Engaging in political affairs, even as just a citizen, can be very satisfying. It can help us feel grounded and that we’re having an effect on the world.
The complex battle to influence the direction and actions of government is interesting. Paying attention to it is rewarded with new perspectives on society and a better understanding of who we are and where we’re going. It offers good mental exercise, and even when frustrating is an opportunity to learn more.
As is almost always the case in life, though, the personal benefits of partisan engagement come with some risks.
One is that taking a position, supporting a party and advocating a particular policy can narrow our minds.
It is human nature that as soon as we take a position, we want to defend and strengthen it. That’s good, and part of the satisfaction and fun. When we focus on what supports our position, however, we tend to look away from information and perspectives that aren’t useful to this effort. We can wind up blocking not just what we need to stay informed, but even the full use of our faculties.
This can be avoided by holding to the basic principle of science and philosophy that every understanding is tentative — even when we’re most certain. There can always be new information and different ways of looking at things, and remaining open to them is the essence of human development.
In short, engage in politics, even argue vigorously, but take care to keep the mind open.
Partisan excess can also sour one’s mood. The good feelings of following and participating in politics can give way to frustration and animosity.
C.S. Lewis, in his 1952 book “Mere Christianity,” describes how negative feelings can take on a life of their own and offers a warning sign that’s appropriate for today.
Lewis says it’s OK to hate others who behave horribly, but only in the same way we hate ourselves for behaving badly — we dislike our “own cowardice, conceit or greed,” but we still love ourselves and try to do better. So we should hope that even our partisan foes, whose behavior is unacceptable to us, can “somehow, sometime, somewhere … be cured and made human again.”
The danger is that we get in the habit of judging people instead of their actions.
Lewis suggests a test to see if that is happening, looking at how we react when our suspicion of horrible behavior turns out to be unfounded. That has happened in politics lately with the finding that Donald Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians to support his presidential campaign. It will surely happen again, for partisans on the other side, when it turns out that President Barack Obama didn’t launch the investigation into the rival party’s campaign.
On realizing that “the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out,” Lewis says, “is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.
“If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.”
Fortunately, life often helps resist such a descent into consuming negativity and people catch themselves before they fall too far.
Better still, such a vicious circle has a counterpart — a virtuous circle that can make a person’s world brighter and more loving.
It starts with the habit of looking for the humanity in others, even those we don’t like. Everyone has some good qualities and awareness of these doesn’t require us to soften our opposition to someone’s bad behavior one bit. We may even better understand where that behavior originates and have ideas about countering and preventing it.
The better we get at seeing what’s good in people and society as a whole, the more we’ll want to see and understand. Over time, we’ll get better at seeing and understanding, the world will look brighter, and we’ll get brighter within.
Email Kevin Post, editorial page editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call him at 609-272-7250.