September 26, 2013 columns

The Inhumanity of Politics

Politics encourages us to dehumanize our opponents and, as a result, we dehumanize ourselves.

Politics is inhuman.

As human beings, we have the capacity for reason. With it comes the capacity to engage with others reasonably. If you want to change my mind about something, the best, most humane way to do it is via peaceful persuasion. Raise arguments. Question mine. Try to show me the error of my ways. That’s what good people do when they disagree.

What they don’t do is hit each other. Upon finding disagreement irresolvable, they don’t pull out knives or guns and attack their adversaries. They recognize instead that people will disagree, even over very important issues, and that the respect we owe each other as fellow men demands we also respect those differences. So long as you aren’t initiating violence against me or my property, I’m obligated not to initiate violence against you and yours. To do otherwise is to behave as a brute. And we shouldn’t do that because that’s not what good people do and because living a good life is found in living up to our human potential. No man lives well as a brute.

If basic humanity–and thus respect for the basic human dignity of others–prohibits me from acting violently in order to get my way, it also prohibits me from having others act violently on my behalf. If I want your car and you don’t want to sell it, the same rules of morality saying I can’t break the window and take your car also say I can’t hire a thug down the street to break the window and take it for me.

But hiring a thug down the street to commit violence for us is in fact what much of politics turns out to be. Look at the war on drugs. In civil society, if I think your drug use is bad, I tell you that. I offer evidence and arguments why you shouldn’t do it. I get your family and friends involved. If you persist, however, I have to accept that–provided your drug use doesn’t infringe upon my basic rights, such as you stealing from me in order to pay for your habit.

But in political society, I don’t stop when arguments and evidence fail. Instead, I turn to the state. I get some friends together to vote in a law against drug use, or I convince a block of legislators to do the same. With that new law on my side, I can now use violence to get my way. You want to keep using drugs? Fine, but now this police officer with a gun is going to make you stop, and if you don’t, he’ll arrest you. And if you resist, he’ll shoot you.

This basic principle–politics as the resort to violence when other means of persuasion have failed–applies to far more policies than just rules against drug use. Businesses use the violence of politics to prevent competitors from competing. Public school employees use the violence of politics to prevent students from fleeing failing schools. Campaign finance reformers would use the violence of politics to stamp out speech they disagree with. The mayor of New York wants to use the violence of politics to stop New Yorkers from drinking too much sugar.

We should all abhor this drift towards inhumanity. We should all strive to be better than politics encourages us to be. We should all refuse to resort to violence to get our way.

The trouble is, as politics grows–as political decision making continues to crowd out private decision making–it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the inhumanity it engenders in us. Political decisions are either-or. Either this is legal or it’s not. Either my preference wins out or yours does. As a result, politics encourages us to see each other as enemies. You aren’t just someone with a different opinion on a given issue than me. Instead, you’re someone who wants to make me do things your way–and backs it up with threats of violence.

Once our view of a person shifts to seeing him as an enemy, we inevitably begin to dehumanize him. As a result, we see no need to engage that person in a humane way, respectfully and via reason. Instead, violence looks more acceptable. If your opponent is a brute, you may deal with him as a brute.

This is of course made worse by the anger politics provokes in so many of us, anger that cripples or overrides our capacity for reason, and thus makes it less likely that we will recognize the inhumanity of our behavior.

We can be better than this. In fact, we have a moral duty to be better than this. But, just as important, we should want to be better than this, because we should want to live up to the enormous potential we have as human beings. Using politics–using the distant violence of the state–to get our way represents a retreat from that potential. Our relationships with others should one of reason, respect, compassion, and kindness–not pettiness, threats, and violence.

We should embrace truly civil society, and do everything in our power to leave the inhumanity of politics behind.