Politics And The Category Problem

I have always been deeply interested in politics, and also fascinated by how problematic it is to so many people.  A great deal of my own interest in politics is not practical in nature, since I have little particular interest in ruling over people, but rather in the way that politics is so revealing of the behavior and mindset and worldview of those around me, which has always been a subject of continual personal absorption.  Part of what has fascinated me about politics has been the way in which people who profess to condemn politics have often been deeply political people themselves, but unaware of their own political behavior and the fact that they engaged in politics on a regular basis.  Let us begin with the broad definition of politics that I use, which has several components and is generally close to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:  the activities associated with the governance of a polity or institution, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power, the activities of institutions and polities concerning their relations with each other, and the academic study of government, state, and authority.  By these definitions, a great deal of my own life has been spent relating to politics, especially but not necessarily limited to the third part of the definition.  When we look at politics as relating to the debate over the possession and use of power, the relationships between different parties, and the academic study of authority and its use, we may find that all of us are political in some fashion.

Nevertheless, despite the ubiquity and obvious importance of politics, there are a variety of category problems when one looks at the study of and the labeling of matters as political.  Part of that exists because there is a wide gulf between politics as a denotative word that deals with the quarrel or debate over or the study of power and politics as a connotative word that attacks the legitimacy of the behavior of others that is viewed as being unacceptable within the norms of a country or institution.  Politicians denounce others for playing politics, when that amounts to their own entire profession and the source of their wealth and honors.  Ministers who spend a great deal of their time defending and debating questions of power and authority with critics and rivals nevertheless often denounce politics despite being adept practitioners of it.  To admit that one is political in one’s behavior is viewed as having a lack of legitimacy, when by its proper definition anyone who holds an office of authority in any institution, be it the home or a community association or business or church or political entity of any kind is engaged in political behavior because of the question of authority and its use.  Moreover, anyone who serves as a critic or commentator on questions of authority within institutions, or who studies such matters, is similarly engaged in political discourse.  If such discourse is illegitimate by definition than we all are deeply illegitimate in our actions anytime we either exercise power or influence of any kind or critique the use of power and authority by anyone.  Obviously, this would delegitimize a great deal of all of our discourse, whatever our own particular attitudes and behavior.

Nor is the difference between the denotative and connotative definitions of politics the only reason why we are both so often political and so rarely recognize that we are political.  Another source of category error when it comes to politics consists in the asymmetry between our own deep and abiding interest in questions of power and authority and legitimacy on the one hand and our self-deception when it comes to our interests and behavior on the other.  For example, those who seek to denounce the behavior of corrupt authorities do not often recognize or admit that they are seeking to present rival claims to power and authority in place of those authorities that they denounce.  Every act of criticism is itself an attempt to replace one source of authority with another, and thus all criticism is itself political in nature, just as all use of authority in any fashion by anyone is likewise political, and even the study of the acquisition and use of authority in any institution by anyone is likewise a political act.  By such standards none of us can escape politics because we cannot escape service in or hostility towards authority and institutions, and thus we cannot escape being political because of the ties that bind us to other people, to say nothing of the ties that bind us to God.  Every quarrel within a family, between parents and children or siblings or husbands and wives is political.  Every criticism of an out-of-touch boss or a lazy or incompetent employee is a political matter.  Every discussion of the proper boundaries of authority within churches or other institutions is political.  Every discussion of matters like freedom and rights and their boundaries are political.  And so on and so forth.

Yet we frequently do not recognize the ubiquity of politics when we think of the manner in our own lives and in our own behavior.  People forget that there are both good and bad politics.  There are those who are ruled by polls and those who use their power to serve others even contrary to the expressed opinions of others, whom we label as statesmen.  There are politics related to the local and politics related to the global, politics on a small scale involving individuals and their petty rivalries and politics on a grand scale related to questions of identity of a broad nature, such as between Christians and Muslims and Jews, for example.  There are politics relating to democratic institutions where the ordinary people express their preferences and rule through elected delegates, politics of aristocratic elites who limit those who hold power to a noble few, and autocratic politics centered around the flattery of those in charge in order to obtain the honors of office.  All are political, even if their politics are practiced differently.  It is easy to see why such matters can and do fascinate us, but less easy to see how we may become less hypocritical about our labeling of things as political as if that was a bad thing when it is instead a universal thing, if not always done well.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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