What is Just?

Is it Bad to Be Political?

Is it bad to be political?

A lot of people seem to think so lately.

For example, frequently in the news, I will hear someone accuse someone else of being political about an issue.

And the feeling with such accusations is that the accused is somehow acting in a distasteful, manipulative way.

Maybe you are familiar with such accusations, too.

It troubles me that being political has become something so negative lately.

On the one hand, I understand why so many people consider being political a negative thing.

It feels to many of us that politics have become especially rancorous in the last seven to eight years.

And research backs up this feeling.

For instance, recent studies by the Pew Research Center suggest that people increasingly view folks in other political parties as immoral, dishonest, lazy, or close-minded people.

This same research also finds that people increasingly believe that the policies of the other political parties are bad for the country.

It also seems like many people increasingly feel like they share nothing in common with folks from other political parties.

Accordingly, any victory of another party feels like a significant personal loss. And it can even feel like an attack on our country and lives.

If this research is true, which I think it is, it helps us better understand why many people use the phrase being political as an insult.

When we accuse someone of being political here is what we really mean: “You are someone who votes differently than I do, and I think you are doing manipulative things that will hurt me and the country.”

Notice that when we accuse someone of being political, we always accuse someone who holds different views from our own. Rarely, if ever, would we accuse someone with our same views of being political.

Rather, we view people with our same political views as just good people trying to live good lives. But somehow, many of us view everyone from other political parties as bad people out to destroy us.

This is what we mean when we accuse other people of being political—that they are bad people secretly out to destroy us and the country.

“The Political Rat Catcher”, by Thomas Rowlandson, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are a lot of things that we could discuss regarding this view of being political. But I would like to discuss how it destroys our personal happiness.

Let me give several examples to illustrate this claim.

Imagine yourself driving down a street, walking in your neighborhood, shopping at your grocery store, and checking out books from the library.

And imagine yourself going to school, church, and movie theaters.

Did you know that you do these things every day with people who hold different political views than you do?

Amazingly, you do all these things without these people trying to destroy you.[1]

And the reason you can do all these things with folks who have different politics is because most people, despite their political affiliation, want the same thing.

We all want to be safe, have basic material needs met, and live meaningful lives with people we love.

Those are good goals to have.

And the fact that pretty much everyone has these good goals means that you have more in common than not with others folks, even those who hold different political views than you do.

Now, please imagine something else with me.

Let’s say you were in a building and someone rushed in and said, “There’s a fire in the building! You have to get out!”

I assume your first instinct would not be to ask, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?” No, your first instinct would be to listen and get out of the building.

Why? Because you know that sometimes people are aware of dangers you are not.

And if someone points out a danger, it’s wise to at least listen to them.

Sometimes we act immediately on such information (as in cases of a fire). In other situations, we stop to assess the evidence someone has for their concern about danger.

But either way, we usually listen.

We realize we don’t know everything and that someone may be aware of a danger of which we are unaware.

Now imagine something else with me.

Let’s say you are driving in snowy weather in your truck and you see someone’s car slide into a ditch. (This happened to me once! My car slid into a ditch.)

And let’s say you had equipment you could use to help pull that person out of the ditch.

I assume your first instinct would not be to ask, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?” No, your first instinct would be to help the person.

The reason we help pull someone out of the ditch without regard to their political party is because we know that we are all vulnerable, and we all need help at some point.

So, we help other people in need and hope they might be willing to do the same for us, too.

Let me ask you to use your imagination one more time.

Imagine that you see someone breaking into your neighbor’s house.

If you are like most people, you are probably going to call the police.

You certainly aren’t going to stop the burglar to see what political views they hold and let them off the hook if they hold the same ones you do.

And the reason you would act this way is because you know that it’s wrong to break into people’s houses. And it’s wrong whether someone holds the same political views as you or views different from you.

Thank you for using your imagination with me.

Picture by Fuu J, courtesy of Unsplash.

I want to sum up the four points we just explored through our imagination. Here is what most of us know deep down:

One: All of us want the same basic things: to be safe, to have our fundamental material needs met, and to live meaningful lives with people we love.

Two: If someone points out a danger (like a fire), it’s wise to at least listen to them, regardless of their political affiliation. Sometimes other people are aware of dangers of which we are unaware.

Three: We are all vulnerable, and we all need help at some point. So, it is right to help other people in need. And we hope they might be willing to do the same for us, too.

Four: Certain behaviors are wrong. And they are wrong whether the person doing them holds the same political views as you or views different from you.

Let me propose to you that most of us believe these four principles. And in fact, they underlie our religious, spiritual, and moral traditions.

Furthermore, most of us live according to these principles in our daily lives.

And that is why we can drive down a street, walk in our neighborhood, shop  at our grocery store, and check out books from the library peacefully.

That is why we can go to school, church, and movie theaters in relative peace with people who hold different political views.

We do these things because most of us realize that at some level, other people  are just like us.

And we realize that we need to listen, help, and, generally speaking, hold folks accountable when they act badly.

But while we accept these principles in our daily lives, we somehow forget them when it comes to politics.

And so when it comes to politics, we behave in an opposite way:

One: We assume people from different political parties are monsters, rather than people with whom we have more in common than not.

“Salt Vampire”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Two: We assume we know everything and don’t need to listen to folks who alert us to danger, especially if they are from a different political party.

Three: We don’t help folks, especially not those damned Democrats or damned Republicans.

Four: We only point out the bad behavior of folks who have different political views than we do. We excuse the bad behavior of people in our own party.

This is unfortunately what being political has come to mean in contemporary society.

And it makes us miserable.

It makes us miserable because acting this way goes against what most of us know to be true. It also increases our hostility towards others.

So, being political in this negative sense encourages us to act in a rude, irrational manner.

Such behavior separates us from ourselves and each other.

And that makes us miserable.

So, I would like to change the meaning of being political.

I propose that we need to change the term being political to mean what we, in fact, know it means somewhere deep down inside us.

Being political needs to mean that we have more things in common with other people than not.

It means that we listen to others because they often know things we don’t.

And it means that we help others because everyone needs help sometimes. It also means, generally speaking, that we hold people accountable for bad behavior. (That means acting justly and fairly.)

This is what being political needs to mean.

The word political derives from the Greek word polis, which refers to the community someone lives in.

So, politics refers to the idea of managing communities well.  At the beginning of his Politics, Aristotle writes the following.

“Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good;

for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.”

Aristotle reminds us that everyone aims towards the good, and politics is about acting to achieve the good for our community.

And let’s combine this idea with Christ’s injunction in the New Testament to “Love our neighbor as ourselves”.

If we do this, we realize that we can’t aim for the good of our community without loving our neighbor. Loving our neighbor means recognizing our shared humanity, listening, helping, and acting justly and fairly.

And if we take this new meaning of being political seriously, we will realize that loving our neighbor is worldwide embrace.

It is something we do in our neighborhood, state, and our nation as a whole—and even the world.

After all, our moral and spiritual traditions tell us that our neighbor isn’t just the person who lives next door.

Every human being is our neighbor.

This means that politics is about working  with my neighbors in love for the good of everyone as much as we are able.

This positive view of being political, granted, is quite a bit different than the view of being political that many of us hold now.

But it only takes a few people working for the good to change the way we talk and act towards each other.

I’m grateful you’re my neighbor. Let’s be political together.


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[1] Now, of course, there are bad people in the world who do in fact try to hurt us or the people around us. We certainly hear about such folks on the news.

We also know that folks who perpetrate crimes against others hold all sorts of political views.

(As an extreme example, here is an article that discusses serial killers who voted Republican and serial killers who voted Democrat.)

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