By Lambros Fatsis
Following the Brexit referendum and the recent US presidential election, our current political and socio-cultural climate has often been described as quintessentially ‘post-truth’. This newly coined term, much like the phenomenon it describes, rapidly gained traction as a warning about the danger of sacrificing facts on the altar of opinion, or simply preferring emotiveness to judgement. As its usage spread, its popularity grew and post-truth politics soon became a cipher for the populist campaigning tactics of Brexiteers and Trumpists alike, due to their blatant disregard for the validity and consequences of their deceitful, divisive, irresponsible, and often toxic rhetoric. Transcending its inauspicious origins as a fanciful neologism, however, ‘truthiness’ gradually became something more alarming than a mere descriptive term; it raised unsettling questions about our relationship with and attitude towards political engagement and democratic citizenship altogether.
What is citizenship made of?
The casualty of such a shift is not simply “truth” itself as a process in which we, emulating Aristotle, say ‘of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not’. We were also painfully reminded that we have yet to learn how to counter and encounter each other’s arguments in a nuanced, moderate, cautious, and evidence-based manner; thereby allowing political deliberation and civic engagement to happen in an atmosphere of considered dialogue, where finding common ground through disagreement is crucial. Following this logic, truth becomes something more than the property of our worldview, but rather depends on the outcome of our exchange with our fellow citizens. What both citizenship and the pursuit of truth require from us, however, are more than ideological reflexes or emotional reactions to issues we feel strongly about. Truthful democratic citizenship involves the capacity to speak as equals (isigoria), but also candidly and freely (parrhesia); provided that we do so from a desire to act towards the common public good, rather than as an exorcism ceremony in which we curse our political opponents away, having learned nothing from our interaction with others (un)like us.
Are we all post-democratic non-citizens now?
What this unflattering picture of our public selves reveals is a gradual process of what Albert O. Hirschman called ‘shifting involvements’; where private interests, convictions, and wants replace public participation as an exercise of tuning into collective needs. But to prioritise what we deem desirable at the expense of what is essential to all is to choose ‘absolutes’ over ‘imperatives’, as “the Father” of the Harlem Renaissance Alain Locke would have it. Such complete withdrawal into and interaction only with whatever/whomever we agree with, however, is a form of retreatism not democratic advancement. To make matters worse, this silo mentality corrodes what public life and democratic citizenship are all about: a combination of conflict and dissensus with a recognition that, as democrats, we are responsible for and accountable to each other whether we like it or not. To shy away from this fact, is to prolong a process in which disagreement begets dislike, dislike begets social distance, social distance begets polarisation, and polarisation eventually causes the break-up of politics as a form of exchange, transforming it instead into an empty shell where incomprehension and separation reign supreme.
As W.E.B. Du Bois put it a century ago, ‘herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men’. What the reality of “post-truthpolitik” confronted us with was the painful realisation that we have strayed away from truthfulness because we refuse to engage (with) each other as citizens, preferring instead to stereotype, patronise, browbeat and call each other names from encamped positions. Yet, between “liberal elites” who are hated for their social advantage and “frustrated” outsiders” who are derided for serving as populism’s pawns lies a greater divide; between citizens and non-citizens, and that’s the one that really matters. For all our righteous rage against “others” who know and understand nothing, we are all guilty for using the tools of and forums for democracy against its content. Voting has recently become little more than a charade where the electorate can have its say by throwing a tantrum without due regard for what happens when any action is separated from its consequences, not just for oneself but for the entire political community in which we all ostensibly participate. Ironically, this sets off a process where irresponsible non-citizens install the architects of post-truth theatrical trumpery as the guardians of democracy within parliament. The tragedy of it all is that those who have insulted democracy by lying their way into power will now betray their voters too, given that in representative democracies like ours, the voice of “the people” resonates through parliament rather than residing in a populist bubble where the electorate’s vice is entertained with no holds barred.
Becoming citizens again
Democracy is more than the servant of our little foibles or our individual will. In fact, it is a form of government which protects us from ourselves by educating us on how to tolerate each other in the process of negotiating collective needs though persuasive argument and evidence. Democracy, therefore, needs our involvement to survive, and that requires more than casting a vote and letting a government “rule” until the next election is announced. To do so is to fulfil only a tiny fraction of our civic duties. We do not become citizens by merely deploying an “X” in the ballot box or by dutifully paying tax, but by being attentive to and communicative towards each other; drawing on truth and logic as the basis for making rational decisions, while practising openness and civility as the moral prerequisite for our encounters. The more we keep to ourselves and talk only to people who we like and/or agree with, the more “post-democratic” and “non-citizen-like” we become; extricating ourselves from difficult encounters with others, in favour of the comfortable, the predictable, and the self-referential. Such a mentality does not augur well for the flourishing of democracy, given that the latter draws its strength partly from its formal institutions and partly from the informal exercise of citizenship as a form of ‘communicative action’, rather than a ritual of civic inattention (not to be confused with Goffman’s ‘civil inattention’).
What has New Orleans’ Second Line Culture got to do with democratic citizenship?
Although it may seem odd at first to enlist parading jazz ensembles as instruments of civil society or introduce music as a technology for assembling people for a common purpose, it would be foolish to dismiss them outright as irrelevant forms of public expression, interaction and involvement without facing accusations of intellectualist bias; especially when the dream of social media as assembling devices has lost much of its gleam. In our trying times where fragmentation, individualism, retreatism, and withdrawal patrol our public interactions, often replacing dialogic exchange with a flurry of angry social media posts, more sociable forms of public exchange are urgently needed as ‘cooling devices’ in a ‘hot climate’ as Loader and Sparks rightly insist. The parading brass bands of New Orleans, which accompany various Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SA&P), serve as an embodiment of how to use public space for creating opportunities for social interaction between citizens.
With their roots in the early 19th century, SA&Ps developed in the Black communities of New Orleans to pool resources and provide financial assistance for their members in the form of medical insurance, funeral costs, disaster relief, and other difficulties. But they also offered “pleasure” in the form of street parades which snake through the neighbourhoods where club members live. On any Sunday afternoon from September to June, SA&P clubs dance their way through the city; performing not just their allegiance to their respective club, but acting out citizenship in a live(d), grounded manner which is so sorely missing in our “connected” but essentially fragmented times. On a recent visit to New Orleans, in the immediate aftermath of the Trump victory, I was fortunate enough to witness the joyous, creative, and publicly-situated riot that second line parades are, while at the same time feeling brassed off about how much of that spirit of public culture is lacking as a regular, not an episodic, feature of everyday social life in our part of the world. To try to embed ourselves firmly and deeply in the public realm however, we have to learn how to turn sociability into what Georg Simmel called the ‘art or play form of association’, as the ferment out of which active democratic citizenship can emerge.
Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton.
Categories: Sociologists of Crisis