What is Just?

One of Our Biggest Political Problems

The other day I was thinking about one of our biggest political problems.

But before I talk about that, I would like to tell you a story.

A Story about Peter and Politics

Imagine a man, we will call him Peter, who decides that everyone, everywhere needs to devote their lives to studying politics. Peter is intense.

So he encourages everyone to spend less time with their family, friends, and hobbies to study politics.

Peter’s motto, more or less, is “Politics is life, life is politics.” And he means it. He devotes most of his waking hours to studying politics.

A sketching by Anton Joseph von Prenner  of an original painting by Baudiz, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Okay, I think most of us can agree that Peter is extreme.

And if we talked with Peter about his political fixation, we might say something like, “Peter, you need some balance in your life.”

And Peter does need balance in his life.

But Peter’s problem goes beyond a mere need for balance.

His problem is that he has forgotten that people aren’t for the sake of politics. Rather, politics are for the sake of people.

That is, politics should serve people and not the other way around.

Now let me relate to one of our biggest political problems. I will call this problem the “-Ism Problem”.

When we have the -Ism Problem, we become attached to various political -isms.

These are isms like republicanism, democratism, conservativism, liberalism, Marxism, libertarianism, anarchism, socialism, etc.

“The Undecided Political Prize Fight”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And when we get attached to our various -isms, we make them the guiding light of our politics.

In doing so, we start to live as though people are for the sake of politics, in the shape of our various -isms.

Accordingly, we fail to realize that politics are for the sake of people. People are always  more important than any -ism.

Now, I think most of us would say that we believe politics is for the sake of people, and that is why we adopt the politics we do.

However, if we do truly believe that politics is for the sake of people, it is very strange that so many of us are unwilling to listen to the political beliefs of other people. And we are quick to villify them.

Here is why this is strange.

If we truly believe politics is for the sake of people, we should be willing to listen to a variety of political views. That is, we should be willing to listen to a variety of views that help us figure out which politics do, in fact, best serve the people.

As a related example, consider what you do when you are considering purchasing a new car or an appliance like a refrigerator.

If you are like a lot of people, you listen to as many opinions as possible so that you can determine the right car or appliance brand to buy.

“Brouhot Car in Parison, 1910” by Alexandre Louis, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And let’s say you are considering sending your children to one of the various public or private schools in a new district. Of course you listen to a variety of views so you can figure out which school is best for your child.

In matters of cars, appliance, schools, etc., we recognize that a diversity of views help us think better.

It’s very strange then that when it comes to politics, too often we get stuck in our -isms. And we believe we can think properly about politics by considering only one view. Our view.

There are probably several reasons we do this.

One reason is that politics feels very complex. So latching on to one political view can help us feel more secure in political complexity. In this case, getting stuck in -isms is a result of feeling politically overwhelmed.

But another reason we get stuck in -isms is that we actually believe that politics is for the sake of us. We believe this rather than thinking politics is for the sake of everyone.

And when we believe this, we favor the political view that serves our own interest, makes us most comfortable, or that profits us in some way.

And this would explain why we are so often unwilling to consider political views of other people or are very quick to vilify them.

But, of course, a reasonable question here is, Must we listen to every viewpoint? 

Picture courtesy of Unsplash.

I don’t think so. There are some political views, for example, that hold that some people are inferior to other people. These are bad political views.

My point is not that every political view is worthwhile. That is certainly false.  My point, rather, is that if we only think our own political views are worthwhile, we are likely stuck in -isms.

As such, politics becomes our master, rather than our servant and the servant of everyone.

By the way, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire was  genius in helping people realize that politics is for the sake of people and not the other way around.

Freire argues that our vocation (our calling) as people is humanization. Humanization is the process by which we make the world more just, beautiful, safe and fair for everyone.

In doing so, we create space for human beings to fully express all their constructive human capacities.

These are capacities like rationality, creativity, care, and compassion to  name a few.

Freire argues that while humanization is our vocation, too often we develop patterns of dehumanization.

When this happens, certain people take control over shaping society. And they usually do so in a way that benefits them at the expense of other people.

We will call these folks the masters. And we will call the folks excluded from decision-making the slaves. The slaves suffer dehumanization because the masters deny them the ability to actively shape and humanize their world.

Paulo Freire, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When the slaves protest their dehumanization, Freire notes that the masters create narratives about how the slaves are lazy, weak, immoral.

And the masters further suggest the slaves are not fit to  make any decisions about society.

In this way, the masters justify the social imbalance that benefits them.

Freire didn’t write these ideas in abstraction. He lived them.

In Brazil at the time he lived, the descendants of Portuguese and Spanish colonists, rather than the native Brazilians, held most of the power and land in Brazil.

These colonists had large farms in which they employed native Brazilians to harvest crops. But the colonists payed the Brazilians extremely low wages and worked them long hours. Because of this, the workers were in a constant state of exhaustion and near starvation.

Stamp of Brazil, Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As such, they couldn’t get ahead in life. They didn’t have the physical or mental energy to go to get another job or further their education. Most of them were illiterate because of these conditions.

To make matters worse, the landowning colonists made a law that people had to be literate to vote. So as you can imagine, this worked out very well for the masters.

They rigged the game in their favor. And when people complained, they suggested that the Brazilian workers (basically slaves) were lazy, weak, and immoral. That is why they were in their predicament, the colonial masters suggested.

Freire decided this was unfair.

So, he developed a literacy method based in the Brazilian farmer’s everyday experience. It was highly effective, and he was able to teach several hundred farmers how to read in just over a month.

Unfortunately, many powerful people in Brazil felt threatened by Freire’s success. They knew it meant the Brazilian farmers would start voting and change things.

So they exiled Freire from Brazil.

It’s important to note that one of the surest signs that we are stuck in -isms is that we are more concerned with maintaining our power and advantage, rather than listening to and helping others.

As such, we will do most anything to maintain that power, even if it means cheating the system.

One of the things I like about Freire is that he refused to get stuck in -isms.

He challenged the powerful people in Brazil who believed that politics should serve them, and everyone else should serve their politics.

Freire was a Christian and believed that working on behalf of the exploited Brazilian farmers was part of his Christian calling. You can read more about his ideas in this book:

You can find this book at your local bookseller or at Amazon here.

Nevertheless, Freire also worked to bring about social change non-violently, which he also believe was a part of his Christian calling. He believed people couldn’t liberate themselves by using what he believed were the tactics of their oppressors.

In taking these stands, Freire  refused to get stuck in the various -isms common in his day. And this, he believed, was also how he expressed his Christian faith practically.

Politics are for the sake of people, he believed–all people. And we can only work for people if we see, hear, and try to understand them.

We need to move past our -Ism Problem.

By the way, you can read more about Freire and his most well-known book here: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter One.

You might also like this post: A Surprising Thing about Moral Disagreements.


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