Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.

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The Fetishization of Quantification

The widespread use of programs like “Microsoft Project” indicates the degree to which the culture of advanced industrialized nations fetishizes quantification. In such nations as soon as something is quantified it becomes more reliable as a guide to judgment even if the process of quantification is absurd or arbitrary. For example, to return the example of “Microsoft Project,” it seems highly implausible to say that one can give an accurate percentage estimate of how far one has completed a particular task, or the percentage of Project A that are covered by Tasks X and Y. The use of these tools for planning is completely understandable as they provide a structure that enables people to more easily organize tasks, but the fact that these tools  are taken so seriously, and no one seems to question whether the quantification that is required by “Microsoft Project” can be performed in a non-arbitrary way reveals the fetishization of quantification. It begins to seem that as long as we quantify something, it is more reliable and less arbitrary than something that has not been quantified, no matter how absurd or arbitrary the process of quantification is.  

The question then arises as to why we have this attitude? One plausible explanation is that numbers taken in abstraction to how they have been gathered seem much more reliable than personal judgment. For example two bags of flour may seem equally heavy to me after I have lifted each one, but when I weigh them I realize that one is indeed far heavier than the other.  The problem with this attitude is that while there are certainly places where quantification is beneficial, quantification in and of itself does not separate us from personal judgment. Rather quantification throws personal judgment one step back into the background.  For example, when judging whether one can quantify something we always have to ask if we can reliably and non-arbitrarily translate this thing into a numeric value without missing something important about what is trying to be measured.  So even when quantification is prudent and sensible, quantification requires judgment, just as all human activities require personal judgment. So by quantifying something we do not necessarily increase our objectivity, or the reliability of the information that is being conveyed. 

It may be obvious to say that a quantified measurement involves as much judgment as a non-quantified judgment, but most people will react much more positively to something that is quantified, than something that is apparently a personal judgment of an individual, despite the fact that all quantification involves judgment, while being one step removed from that judgment. This indicates that many have a bias towards the quantified,   because it seems somehow more reliable than what is not quantified.  Consequently we seem to fetishize quantification as we seem to think that quantifying something somehow makes it more reliable while being unable to explain how it make something more reliable or non-arbitrary. Therefore, the problem with the fetishization of quantification is that it blinds us to the importance of the centrality of judgment to human life and if we are blinded to this facet of human life we will never understand ourselves or others, we will merely know facts. Of course we will be making judgments, but we will be doing so without a reflective consciousness of the fact that we are making such judgments.