Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The hermeneutic of suspicion

Now that the election is behind us, attention is turned to what President-elect Trump and his Democrat opponents will do. Mr. Trump is busy filling slots for key advisors, cabinet posts and West Wing positions. Democrats are busy holding meetings and organizing their opposition, in the wake of elections that were devastating.

It seems everything that's happening is viewed by the opposition with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Mr. Trump appointed an editor at Breitbart to a key position. Immediately there are howls of protest from the left because the man has been called an anti-Semite. Groups of people are taking to the street protesting the election, and many suspect that billionaire George Soros is underwriting the protests in an effort to overturn the foundations of the Republic.

Both sides may be right. Neither side might be right. We must abandon the hermeneutic of suspicion, in favor of vigorous left-right dialogue.

The media will be a key to this process. Will they begin to take their role seriously, and investigate both sides; or will they continue to be willfully cyclopean, offering a view of the world that lacks dimensionality and nuance? It is a black mark on the mainstream media that reports of voter fraud, and the abortion industry's sale of aborted babies' body parts were made by independent journalists and quickly covered by the MSM. When reporters submit their stories to political hacks for approval, the stables need to be cleaned out.

And we, the unwashed hoi polloi, must learn how to critically assess the reports we read and what sort of judgments to make. Epictetus has some helpful thoughts here:
"Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend."
Epictetus describes two different kinds of judgment, which we often conflate. To see that someone bathes quickly is a more-or-less objective judgment. We might say, "He was in the shower for five minutes," and that can be measured by a clock. But when we say, "He didn't bathe well," we make a judgment that moves beyond matters of fact to evaluation. Epictetus points out that this kind of judgment can't be fairly made without knowing the principle from which the person acted. Perhaps the person had already bathed earlier in the day and just needed a quick shower to wash off the sweat; perhaps they had to be somewhere quickly and didn't have enough time to take a thorough shower. If we don't know, we can't make good evaluative judgments.

Epictetus might also remind us that in everything, politics discusses things that are not under our control. It discusses the distribution of bodily and external goods, and of human interactions. But if I want to be happy, I have to recognize that my sphere of influence is very small. It's only my own actions, not external conditions or the decisions of others. Consider Epictetus' remembrance of Vespasian's interaction with Priscus Helvidius:
When Vespasian sent and commanded him <Priscus> not to go into the senate, he replied, "It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in." "Well, go in then," says the emperor, "but say nothing." "Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent." "But I must ask your opinion." "And I must say what I think right." "But if you do, I shall put you to death." "When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow."
We can escape the hermeneutic of suspicion when we keep in mind:

*   What is under our control and what is not under our control.
*   What constitutes harm and what does not. Our opponents can kill us, but they cannot harm us.
*   Our opponents are not our true enemies. Our true enemies are principles and principalities, never
     other human beings. Never.
*    That politics is about things that will one day pass away, and the control of the universe is in
     Another's hands. The second century Martyrdom of Polycarp says, near the end:
Now, the blessed Polycarp suffered martyrdom on the second day of the month Xanthicus just begun, the seventh day before the Kalends of May, on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was taken by Herod, Philip the Trallian being high priest, Statius Quadratus being proconsul, but Jesus Christ being King for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty, and an everlasting throne, from generation to generation. Amen.

All the political and religious leaders are listed, followed by a "but": "but Jesus Christ being King forever."