Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 12/13/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upHostile Climates

harvard law schoolJeannie Suk writes in the New Yorker about how her willingness to criticize a documentary film might lead to her being disciplined by Harvard Law School. The film in questions, "The Hunting Ground," is about sexual harassment on college campuses. The reason Professor Suk might end up being disciplined is the Federal Law referred to as Title IX, which requires all educational institutions to guarantee sexual equality in education. Since 2010, Title IX has been interpreted to mean that any act, speech, or gesture that contributes to a "hostile climate" connected to sexual matters must be investigated at a cost to the school and disciplined. Here is Suk's account of how her criticism of the documentary may trigger a Title IX investigation: "But last week the filmmakers did more than understandably disagree with criticism of the film, which has been short-listed for the Academy Award for best documentary. They wrote, in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, that 'the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law.' The words 'hostile climate' contain a serious claim. At Harvard, sexual harassment is 'unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,' including verbal conduct that is 'sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe' so as to create a 'hostile environment.' If, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors' statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined. To my knowledge, no complaint of sexual harassment has been filed with Harvard's Title IX office--though I've been told by a high-level administrator that several people have inquired about the possibility--and I don't know if the school would proceed with an investigation. Precedent for such an investigation exists in the case of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern University, who earlier this year wrote an article criticizing aspects of Title IX policies and culture and was accused of creating a hostile environment on campus; Northwestern conducted an investigation and ultimately cleared Kipnis of sexual-harassment charges. A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors' statement about the film. If a Title IX complaint were filed and an investigation launched, the professors wouldn't be permitted to speak about it, as that could be considered 'retaliation' against those who filed the complaint, which would violate the campus sexual-harassment policy."

Over the last two months, much attention has been paid to questions of racial discrimination on college and university campuses. Many have criticized students for making unreasonable demands. At Amherst, students demanded that other students who had put up free speech posters go through a disciplinary process including training for "racial and cultural competency." Students at Yale demanded that a lecturer who sent an email deemed offensive be fired from her position as Master of a College. And at Emory University, students demanded "that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: 'Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language and/or other identity?' and 'Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability and class identities?' These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors. We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, fall 2015." As excessive as these and other demands may be, they harmed no one, as they were all denied by administrators. What is more, while many of these conversations and protests were difficult and some were uncomfortable, they have largely been successful, leading to measured and at times meaningful change. While there were excesses--examples of youthful exuberance--the protests were in the end simply speech that could be, and was, met by more speech. In other words, the protests around the country were not attacks on free speech so much as they were examples of the way free speech works to articulate and respond to grievances.

When it comes to campus protests regarding perceived sexism, as is evident in what Professor Suk describes above, the reality of Title IX means that speaking freely is to risk losing one's job. We are in a strange situation in which discussions about race, as fraught as they are, are judged by standards of common sense, while speech touching upon sex or sexuality is subjected to the threat of disciplinary processes administered through a federally mandated bureaucracy. The contrast between the way race and sex are being treated is telling. What is worrisome is that student demands during the protests against racism are inflected by a desire to import the atmosphere of disciplinary threats to bear on speech and acts thought to create a racially hostile atmosphere. The better lesson is the opposing one, that free speech does work to allow students and others to make demands and influence changes on campuses without threatening others for their willingness to speak. --RB

Encryption and Morality

encryptionIn a long but still accessible academic essay, UC Davis computer science professor Phillip Rogaway discusses what he calls the moral character of cryptography and also of science and engineering more generally: "Most academic cryptographers seem to think that our field is a fun, deep, and politically neutral game--a set of puzzles involving communicating parties and notional adversaries. This vision of who we are animates a field whose work is intellectually impressive and rapidly produced, but also quite inbred and divorced from real-world concerns. Is this what cryptography should be like? Is it how we should expend the bulk of our intellectual capital? For me, these questions came to a head with the Snowden disclosures of 2013. If cryptography's most basic aim is to enable secure communications, how could it not be a colossal failure of our field when ordinary people lack even a modicum of communication privacy when interacting electronically? Yet I soon realized that most cryptographers didn't see it this way. Most seemed to feel that the disclosures didn't even implicate us cryptographers. I think that they do. So I want to talk about the moral obligations of cryptographers, and my community as a whole. This is not a topic cryptographers routinely discuss. In this post-Snowden era, I think it needs to be." Rogaway dissents from Stanley Fish, who advises new professors to do their work and not worry about changing the world. "Perhaps such amorality, however revolting, is harmless in Fish's intellectual realm: one doesn't particularly expect literary theory to change the world. But scientists and engineers do just that. A refusal to direct the change we do is both morally bankrupt and ingracious." I think Rogaway misunderstands Fish, who preaches not amorality but rather humility. A teacher is to teach students what is; that includes the ethics and morality of the world. In doing so, the teacher inspires the student to raise ethical questions for themselves. It is not the teacher's job to tell students what should be but to prepare them to pose and then decide these ethical questions for themselves. What Rogaway shows us is that computer scientists need to teach more than computer science; they must also teach students about the ethical implications of computer science. They must ask themselves basic questions, like "Is computer science not benefiting man?"--RB

Leader of the People

donald trumpMegan Garber talks about what we really mean when we call someone a demagogue: "As an insult, certainly--as an implicit invalidation of one's political rhetoric--'demagogue' is a very good word. It's slightly gentler than 'fascist' and slightly more dignified than 'buffoon'; it's extremely opinionated, and yet carries itself with the gravitas of informed objectivity. Uttered aloud--that evocative agog--it forces one's mouth to gape appropriately. And while Trump is certainly not the only contemporary politician to be dismissed under its auspices ('Demagoguery 101,' Charles Krauthammer wrote of President Obama and his policies), no figure has so clearly deserved the word since Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan riled the former century. So deep has the impact of Trump's fist-pounding rhetoric been that, at this point, there's a metonymic circularity to the whole thing. The Economist recently published an article titled 'The Art of the Demagogue.' It did not need to clarify who it was about.... Today, perhaps as a response to that vague but ongoing threat of media-driven menace, 'demagogue' has become a term of last resort: a description--a deeply loaded epithet--that is summoned only when a particular politician or media figure or other modern people-leader has moved so far away from the mainstream that the Overton Window has receded well into the distance. It's a word that doubles as a siren for a democratic system, directed at one person but implicating us all: Our house is on fire. It's this sense that gave the phrase its shock value, and its lasting power, when H.L. Mencken dismissed Huey Long as 'a backwoods demagogue.' And when Joe Kennedy decried Father Coughlin as 'an out and out demagogue.' It is why American history, its terrain so widely populated with people who bluster and flatter and smarm and shout, has anointed so few actual 'demagogues.'"  

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Human Ear

svetlana alexievichSvetlana Alexievich received her Nobel Prize for Literature this week. In her acceptance speech, she describes the importance of non-fiction to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: "Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: 'Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.' My teacher, Ales Adamovich, whose name I mention today with gratitude, felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A 'super-literature' is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche's words come to mind--no artist can live up to reality. He can't lift it. It always troubled me that the truth doesn't fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There's a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I'm interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn't literature, it's a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting--even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators. I'm interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven't had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we're not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky's Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: 'We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity ... for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice."

Buying Power

bruce raunerNicholas Confessore recounts in the NY Times Magazine a war in Illinois between a small group of wealthy families and the entrenched politics of the state. According to Confessore, the families "have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state, a concentration of political money without precedent in Illinois history. Their wealth has forcefully shifted the state's balance of power." Confessore tells how Bruce Rauner was boosted into the Governor's mansion on the shoulders of $27 million of his own money as well as $13.6 million from Kenneth C. Griffin's family. "The rich families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns. Economic winners in an age of rising inequality, operating largely out of public view, they are reshaping government with fortunes so large as to defy the ordinary financial scale of politics. In the 2016 presidential race, a New York Times analysis found last month, just 158 families had provided nearly half of the early campaign money. Many of those giving, like Mr. Griffin, come from the world of finance, an industry that has yielded more of the new political wealth than any other. The Florida-based leveraged-buyout pioneer John Childs, the private equity investor Sam Zell and Paul Singer, a prominent New York hedge fund manager, all helped elect Mr. Rauner, as did Richard Uihlein, a conservative businessman from the Chicago suburbs. Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else."

Praising Doublethink

big brotherElijah Millgram thinks we can never be as exact as we'd like to be and that we need more hedges in our language: "Imagine you really did have a repertoire of concepts and names that allowed you to say exactly what you meant, pretty much whatever you noticed, or whatever occurred to you. Adrienne Lehrer, a linguist at the University of Arizona, wrote Wine and Conversation (2009), a book about wine vocabulary: 'earthy', 'full-bodied', 'flowery', 'cloying', 'disciplined', 'mossy', and so on. Many, many such adjectives turn up in wine commentary, though evidently not enough of them to live up to Orwell's ideal. Imagine really having precise terms for all those flavour notes. Orwell was especially worried about capturing our inner lives, so imagine also having words for the day-to-day events that remind you of particular experiences that only you have undergone. Feeling a little swamped? It's not simply that your mind would be submerged in conceptual clutter; it's not just that it wouldn't be possible to learn most of these words, or to communicate with them. In fact, Lehrer found that people don't manage to communicate very well with their wine vocabularies; if subjects are asked to pick a wine out of a lineup on the basis of someone else's description of it, they mostly can't do it. Presumably this sort of talk isn't really about communication, but it's also something of an exception... For the most part, our repertoire of concepts and labels for individuals is important because we use it in our reasoning. Descriptions are useful in that we can draw conclusions from them. In the most basic case, you would use a rule: when certain conditions are met (for example, when you're making the American chef Deborah Madison's mashed potatoes and turnips), certain implications follow (an appropriate pairing would be a Sancerre in the summer, or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire in fall or winter). Your ever-so-precise mot juste might capture exactly what you see or feel but, if there's no inference you can fit it to, then there's nothing you can do with it. Descriptions that you can't fold into your reasoning are useless."

The Art of Friendship

nehamasJamie Saxon collects a series of quotations from a recent interview of Alexander Nehamas that together tell a story of a life of the mind. In one series of quotations, Nehamas says: "What a friend should do is give the other person an opportunity to become themselves. For example, if you're making a big decision, friends can help you articulate what it is that you really want to do. My best friend at Princeton is John Cooper [the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy]--we've been friends for 44 years. Few people can compare to him when it comes to interpreting a text. On an intellectual level, he showed me how to be a better reader than I was, how to try to hold myself to a higher standard of what counts as understanding something and having an idea. Not to go on talking without knowing what we're saying, which is something we all do, unfortunately. I learned a lot about friendship, family and life from him. There is a deep common element behind finding a work of art beautiful, loving a person and being a friend. In all three cases, your feelings for the object or for the person are open-ended: you think that you haven't found out everything about that person or that work or art; it's this idea that there's more to see, there's more to understand, there's more to love here. Manet's 'Olympia' is a piece of art that takes my breath away. It is an amazing thing. I love, for example, that the figure is both vulnerable and very strong. I enjoy very much the fact that you can't tell a story of what's happening in the painting [which depicts a nude courtesan lying on a bed and a black servant]; nobody has been able to tell a story. When I was in Paris in 2014 to speak at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum, I went to see 'Olympia' and it was like seeing an old friend. The painting was the topic of a series of lectures I gave at Yale in 2001, and the book 'Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art' that came out of them, but I hadn't thought seriously about the painting since then. When I saw it again, I realized that I didn't understand something about the picture, something I hadn't noticed before. She is holding a kind of silk coverlet, her hand towards the floor and you can't tell if she's about to cover herself with it or if she's just uncovered herself. The moment that I saw there was something else to learn here, something else to know, my love was rekindled. I kept thinking about her the way you keep thinking about a person you have a crush on."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

virtual reading groupHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #16

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, January 8, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA - THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for theNew Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill observes how the despair expressed in Rilke's Duino Elegies is an expression of our human world and as such distills the loss we feel from gun violence in the Quote of the Week. Mao Zedong offers his thoughts on how a limited perspective can lead us to think small in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Donna Weeks shares her personal Arendt library with us and her thoughts on studying the Kantian influence in IR in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Violence, and Thinking With Others


“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”

- Hannah Arendt, Thinking

In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t).  There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall.  The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it.  There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction.  Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use?  Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine?  What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not?  There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.

The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether.  I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason).  Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult.  But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought.  Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.

One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time).  The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself.  A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.

If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.

There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself).  But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work.  Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.

Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can.  That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation.  When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.”  In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought.  We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.

It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility.  On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power.  On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved.  It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).

What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live.  Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it.  Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us.  If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse.  This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond.  In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself.  When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap.  And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.

Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers.  Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible.  When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task.  It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.

-Ian Storey

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Arendt & Gun Control


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.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.