What do you think of when you hear the word politics? Does your mind immediately draw images of a victorious Barack Obama, elected by considerable margins in both of his presidential elections? Does it imagine your local mayor or commissioner who is shown unfavorably by your local news outlet? Or are you brought to images of ancient Greek political systems? There are no right or wrong answers in this, but today I’d like to challenge how we think of politics.
The origin of the word extends from the Greek politika or “affairs of the state” a definition that certainly includes the bureaucracy, the day-to-day running of congress and other systems of government, but I one that I also feel should include the affairs of the state outside of the institutions of governance that have been constructed. In communication and other social sciences, we have come to an understanding that everything is political. When we say that we mean nothing exists in a vacuum and actions which are supported, rejected, or neglected by the state have a hand in shaping everything within said state. While it is easier to digest and straightforward narratives and arguments that are not cluttered with all of the information necessary to understand the nuances of issues and histories, these simplifications negate context.
I recently had a lengthy Facebook discussion with an old friend about the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Mike Brown verdict. I had seen some statuses from him that were problematic, but this was the first time I engaged with him to get at the underlying beliefs that were informing his posts. In the end it boiled down to a belief in individual actions, more commonly associated with the American Dream, and the myth of the meritocratic American democracy. In his mind, Mike Brown was an individual who “got what he deserved” for behaving like a thug and aggressively engaging with Darren Wilson, the police officer. For this person, if Mike Brown had just been minding his own business and the officer had used deadly force, then his death would not have been justified. However, his murder should not be justified in any just legal system. Our argument became derailed due to both my old friend’s assumptions about my rationale for engaging with him and his misunderstandings of the historical context of the moment. In his mind, the civil war was a war where multiple groups of people fought for the abolition of slavery due to it being a moral wrong. He presented the Civil Rights movement in the same way.
The majority narrative of these events has been de-politicized. I don’t fault my old friend for believing these narratives and using them to build a counter-argument. I don’t fault him for getting riled up and angry about the protests. I don’t even fault him for posting “fuck Brown”. Public school education has been de-politicized. Mathematics and strict Verbal and Writing requirements do not require the nuanced understanding that history and social studies do. The former can be used functionally without the nuances to make new discoveries and build new understandings. The latter are little more than facts to be pulled out during educational bowls and Jeopardy!
In order to raise the awareness of people, they need to be taught to engage with history critically and develop nuanced understandings. In reality, politics is nothing more than history and tradition expressed through people who live and work within the state. When we say everything is political, we mean everything is interconnected. Everything is tied to history and traditions. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Politics are prominent and in order to truly understand politics, we have to critically engage with our own history and traditions. Let’s get to work.