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Arendt on Being in Public and Social Distancing

Is “social distancing” a step on the road to tyranny? Arendt captures the concern of many that forced isolation and empty public spaces during the current shelter-in-place orders that most U.S. state governors have issued serves tyranny when she writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical governments is to bring this isolation about. (474)

Isolation seems to make tyranny possible because it allows governments to replace the shared understanding that citizens can achieve by judging a world that appears in common to all with an ideology that fits the ends of the tyrant.

Arendt explains:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as with the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (474)

Arendt argues in The Life of the Mind that the end of metaphysics–of the idea that a world beyond this one can be accessed, or that any access to it can be judged by one who has can stand outside this world (or that we could have access to such a judge)–requires things to appear and beings to whom the world can appear, “guarantee[ing] their reality” (19). Or as she writes in The Human Condition, “For us, appearance–something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves–constitutes reality.”

Not just our world but who we are depends on being able to appear to others. In The Human Condition, Arendt speaks of the need of a human being to “communicate himself and not merely something” in order to affirm their individual distinctness (176). “Action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm” (180). Arendt insists that action that discloses us occurs in a public realm so that it might not just be an achievement that accrues to the social character of a person, foreshadowing the development of the neoliberal subject whose actions become achievements–badges that make one worth associating with or investing in. (One reason that so many are undone by this current moment is that they have been habituated to think of themselves as what they are rather than who they are.) With the loss of a world beyond this world, the only way to assure ourselves and one another of our shared reality–of who we are and of our world together–is to bring it into the public realm so that it might be seen and judged by others.

The problem of private life is that our private lives and private attachments allow us to have opinions and positions because of our investments in those to whom we are partial. This is why it is difficult to believe your mother when she tells you that you are beautiful or handsome–of course she thinks that, she’s your mother. If you want to know the truth, you have to ask someone who is disinterested. If you make a public statement as an activist or at work, if you perform in some way, it is hard for you to know how it went because you were doing it. But it is also hard to trust those who you know love and care about you. You need to find someone who is not interested in making you feel good.

Arendt argues that the judgment of others in the public realm is not an interested judgment, following Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment in the Critique of Judgment. The judgment of what is beautiful, Kant argues, cannot be from the point of view of any partiality to the object. While the private realm might allow for discrimination of “our own” while we can say that we like someone or what they do or even an opinion because it is ours or our people’s, in the shared realm, the judgment is disinterested. Because it is disinterested, one must be willing to give an account for oneself and one’s position. The view will not be accepted just because a famous, important, or rich person, a relative or someone associated with one’s own tribe or familial group holds it. The action or the claim about the meaning of what appears in the world and what must be done about it must be defended and judged by others who are not partial to the person but to the truth of the appearance.

Public appearing of the action allows the action–and the actor–to be judged by disinterested spectators. The presumption of the publicness of action is also what makes Kant’s categorical imperative a tool for political life. The categorical imperative states that one should only act in such a way that the rule that doing the action would seem to involve could be universally legislated so that everyone would do it. So you should not lie, because no one would want a world in which she had legislated that everyone could lie. Just as much as asking whether one’s action could be willed to be universal, one could ask whether they would be willing to do their action in public. Publicness becomes a cure for the private drive to power, because no one would publicly say that they want to have absolute power over others. The public presentation of one’s position subjects it to reason, and this Arendt argues following Kant is the true sense of political freedom, public reason.

Why is the public important? Thus far, we have seen that 1) it allows us to reach a shared sense of the world that appears, where that world includes ourselves as public actors. 2) And it forces those who act in a way that has an effect on the shared world to account for themselves to others. Without the shared sense of the world and the demand that we give accounts, the road to tyranny seems short.

Yet I would argue that our current moment has not lost the ability to have a shared sense of the world that appears nor has it lessened the need to give accounts. I think what is at stake is what we mean by public. For one, the public that we need to be concerned with judging is already a public that most of us observe from a distance through media. We can continue to make judgments about this world and what the actions of public actors mean. I do think it matters that something has been lost that we cannot publicly gather to demonstrate, and I am engaged with local activists in efforts to try to find ways to show public solidarity toward workers and those most affected by the coronavirus in a way that appears to decision-makers. But I think that sense of public is not the reason Arendt accuses tyrants of robbing citizens of a public. It is possible to think that solidarity could be achieved by withdrawing from public, and even that one might appear as who she is by her willingness or unwillingness to show that kind of solidarity.

Protesters outside the Indiana Governor’s Mansion in Indianapolis. One sign reads, “All work is essential.”

But two, the sense of public whose loss many people seem to mourn is not the public Arendt thinks accomplishes a shared world. Leaving aside the real possibility that these are astroturf rather than grassroots protesters, what they seem to be protesting for is their own investment in working. But this view of being in public as merely being able to work shows how much we have reduced our understanding of the world we share in common–the world in which we think we can show who we are–as a world in which we are defined by work. This world has already foreclosed the possibility that we might be able to show up as having meaning before and with one another in some way that is not about what we make. That is not the public space for which we should fight. One might even suggest that the reduction of public space to an economic space in which we only show up and understand ourselves in terms of our work is already a space of isolation that has separated us from one another and from the possibility of being more than merely what we are.

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