heterodox: the blog
Why Plurality and Difference Matter: Reflecting with Hannah Arendt
I was introduced to the work of Hannah Arendt two years after the fall of the communist regime in my native country of Romania by Gillian Rose, my professor at the University of Warwick and the only mentor I can really say I had in my life. Gillian opened for me the doors to the thinking of a woman who defied labels and pigeonholing, a woman who dared to think for herself and utter publicly the conclusions of her critical and independent thinking, even when these were obviously going against the current, against the taboo values and ideas of the time. For someone like me, who at the time was gradually leaving behind the dark times of the communist regime in Romania, Arendt’s work (starting with her Origins of Totalitarianism) became a fertile site for reflecting on my past life in a society dominated by fear and suspicion, by the hegemony of one truth, and by an activism that regarded any attempt to stop and think for oneself as a subversive act, beings as it was the deed of a free and creative individual. Little did I know that 30 years later, Arendt’s work and biography, along with my experience in communist Romania, would together become a compass for critical reflection on the present state of democratic politics in my country of adoption, the United States of America.
One pervasive feature of Arendt’s life and position in the world as a human being was that, as a woman, Jew, and thinker, she lived by her own rules, always keeping at a critical and reflective distance the pressure of group identity, the tyranny of doctrine, and the grip of any intellectual or political coterie. She chose to never be afraid to think as an individual in dialogue with herself and with others and to judge in the context by paying full attention to the complex particularity of a situation, to its time, people, and tendencies. The choice reflects Arendt’s lifelong criticism of what she called ideology, image-making policy, prejudices. All these expressions denote the tyranny of an idea, of an image, of a theory, or of a preconception that beclouds and blinds both political actors and spectators to reality which, for Arendt is always plural, diverse, and perspectival.
Arendt saw ideology as a constitutive feature of totalitarianism, the 20th century phenomenon that shattered and changed modern societies and their politics in a radical way. At the same time, she warned her readers that totalitarian frames of mind, perception, thinking, and agency might survive the fall of totalitarian political regimes and even end up infiltrating liberal-democratic societies and their politics. I have no doubt that she would have deemed the growing illiberal trend today in the society and politics of the US – the tendency to not only take some ideas and truths for self-evident, but also to impose these on others as the norm and the only correct way of seeing the world, as well as the divisive separation of the political field between friends and enemies, the expression of seeing politics as war by other means – as incipiently totalitarian. More importantly, she would have seen this illiberal trend as corrosive of a fundamental feature of the human condition: plurality, and, more profoundly, of the very ability to think, that is, to critically examine our concepts and ideas, with the result of keeping both dogmatism (one true opinion) and skepticism (no truths and values and the consequent feeling that ‘everything goes,’ a misleading form of tolerance, which results in indifference) at bay.
Amidst the growing illiberalism of our time, reflecting on Arendt’s conception of authentic politics (opposed to its totalitarian distortions) can generate renewed inspiration for rethinking and better understanding the value of plurality and difference in socio-political life. Arendt’s take on politics can help us to better grasp the meaning and the importance of heterodoxy – of the other opinion and of difference in general. The undertaking is crucial today because of the growing polarization of American society and politics and the tendency by each side of the political spectrum to see its own ideas as the truth to be imposed on others. The first impulse for many today is to try to correct difference: to coerce it into accordance with some norm (a dogmatic truth), thus rejecting another opinion’s truth potential. Furthermore, in today’s globalized world we live more and more, literally, with strangers at our door, that is, in close proximity to those whose culture and worldviews are different from ours. In a nutshell, the current situation requires with urgency a renewed assessment of the meaning and role of difference in human life.
Arendt is critical of dogmatic subservience to group identity and ideology and of the illiberal trend to impose ideas and values on others (rather than proposing them and thus opening a conversation across differences). In resistance, she offers the incessant activity of thinking, what she calls the life of the mind. In her view, to be alive and to think are one and the same. The idea is powerful because it implies that the work of thinking, as life itself, defies any final conclusions and absolute truths. Its travail is, like that of life, always renewing, inspiring, and able to outgrow linguistic, social, political, and ideological confinement. Moreover, Arendt’s thought is driven by an even deeper assumption. To think means to never release the inherent, original duality of the individual self. Difference and otherness are intrinsic to the I, in the form of the dialogue I have with myself, where I became my own partner of conversation and the witness of my acts. Only those who know how to speak with themselves know how to speak with others. And only those who know how to speak with others who do not share their world assumptions and views know how to think, that is, know how to speak with themselves, in their solitude. In short, only those who do not stifle difference and plurality, but keep it present in both their mind and their social and political existence really know how to live. Or, to put it differently, they avoid the death that comes from becoming prisoners of one idea, one truth, in short of a dogma.
Arendt saw politics as the realm of opinions (doxai) and not of absolute truths. It is not that factual truth does not matter. What Arendt has in mind are truths as value judgments that we all make in our lives and tend to bring with us into the public realm. As she puts it beautifully in a short piece on Socrates, “the world opens up differently to every man according to his position in it,” according to “his own opening to the world.” Our position in the world compares with that of several individuals sitting around a table. The table both brings us together, by opening the space where we can see and talk with each other, and separates us, since each of us occupies a different position and thus sees the whole of the table from a unique perspective. Speaking to this complex reality of commonality and plurality that characterizes human affairs, politics is also the realm of freedom, understood as the “freedom to speak with one another.” However, the crucial aspect of freedom in the realm of opinions is to speak “in such a way that the truth of one’s opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others.”
Authentic politics (the opposite of its totalitarian twisting) not only makes dialogue between different opinions its center, but I would say, even more importantly, it sees this very dialogue as central to the formation of opinions. As Arendt likes to say, we do not have opinions, we form them. The accent is on the process, on the activity of thinking with others and of speaking with them, of knowing how to encounter them and engage with them, and not on the fact of possessing the correct opinions. Consequently, the formation of political opinions requires constant conversation and the constant attempt to articulate my difference and present it to others in a persuasive way, and the ongoing effort to understand their difference and take that into consideration in my acts of thinking and judging. Underlying this line of reasoning is a genuine appreciation of plurality and the fear that it might be devalued and, eventually, destroyed by what Arendt sees as the increasing modern tendency to succumb to forms of dogmatism – the result not just of the belief that one possesses the truth, but, even more damagingly, of the certainty that one is right. As she points out in On Revolution, “no formation of opinion is ever possible where all opinions have become the same.”
It seems thus that one crucial feature of Arendt’s conception of politics is to see differences not as being necessarily and automatically inimical or antagonistic, but as rather complementing each other. The world is something shared between all the different opinions about it and the different perspectives on it. As Arendt points out in “Introduction into Politics,” “Living in a real world and speaking with one another about it are basically one and the same.” The reality of the world is a shared one, and it exists only to the extent that those who hold different opinions, to whom the world appears differently, speak with each other, or rather know how to converse with each other, to persuade each other and to listen to each other. It is essential to single out the complementary role of differences and the shared nature of reality because it seems to me that the illiberal tendency today is to divide the world in a Manichaean manner: between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between good and bad, between ‘white’ and ‘black.’ Being different is somehow seen today as being indissociable from being an adversary, someone with whom it is not worthwhile talking with and listening to. Judgment precedes the encounter, and the prevailing assumption that moves judgment is that the other has nothing to contribute to my own opinions, to the way the world opens to me from where I am.
If it is true that the reality of the world, its objective reality, requires that individuals converse with one another across differences, then the modern tendency to “avoid disputes” and try as far as possible to deal only with people with whom we cannot come into conflict, then we should not be surprised if the reality and humanity of the world recede and become thinner. In Arendt’s view, we humanize ourselves and the world only to the extent that we talk about it and try to articulate common interests across differences and across group interests. In short, essential to preserving a common world – both its reality and humanity – is to preserve the plurality of opinions and to remain open and able to converse with each other across and despite our differences.
In a delightful book on literature and criticism, Tzvetan Todorov, a thinker whose spirit is kindred to that of Arendt, points out that “for dialogue to be possible, one would have to believe in the legitimacy of the shared search for truth.” I take Todorov’s idea to mean that ‘legitimacy’ here has not only an intellectual meaning, but also a deeper, existential, and human one, a meaning that is attached to a specific ethos, understanding and practice of being human. For Arendt, this ethos would require at least two attitudes from the members of a society. One would be an attitude of humility, coming from the sense that my/our Weltanschauung (worldview) is incomplete, hence it needs to stay open to and grateful for other perspectives. The second would be an attitude of consideration and respect for others: the sense that without their opinion, without their difference, I would not be myself and the world’s reality, its truth and meaning, would be truncated and poorer. So, following Arendt’s advice, let us learn again today to be both humbler in the way we inhabit our position in the world and more appreciative of others’ differences. The punch line is that without their difference, our identity/position in the world and its very reality will be impoverished and, most tragically, less human.
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