“Understanding and Politics” was an essay published in 1954 by Hannah Arendt, and it points to a key distinction that citizens today must consider. The rise of social media has made it easy, and even fashionable, to post knowledge of the latest outrage—refugee ban, environmental catastrophe, reorganization of the national security council. These things are coming so fast that hardly anyone can keep up, and that appears to be part of the point. The speed leaves our heads swimming in a continual flow of facts which we can barely process before the next outrage, so as a result, two things happen. First, we are left to react, even with words, which become not tools of understanding but rather weapons of violence. And second, we have knowledge of everything and understanding of almost nothing. This state of affairs leaves the citizenry inept at best, self-destructive at worst. And according to many of Arendt’s other writing, destruction of the citizenry was precisely the point of Nazi nihilism.
“Many well-meaning people want to cut this process short in order to educate others and elevate public opinion. They think that books can be weapons and that one can fight with words. But weapons and fighting belong in the realm of violence, and violence, as distinguished from power, is mute; violence begins where speech ends. Words used for the purpose of fighting lose their quality of speech; they become clichés. The extent to which clichés have crept into our everyday language and discussions may well indicate the degree to which we not only have deprived ourselves of the faculty of speech, but are ready to use more effective means of violence than bad books (and only bad books can be good weapons) with which to settle our arguments.” (p 308, Essays in Understanding)
Today’s social media environment puts a focus on this notion because so much of the back and forth fails to rise to the level of discourse, and is really just the kind of violent bantering Arendt describes. Reread the excerpt and replace “books” with “posts” and you will see the application to today. She is calling us to thought and imagination, even in today’s environment—indeed, she would say, especially in today’s environment. It is the alive, awake people we need today.
In other words, Arendt is calling us to stay awake, and to resist the hypnotic cadence of empty argumentation, the use of words as bludgeons, the descent of thought into violence.
The reason, for Arendt, is that we need more than knowledge and more than violence to resist indoctrination—we need understanding. As we engage the argument at the level of knowledge, we are playing their game of obfuscation and fighting on their terms. We become confused and overwhelmed quickly because our normal tools of understanding no longer apply. The advent of this new Trumpism destroys the very theories, frameworks, principles, and values we would normally use to see and understand. The parade of charades, falsehoods, and outrages continues; we know it and we know each of them, but what is really happening? How do we understand?
“Understanding, while it cannot be expected to provide results which are specifically helpful or inspiring in the fight against totalitarianism, must accompany this fight if it is to be more than a fight for mere survival… the process of understanding is clearly, and perhaps primarily, also a process of self-understanding. For, although we merely know, but do not yet understand, what we are fighting against, we know and understand even less what we are fighting for. And the resignation, so characteristic of Europe during the last war (WWII) and so precisely formulated by an English poet who said that ‘we who lived by noble dreams / defend the bad against the worse,’ will no longer suffice. In this sense, the activity of understanding is necessary; while it can never directly inspire the fight or provide otherwise missing objectives, it alone can make it meaningful and prepare a new resourcefulness of the human mind and heart which perhaps will come into free play only after the battle is won.” (p310, Essays in Understanding)
I take this distinction between knowledge and understanding as two solid guideposts for what lies ahead. Knowledge is good and necessary as part of the fight, yet if we stop there, we likely collapse into the indoctrination Arendt warns against. No. We must seek that deeper understanding she pursues, models, and point us to.
This understanding is an inner work that must accompany the fight, for we are already finding ourselves confused—
- “how can this be happening? …in America?”
- “This isn’t who we are!”
Many will claim that such confusion is naïve, and perhaps it is. But those who make that claim too quickly also lose their power in the violence of indoctrinated words, for they become part of the dependable dialectic—one of the two sides who need each other to survive. Thought has stopped just as clearly in he who knows so well as it does in the ignorant and the naïve. Yet the ignorant the naïve may have a better chance at moving to real understanding because they are not defending a preconceived notion of the world—they are not a priori indoctrinated.
In other words, as Arendt indicates: “the process of understanding is clearly, and perhaps primarily, also a process of self-understanding.” So as we gather the knowledge and prepare the fight, we must also cultivate that self-understanding. For the answer to the question, “how can this be happening?” is within us, for we all have the instinct that what is happening speaks to. And the claim “This isn’t who we are!” belies a blindness that yes, in some sense, this is exactly who we are.
The rise of Trump, in all its details and machinations, provides an accurate reflection of the country—the presence of virulent hatred, crippling passivity, willful negligence, and searing racism and sexism all contributed to his victory. The response to Trump also illustrates the reality of the body politic in America—not only the outrage and willingness to fight, which is laudable, but also the lack of depth in that fight, the lack of understanding of what we are fighting for, and so far, the largely barren intellectual response and refusal to engage understanding the way we must to resist the temptations of whatever Trump is creating and provide meaning to the resistance against it.
Note: Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Germany, moved to Paris in 1933 as the Nazis came to power, and came to the United States after the beginning of WWII. Much of her writing concerns the forces at work in the development of totalitarian regimes such as the Nazis in Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. To read her at these times in America is instructive in that it may help citizens to see the bigger picture, understand fellow citizens who are not alarmed, and paint a picture toward where we might go. I am posting various interactions with Arendt’s writings on this blog this year.