Political Contradictions as Symptoms
During primary season last year, I became pretty convinced of the view that political debate cannot stand or fall on the strategy of calling out contradictions. Yet as I noted around that time, some entire projects are based on contradictions. Socrates describes his efforts to encourage reflection in his interlocutors as a project of calling out the contradiction between what they say they are committed to and how they live. He has to assume that people don’t want to be at odds with themselves.
Yesterday the President signed an executive order that bars refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries. He explained the move with reference to the 9/11 attackers. As Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper at the New York Times write:
Most of the 19 hijackers on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., were from Saudi Arabia. The rest were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. None of those countries are on Mr. Trump’s visa ban list.
Here we seem to have a contradiction between the case the President is making for why this executive order is justified, and the reality that the order does not apply to any of the countries that would make this explanation have any legitimacy. I only want to suggest that this contradiction itself is a symptom, which Emanuela Bianchi in The Feminine Symptom says “discloses dysfunction, but also as a sign, points beyond itself, telling us to look elsewhere for its cause.” The contradictions tell us this is not the cause, look elsewhere. I believe this is true for this executive order, for the one about a border wall, and for arguments against abortion, among many other contradictions. The contradictions are not failures of thought or an unwillingness to be consistent, lack of concern for getting ones logos or account in line with her bios or way of living. The contradictions signal that something else is going on: not concern for protecting borders, but xenophobia, not concern for the terrorism, but Islamophobia, coupled with an investment in protecting business interests (thus leaving off the countries where Trump has such interests), not concern for human life, but patriarchy and misogyny.
Socrates gets a bad name for being the guy who is always trying to point out the ways people are contradictory as if his whole ethical approach is “gotchya” journalism. But what if instead Socrates aims to let the symptom appear, acting not only as the midwife, but the doctor? It is still probably the case that people will not be convinced to think otherwise because the contradiction in their position has been articulated. But I don’t think that means we should ignore the contradictions and cease pointing them out, but instead take them as a signal that something else is indeed going on.
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