Being Apolitical Is Not a Virtue

The Seven Virtues: Justice

Everyone has probably heard someone say something along the lines of “I don’t care about politics,” “I’m not a political person,” or “I don’t know anything about politics, so I just stay out of it.” The totality of these sentiments reveals two things about America’s views of politics: one, they don’t know what “political” means and, two, being political is a negative character trait. Indeed, people view being apolitical as a virtue. This position is a truly depressing, objectively wrong, and significantly consequential view of politics.

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Now, I will be the first to admit that politics and political discourse in America are the furthest thing from healthy. Rather, it is a disgusting cesspool of arrogant, ignorant, self-interested demagogues and sophists. And, I acknowledge that it is for that very reason people think that being apolitical is a virtue. But, I repeat, it is not. In fact, it is because so many good people have this view that politics have become dominated almost exclusively by this cesspool of arrogant, ignorant, self-interested demagogues and sophists.

But, before I show that adopting an apolitical mindset condones and empowers America’s current political culture, it’s important to establish that much of the cause of this phenomenon is that people do not understand what “political” means. People state that “they’re not political” or that x-event “isn’t even about politics” as almost a sign that they come in peace. They deliberately separate themselves from what they deem to be an inherently prejudiced and hateful enterprise to show that they are an unbiased, approachable person separate from the aforementioned cesspool. Used in this way, the word “political” covers potentially controversial and high-conflict issues without the acknowledgement or understanding that everything you do and everything that happens in society is political. In fact, the political is so ubiquitous in our lives that if anything were to truly be absent from it, its absence would be a political statement.

One of the most egregious examples of this misunderstanding occurs around gun violence. Take, for example, Matthew McConaughey, after the Uvalde school shooting, speaking at the White House advocating for stronger gun regulation. A key point of his heartfelt message was that school shootings are bigger than politics; he beseeched both parties to “see beyond the political problem at hand and admit that we have a life preservation problem on our hands.” This is an inherently absurd sentiment. The preservation of life cannot be separated from politics. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to claim that if there’s one issue that politics and the state exist to address, it is the preservation of life. 

But, we don’t even have to get that philosophical to appreciate the statement’s absurdity. Because it is so conspicuously clear that the reason school shootings happen in America is because of the existing laws in America. That statement is objectively true whether you believe that the issue is too many guns or too few guns; whether you think the only difference between us and the rest of the world is our lax gun policies; or you think, like Senator Ted Cruz, that the problem is that schools have too many doors. Truly, whatever Matthew McConaughey thinks is the cause of school shootings in America is, it is assuredly a political one. And, just to reinforce the foundation of politics at large, this is true for far more issues than just gun policy in America. It is true for literally every aspect of your life. 

To understand why, let’s go back to Aristotle’s understanding of man as a “political animal.” What Aristotle meant by that statement is that all of our relationships and actions occur within the function and values of — and because of — the polis. Just take a moment to consider this concept as it relates to you. From your childhood until now, everything you value and the manner in which you value it is a reflection, consequence, and byproduct of the political society in which you live. This is true even, and perhaps especially, for the things in your life you feel are the most separate from the political.  

Take, for example, your family. You might insist that your relationship with your parents, kids, or siblings are truly apolitical and would be principally the same no matter the political system you all lived in. This is assuredly not true. Imagine America had adopted a Spartan political structure (for what it’s worth, that isn’t that crazy, as the Founders loved the Spartans). That would mean American children would be removed from their homes at seven to attend the “agoge,” a state-run school that molded children into contributing citizens and warriors. You would’ve had really no relationship with your parents at all, as you would’ve essentially been brought up by the state. If you think Sparta is a land and time too far away to be relevant to our discussion, consider how different family dynamics were before women’s suffrage in 1919 and the subsequent feminist movements. All of these were political movements that played a role in defining women’s roles in political society, which, of course, affected their role in the family, in family dynamics as a whole, and, ultimately, affected the values and realities of the children brought up in this family system. 

Add to this the technology that you use to communicate with your loved ones, which is now a byproduct of a political system that incentivizes technological progress. The friends that you made in school are the product of a political system that mandates education for children through high school. Even whatever religious beliefs you have and practice are related to a political system that allows for the freedom of religious expression. 

So to fully appreciate that man is a political animal is to understand that we, even as pre-societal hunter gatherers, have never existed or acted outside of the polis. Indeed, only gods and beasts exist outside of the polis, according to Aristotle. Therefore, to truly separate yourself from the political is to truly separate yourself from an essential part of your humanity — the polis, in which the entirety of your human experience exists.

So, having clearly established that Americans do not understand what “political” means, let’s turn our attention to the disposition that being apolitical is virtuous and its consequences. As I said above, American political discourse is incredibly toxic. With the rise of cable news and social media, there is direct incentive and reward for the most extreme and fringe voices. Consequently, it is understandable for people who don’t need to be a part of this to not be. 

In this vein, I would like to focus on the paradoxical morality of apolitical Americans. Many people who are apt to say “oh, I don’t care about politics,” will be quick to point out that this is because of its cruel and divisive nature. In doing so, they not so subtly intimate that they are above this ethical swamp and, for want of a better phrase, choose to “view people as people” regardless of their political affiliation. 

One place we see clearly the twisted paradox “apolitical” people create for themselves is in relation to Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest during the National Anthem. People claimed that the reason they disapproved of Kaepernick’s actions is because it was bringing politics into the arena that they used as their escape. This became such a movement in sports that #sticktosports became a consistently trending topic, and The New York Times “slapped a no politics rule on The Athletic,” their subscription based sports e-magazine. This discussion took place with no mention that the mere presence of the National Anthem, let alone standing for it, before NFL games is political. (And that’s to say nothing of the pre-game full field sized American flags, military members in full dress, and military plane flyovers.) You don’t even have to know the history of the National Anthem in sports, which started as a way to raise patriotism and thus war bonds during WW1, to realize the obvious logical reality that if not doing thing “x” (kneeling during the National Anthem) is political, then doing thing “x” (standing for the National Anthem) must also be political. 

All this is to say that “staying out of politics,” as people proclaim, is inherently political. But, political to what effect you may ask? Well, to an incredibly significant effect. The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of the masterpiece “On the Origins of Totalitarianism,” which examines the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” This idea helps explain that the Holocaust was able to happen not merely because of overtly evil people like Hitler, but because of the political indifference of everyday Germans who, in moves of passive compliance, ignored what was going on or aided in it for their own convenience and comfort. Because even those who did not ideologically or pragmatically support the NAZIs, in reality, condoned and supported them with their silence and inaction. And it is in this indifference or passivity in the face of the political activity around you that lies the paradox of apolitical morality. By stating that they don’t care about politics, they are consenting to the policies of the government they live in, which, of course, is an overtly political act. 

And, it is important to note, that tyrants and wannabe tyrants alike absolutely know that this silence is consent. From the bread and circuses days of the Roman Emperors to Vladimar Putin’s Russia, authoritarians know that if they can keep a significant portion of the population rich enough and entertained enough, they can fatigue their political interests and force them to look only after their immediate self-interests. Indeed, it was the Roman satirist Juvenal, writing 127 years after the fall of the Republic, who coined the phrase panem et circenses “bread and circuses” to mock and bemoan the fact that the average Roman citizen had lost any sense of political interest or responsibility beyond being fed and entertained. He understood full well that removing oneself from the political forum is to make oneself an active participant in the banality of evil. 

This all leads us back to where we stand now in America. Sufficiently fed and entertained, many of us have become fatigued by how toxic American politics are. Leaving only those toxic people left to discuss and administer our political system while grabbing and holding power from the indifferent. And thus, living in a state of blissful ignorance, have unknowingly cosigned the rise of fascism in America. 

I’d also like to be clear about something — what I’m asking people to do here is no Herculean feat, but the bare minimum of political engagement. I’m not asking people to spend hours a day watching cable news, following politicians and pundits on Twitter, and volunteering on political campaigns. In fact, for the sake of your own mental health, you almost certainly should not do the first two. Rather, I’m asking people to spend just a few minutes everyday educating themselves on what’s going on in their community and their country and then taking the time to vote once every couple of years. I’m asking people to engage in legitimate and rational political dialogue with other reasonable people, and to not condone the illegitimate and irrational political dialogue of unreasonable people for fear of awkwardness. The cost-to-consequence ratio of caring about politics is such a disproportionately beneficial one that Aristotle deemed engagement in the polis as an essential part of the good and moral life. 

And that’s what makes this all so tragically ironic. When people refer to things as being above politics or as apolitical, they often are referring to the most basic ways people ought to be treated. They often mean to express that they are virtuous people who care about other people. And, I don’t think they’re lying when they say this. But, they are not doing the most basic thing you can do to show that they care — be political. Because, in its simplest form, your political beliefs are how you believe people ought to be treated. Accordingly, to be apolitical is to boldly not care about how people are treated. 

Published by Noah McMillan

Lover of philosophy, antiquity, and political theory.

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