City Lit Blog

The City Lit Politics read: What we talk about when we talk about politics

Story added 17th Dec 2019

Article by Dr Benjamin Chwistek

What we talk about when we talk about love

In Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’, the characters discuss the meaning of love. As the story progresses, the meaning of love becomes less and less clear. What if love is abusive, what if it’s based on friendship or romance, what if it’s unreasonable and unpleasant … Can we call all of this love?

In Carver’s story, Terri, one of the interlocutors, insists that her abusive ex-husband really did love her, even if his way of showing it was unusual. She describes the threats he made to her and her new husband. Mel, Terri’s new husband, states his views clearly: “I’m not interested in that kind of love … If that’s love, you can have it.”

Reasonable Politics

When we talk about politics it is often assumed that we are talking about rational arguments, debates, discussions. The bulk of political theorising back to the Enlightenment treats politics in this way: as the rational debate and discussion over the best ways to live together. But not all politics is rational, sometimes it’s abusive; often it’s not about rational debate or living well. Sometimes politics is like Ed the drunk, abusive ex-husband – pursuing his desire despite its clear harm to both himself and those around him.

To some people this isn’t, or shouldn’t be what politics is about: “I’m not interested in that kind of politics” they might say, “If that’s politics, you can have it.” But, ultimately, politics does deal with the unreasonable, the irrational and the unpleasant, because it deals with people. People aren’t always rational, they aren’t always reasonable, and they aren’t always pleasant.

Political Myth

In her excellent A Philosophy of Political Myth, Chiara Bottici explores the themes of unreason and narrative in politics. She explores them through the lens of political myth: an often ignored area of political thinking. What are political myths, and what are they for, she asks? Her answer: “political myths, understood as work on a common narrative by which a social group provides significance to its political conditions and needs, ultimately stem from a universal human need, the need to live in a world less indifferent to us.” (Bottici, 2007, p.200) According to this view, we all need to feel like the world is not indifferent to our existence. In the modern world, with ever bigger communities, increasingly mobile populations, and ever-more distant social networks, the indifference of the world around us needs a response. And this response, Bottici argues, often comes from myth.

It’s these myths of identity, culture, nationhood, which often frame our political debate. Whether characterised by a sense of Europeanness, a sense of globally oriented Britishness, free-market capitalism, or socialism, our myths frame our views of the world like a pair of glasses we can’t take off; at least, not easily.

Talking about Brexit

A few months ago in a small village pub in the Cotswolds, a conversation occurred between a retired man and a young barman. They discussed Brexit. Britain’s last taboo. They had a very convivial discussion, and concluded that their differences of opinion ultimately didn’t come down to rational arguments about trade, or democratic deficits, or finance, they came down to identity. One had grown up in an age shaped by the consciousness and identity of Britain’s imperial past and confidence as an independent international power. The other had grown up, with a Polish surname, as a Briton in an increasingly Europe-oriented Britain. One felt English, British, and European, and like one part of his identity was being taken away in the Brexit fallout. The other felt British, and like a Europeanness had been imposed on him 40 years ago. The two agreed to disagree. I know this conversation happened because I was one of those men: it is possible to have a discussion over Brexit, even where we talk about things that can’t be quantified in statistics or explained by rational argument.

What we talk about when we talk about politics

When we talk about politics we don’t only talk about rational arguments, economic calculations, reasonable conclusions. Often, politics is about those beliefs, stories, values, that give meaning and significance to our lives. They won’t always stand up to rational scrutiny, they don’t always make sense, they can be contradictory and hypocritical and offensive.  But, they give us meaning.

Like the four characters of Carver’s story, we’ll never know exactly what politics is. We all view politics differently. But like the abusive ex-husband, we can’t escape other people’s views of it. Debate, engagement, education and understanding can help us to talk about politics – even if we can’t ever quite get to what it is.


About the author

Dr Benjamin Chwistek completed his PhD at the University of York, where he researched the subject of myth and violence in the work of Georges Sorel, Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. He has taught Philosophy, Politics and History from 1st year undergraduates to MA students at the universities of York, Leeds and Antwerp. He is the City Lit Coordinator for World History, Politics, Economics, Anthropology and Current Affairs. Please follow the link for a list of courses he teaches at City Lit including:

You can also find City Lit’s History and Politics courses that focus on a number of contemporary issues facing the world right now here.