In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.
The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:
In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.
Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.
I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.
DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.
But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week? The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:
In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.
I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.
What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.
But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.
The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.
What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).
As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.
Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.
What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.
“In contrast to the inorganic thereness of lifeless matter, living beings are not mere appearances. To be alive means to be possessed by an urge toward self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness. Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage set for them.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking
Political theorists are likely to associate the phrase the “urge to self-display” with a characteristically “Arendtian” politics. But here, Arendt takes self-display to characterize something much more basic and fundamental—the sheer life of human beings. Despite Arendt’s imagery of the actor appearing on a stage, self-display does not seem at all to invoke the greatness of individuality or of heroic deeds. It is merely the “fact of one’s own appearingness.” What could Arendt mean by characterizing human life by the fact of appearing, and what does it mean to say that human beings, as opposed to “lifeless matter” makes their appearance?
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt describes the phenomenon of appearing as human beings’ appearing to others in a way that is subject to the particular perspective of the spectator.
“To appear,” she writes, “always means to seem to others, and this seeming varies according to the standpoint and perspective of the spectator”. In this interpretation, the fact of appearingness is a fact of the world in which we live; it is the fact of plurality and the irreducibility of perspectives that signals that men, not Man, populate the world.
But the fact of appearance also has a moral and political significance that goes beyond this almost formal description of the dual position of subjectivity and objectivity that human beings occupy with respect to one another. If we turn to Origins of Totalitarianism, a text that is not often read in connection with The Life of the Mind, we are confronted with a striking and terrifying picture of the loss of appearingness, which confronts us fully with the implications of Arendt’s characterization of human beings as beings who must make their appearance.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt uses the term “rightlessness” to describe the condition of European Jews under the Third Reich. In that regime, Jews were not merely “deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion,” but made so irrelevant that “nobody wants even to oppress them”. The ultimate expression of invisibility was the genocide in the death camps of the Final Solution. However, the effectiveness of these camps in rendering people invisible did not lie simply in the physical destruction of millions. The camps sought to destroy what Arendt called the “moral man,” or that aspect of human beings that is subject to moral judgment and valuation. This term attaches not to moral behavior, but to the presence of individual human beings in the world that makes it possible to see them as individuals in the first place.
In the camps, the boundary between life and death and between individuals was so attenuated that it was nearly impossible to distinguish any one person from another, living or dead. The invisibility of individuals this lack of boundaries engendered was so thoroughgoing that it obscured even the most heroic of deaths: “[i]t belonged among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don’t permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr’s death for their convictions….The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity”. Even the most heroic of acts was disposed of simply and without regard or comment, just as those deaths that occurred daily, and both were made invisible along with the individuals in and through whom these deaths occurred.
The crucial point is not that death was made routine, but that the camps ensured that with these deaths any marker of the victim’s having ever been alive also disappeared along with him. The individual prisoner was barely distinguished from the others and seen only as one in a series in which his exact position was irrelevant. As a group, the prisoners were invisible to the world, and as individuals, they were invisible to the world and to one another as distinct people.
The result was an attenuation of the line that separates the lives of individuals as they have lived it from mere physical life and death and the elimination of the world as a stage on which individuals could make their appearance. And in the absence of this stage, death could be nothing more than a “seal on the fact that he had never really existed”.
Making one’s appearance in the world, as an actor does on a stage, is not about being extraordinary. Nor is it a merely formal description of how human beings perceive the world around them and are perceived by other human beings. Rather, appearingness is the essential condition of being recognized as a member of the community of human beings and the world and of being treated accordingly. As the events of the past century have made strikingly clear, appearingness is a condition that we could lose or of which we could be stripped. Our condition of humanity is something that we must create—create by making our appearance in the world. Arendt’s words about our basic condition of appearance alerts us to the dangers of invisibility and should make us suspicious of any situation in which people exist in a condition of invisibility.
In our own time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to bring to light some of those who have been made invisible in poverty. This act of opening up a space in which an individual might make their appearance in the world is, I think, one of the movement’s greatest accomplishments. And a politics of visibility is not just about our own visibility or our own great accomplishments, but about creating stages upon which people can make their appearance and exposing and tearing down those scaffoldings that bar some from entering these stages.
If we see the OWS movement as a politics of appearance, then the albeit valid criticisms about the lack of a definite agenda and the like do seem to lose some of their force. But this does not mean that the movement is a success in Arendt’s terms. The movement has certainly brought us to the stage, but what we all—the invisible and the visible—do with this opening and how we make our appearance onto it remains the political question that only the individual actors, and not any movement, can and must answer.
“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”
-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future
When Arendt first refers to political representation, we might think we are on familiar ground. After all, the question of how to move from the citizen to the representative was a vexing problem for the founders of the United States, one that resulted in the creation of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Great Compromise was a way of balancing the representation of small and large states, and the troubling Three-Fifths Compromise sought to guarantee representation to the southern states while preserving slavery. Today, the debate over the influence of lobbyists, political donations, and corporate personhood speaks to a renewed concern over how politicians can best represent the interests of voters.
Arendt does address questions of political representation of this sort in her detailed examination of the move from the late colonial period to the passage of the Constitution in On Revolution. In the above quote, she speaks of “political thought” in terms of the mental process of an individual—one who asks himself, "what would others who are absent think?" Moving from the objective statement of the first sentence to the subjective “I” of the second, she performs what she explains, bringing us inside the mind of someone who thinks through representation. The political subject does not hold on to essential or deeply rooted beliefs, but instead considers one position and then another. One might think of a sequence in a movie that switches between subjective angles, showing how a number of characters view a scene without ever moving back to an objective angle that shows them from outside. The effort of representative thinking is, first, to think from as many viewpoints as possible. This is, at least in part, what Arendt means by "enlarged thinking."
It is important to emphasize that representation does not simply repeat or copy the multiple points of view of others. One does not, for example, ask others what they think and then consider it. Instead, she says those to whom the standpoint belongs are “are absent.” Since they are not there, a space opens in which I can create a version of their view in my mind.
Rather than re-presentation in the strict sense, it is a matter of creatively presenting. In representing all of those who are absent, I must then seek to make a judgment and judge what opinion all of those people would and should share. In such a way, political thought, as representational thought, requires that I make judgments about what all people should agree upon.
From here we would want to move to a careful study of Arendt’s claim that Kant’s aesthetic third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, has important political implications that Kant himself never recognized. A condensed version of this argument in Between Past and Future speaks of "wooing," or persuading, others from one's individual position. An example might be drawn from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has gained attention in part as a platform for individual stories about injustice. From an Arendtian point of view, the success of the movement would depend on making personal insights universal by imaginatively listening to others. In this way, one does not merely tell of one's own experience but represents the truth. Of course, to speak of representing the truth here requires that we guard against traditional prejudices. For Arendt the truth and the universal are not pre-given but constructed through action an not eternal but rather exist for a determinite period of time.