be next to impossible, if it ever is. If we don’t understand the ways in which others groups establish themselves, we are quite literally speaking different languages, living different lives, smelling different air, and seeing different people.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Pt. 1

So I’ve been trudging through this piece of Aristotle, looking for material I might be able to use in ethical discourse in the American political climate.

Too often I feel ethical discourse retreats into partisan interests, religious interests, or uncritical opinion. This has probably been the case since time immemorial, but that doesn’t extinguish how much it annoys me.


Aristotle’s big beef in this work is the “mean” between extremes. He also mentions “virtue” a lot. The name that he gives a virtue ends up being the mean between two extremes which often have to do with vice. For example, he assigns courage as the mean between cowardice and rashness.

Though Aristotle holds the mean as the aim of the good life, he also maintains that it is incredibly difficult (one has to aim for the mean actively; it is not a static state [surely there is a better phrase, but I prefer to write in stream-of-consciousness]) to achieve, and so if one has a proclivity to one extreme, one’s own ethical rule should be to swing toward the opposite pole.

Aristotle also holds open the possibility that there are times when opting for one extreme or another will actually achieve the good. For example, in a passage (Book IV, Chapter 5) on “gentleness” (the mean between angry irritability and lack of showing proper anger [numbness maybe?]), he speaks of appropriate anger reserved for certain people/things, for certain times, and for a certain length of time. He doesn’t go into great detail to fill out these categories, so I was left with questions like: “What situations deserve anger in his mind? Considering such situations, when it is appropriate to express anger and for how long? If violence comes into the picture, how much and for how long is it appropriate”?

While I wish for more concrete examples, it’s almost as if the work is an ice breaker for ethical discussion. It’s like, “Aristotle defines justice as such and such. What are some instances with which we can test this assertion?”

Perhaps I have skimmed parts too quickly because I only have so much time as a husband, father, worker, student, and citizen. Perhaps Aristotle will mention more concrete examples. However, the translator/editor of my edition, Joe Sachs, reminds the reader that Aristotle remains abstract/general because to be too specific on some points would have too many exceptions to be useful (Sachs, Nicomachean Ethics, Focus Philosophical Library, 2002, 35n43).

I’ve just started on his section on justice (Book V). This subject intrigues me the most because of the relativity of justice. Whose justice? When is something just? Is it a set of rules? Is it a way/process of judgment with varying outcomes? Most poignantly in my context, who has the market on justice: the Right or the Left? Does justice lie in only one of them, does it shift between them, is it only established by who is in power?

I’m kind of having fun with this work, though some of it is largely irrelevant to me (discussions of the aristocratic station, etc.) and some of his writing isn’t straightforward enough for my American sensibilities. That said, it’s nice to take a step back in time, away from the interests that bombard me in the present, to see how others (who weren’t interested in my interests) thought about things dear to me.

Crap. That was not a straightforward sentence. At times I wax eloquent and other times I forget all I covered in composition. I beg your mercy.