jekyllIt’s a hard moral contradiction to live with. My ethical aspirations among family and friends have no place in my political life. “One is neither to claim uniqueness for oneself nor to deny it to others,” advises Stanley Cavell. It is a worthy goal, but one our culture confines to private life. In political life, we must do just the opposite.

Within our contemporary political practices, claiming our own uniqueness while denying uniqueness to others is a fundamental strategy.

There’s a Jekyll and Hyde feel to the dilemma, and there’s no getting around it. Watch the political ads in any campaign. Their positive and negative themes are always framed this way. The opponent is defined in two-dimensional, dehumanizing caricature. The candidate –our candidate – is portrayed as a unique, fully human champion of the people.

Cavell’s words point to an ethic to live by, though the embodied, relational know-how required is more difficult to achieve than it is to describe. He is not saying we shouldn’t be proud of our individuality. He’s saying we shouldn’t claim a unique uniqueness above and apart from others’ collective sameness. But what do we make of a politics that denies this ethic on its face? A simple excuse won’t do.

There’s nothing new about the dilemma. Emerson, Thoreau and other American thinkers and writers avoided full political engagement in part because it seemed to have had the blood drained from it. Politics, to them (and to Cavell, who once told me he worried about his distance from politics), looks boneheaded and hard-hearted.

The ethical dilemma survives on the artificial separation of the private and public spheres. That separation was rationalized by patriarchal, rationalistic ideas about human nature. Enlightenment thought held that private, interpersonal relationships are muddied by emotion and sentimentality. Public decisions should be made with pure, unemotional, unmuddy reason. Cognitive science (see Antonio Damasio) has put the lie to the reason/emotion divide, and the ethical shortcomings of our public life are harder to justify.

In a sense, the Beatles asked the right question: Why don’t we do it in the road? Why are empathy, friendship, loyalty and tolerance excluded from the thoroughfare of public life?

Sadly, our contemporary political practices evolved in a moral vacuum, a vacuum created when the living, breathing, everyday morality of our private, personal lives was withdrawn from public life. When love and friendship are thought to be private matters with no role in public life, what’s left behind in the public sphere? Stick figures and statistics.

In a paradoxical twist, we fill the inhuman vacuum of public life with ever more grotesque private life caricatures. Trafficking in the private lives of politicians and other celebrities in many ways dominates “public life” that was supposed to be coldly rational.

Another consequence, one addressed by American thinker Marietta Kies a century before contemporary feminism’s “ethics of care”:  unless the so-called public sphere of commerce and politics is invested with values of empathy and caring (Kies called it grace), freedom’s just another word for stealing what you can. Just about anything (including selfishness and greed) can – in the barren public sphere – pose as a value, as the right wing has happily discovered.

Kies, like George Lakoff and many others (including Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign), called for a return of empathy and social responsibility as public values. So wide is the artificial separation between public and private, however, their calls sound a bit out of place, in Kies’ time and Obama’s, too.

Progressives have difficulty expressing their values in the public sphere because those values were long ago banished to private life. This is why Lakoff’s critique of conservative morality seemed more valuable than his recommendations for progressive framing. The very vocabulary of social responsibility and caring appeared as a foreign language in a public sphere dominated by cold, utilitarian, overblown rationality.

How do we overcome the dilemma? There’s no magic answer. The effort is always going to be messy and imperfect. As a first step, we can bring our core values with us when we enter the public sphere. We can walk the walk and treat our allies as we would our friends and family. We can respond honestly to our opponents’ dehumanizing attacks, even if today’s rules of the game sometimes require a certain rhetorical brutality.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith