Abstractions in politics

Empty Words with Deadly Consequences

In an excellent article in the New York Times, Christy Wampole, Associate Professor at Princeton University, explains how abstractions in politics can have deadly consequences. She suggests that generalized concepts invite us to “control, cancel or kill people” and that our world has become more abstract with the increasing use of technology (virtual vs. real). Critically, political parties and leaders, are especially adept at using abstractions – including “isms,” certain loaded nouns, and ideological catchphrases – to manipulate us. Abstractions are attractive because they (over) simplify a deeply complex world.

At The Conciliators Guild, we put an emphasis on how mindsets affect the possibilities of peace or conflict. Abstractions are indeed one way to turn “flesh and blood individuals into targets.” A better understanding of how and why we do this may help manage this danger. Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary, about the differences and relationship between the left and right hemispheres of the brain is helpful in that regard.

McGilchrist demonstrates how the right brain deals more directly with reality, its nuances and ambiguities, while the left brain has the job of “re-presenting” that reality in words and concepts that can be more easily manipulated and used. Abstractions are one such re-presentation. The left brain also needs certainty in order to manipulate what it has “in hand,” and such left-brain absolutes can also be the cause of argument and conflict.

As critical as the left brain’s functions are, it is important to remember that they do not reflect reality, but only a convenient shorthand for it. McGilchrist’s emissary, the left brain, ‘needs to report back’ to the ‘master,’ the right brain, and root the codes back into the real. That is, political ideologies, assumptions and abstractions need to be retested in the larger and more nuanced field that our right mind picks up more accurately and in greater depth. We are simply unpracticed in this switch back to a larger context; instead, we are constantly encouraged in the opposite direction: more fragmentation, more opinion.

In her article, Wampole indicates that the philosopher Simone Weil said that “when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them,” while they mean nothing. This is the left brain mistaking a code for a reality, and, for that reason, Weil was also against all political parties.

Today, whether over migration, economic equality or foreign policy, “left” and “right” ideologies may be as handicapped in finding realistic solutions to complex problems as anyone using only half his brain, whether “left” or “right”. We need both – and a more realistic political engagement, unfettered from ideologies and their abstractions.

A critical beginning point is a better understanding of how our minds work, and affect our opinions, biases and political viewpoints. This may be the first step in shifting away from negative politics to a healthier state of affairs.