Agora & Polis

A Political Misunderstanding


L. Rhodes

I have been trying, without much success, to convince myself that it's time to move on from the controversy of the last several weeks. On the whole, it was an ugly, divisive, and demoralizing affair, practically inseparable from the harassment campaign that continued in parallel with calls for journalistic accountability. I'd have stopped talking about it altogether except that it threw some light on several issues that tend to plague just about any debate over the social value of criticism. It's probably best that we grapple with those now, since they're almost bound to arise in future disputes.

Most of those issues have to do with semantics — an off-putting word, but an indispensable subject. Think of it as the work of making sure that we're talking about the same thing, and since words are how civilized people hash out their differences, it's sometimes a necessary practice. In particular, we need it because, even when we tacitly agree on the most relevant words for discussing a problem, we sometimes end up using those very words to talk past one another.

Take, for example, political. Tacitly, at least, parties on both sides have agreed to talk about whether political critique had any place in reviews of video games. And for "video games" you could substitute books, movies, music, technology — just about any consumer product, which is why the semantic question has value beyond this one controversy. It's tempting to suppose that some people were making a special case of games, as though the standards routinely applied to those other media were out of place here, but the deeper problem may have been that word, "political," and the operative question in any case will be, Do we mean the same thing when we say it?

There are good reasons for supposing that we didn't. In particular, I was struck by two principle ways of using the word.

Some spoke of politics in terms of specific ideologies. It is, I suppose, a view grounded in our familiarity with the contemporary political arena and its emphasis on filling government positions with members of your own party. People who understood politics this way tended to believe, with some resentment, that others were pushing an agenda into an otherwise apolitical domain.

Others understood politics as any of the stakes that arise as a natural result of different people taking part in the same society. On that account, there can be a political dimension to just about any interpersonal relationship, even when no explicit ideological agenda is involved. And people who meant as much when they talked about politics tended to see calls for a criticism free of politics as a denial of concerns that strike close to the root of personal identity.

Once you've grasped those differences, it's easy to see how the two groups could agree on the language of debate without leaving any possibility of compromise. One sense of the political is about the systems we impose on others in the name of social order; the other is about how we acknowledge the differences that make such impositions hazardous.

Which is not to say that agreement is a simple matter of getting everyone to use the same definition. It's entirely possible that, even having sorted out the semantic ambiguities, the two sides might still part ways over the value of a political critique. What's more certain, though, is that without some semantic agreement, even the appearance of agreement would be deceiving.