The Death of the Authentic Encounter

The outlandish and dangerous incidents during the run-up to the midterm election prove—as if more proof were needed—that political life in America is in crisis. What passes for discourse today is nothing more than a series of slogans that contain various ideologies, be they from the Right or the Left. Intellectually, both liberalism and conservatism are in a state of upheaval. Clear definitions and distinctions are tough to come by because the language of social media has changed and twisted the meaning of realities, which used to be steady.

Hannah Arendt long ago pointed out the difficulties when the never-ending news cycle swamps substantial thinking, deliberating, and communicating. Arendt (1906-1975) observed, in a posthumously published essay (collected in The Promise of Politics, 2005):

Is it not typical of political action, at least in our time, that it is devoid of all principles, so that instead of arising out of many possible wellsprings of human community and nourishing itself from those depths, it opportunistically clings to the surface of daily events, letting itself be tossed about in various directions, so that what is ballyhooed today always directly contradicts what happened yesterday?

This statement is just as true today as when Arendt wrote it. We have lost our way and have let ourselves be thrown into the vortex of media where the only thing that matters is a constant fluidity of thought.

These little earthquakes contribute further to the erosion of both individual thought and the possibility of a dialogue between people. Certainly, when it comes to conservatism, we witness the fragmentation of its political thought, and as a result, we are caught between groping toward a brand new definition of conservatism and escaping into nostalgia for the conservatism of the past.

What conservatism (or for that matter, liberalism) is or isn’t must be addressed. The reason we are facing difficulties in talking about it in a creative and productive manner is partially because we repeatedly fail to recognize that the central issue is not necessarily in specific political establishments or expressions. Rather, it is in the disappearance of an authentic encounter. In order to solve any cultural and philosophical problems, we have to reestablish the primacy of an interpersonal relationship between people.

The first step toward this restoration is to refrain from dehumanizing others or ourselves. This means that we have to recognize that other people, as well as ourselves, are in possession of an interior life. With so much focus on exteriority, which is to be found in daily online interactions and consumption of media, we tend to step away from our own subjectivity and an exploration of our interior lives. Obsession with external experience denies that we are distinct from one another. Instead, this obsession which is slowly turning into a fetish, turns others into abstractions and concepts. In our current climate,  a person can be reduced to a few linguistic utterances that indicate nothing of substance.

The interiority of a human being can be described in many ways, mostly by the affirmation of his thought, emotion, personal history, memory, and family. But what’s most important is that his interior life involves a certain level and experience of freedom. It means that a person has self-consciousness and is aware of his thoughts and actions. As Pope John Paul noted in his 1993 essay, “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being,” treating another person as an object (or as an abstraction or a concept) denies the uniqueness of that person. He writes:

The experience of the human being cannot be derived by way of cosmological reduction; we must pause at the irreducible, at that which is unique and unrepeatable in each human being, by virtue of which he or she is not just a particular human being—an individual of a certain species—but a personal subject. Only then do we get a true and complete picture of the human being.

The irreducibility of which John Paul spoke relates to the singularity of a person. It means that we are looking at the person as a whole, in his or her full possession of one’s consciousness and ultimately, identity. By negating a person’s interior life, we dehumanize that life and define the person in utilitarian terms. In our case, a person is only good as long as they’re useful in the perpetuation of an ideology.

An authentic encounter is at its core a dialogue but it not so much about talking as it is about listening. It begins by recognition that the person I am in dialogue with has an inherent dignity as well as freedom. It also means that I, too, should be recognized and acknowledged in the entirety of my being—that I am different from the person I am attempting to dialogue with. In this encounter, there is an unrepeatability of moments that is experienced with another person. If I fully engage in a dialogue with someone, it means that I will never be the same person as when I entered into that dialogue. Our inherent difference and singularity assures the possibility of growth, whether we are dealing with individual growth or that of the community.

Politics, at its core, is rooted in such encounter between individual human beings. We are political because we are citizens, or we strive to become citizens; we want our individual voices to be heard; we belong in various communities; and we affirm our individuality. Most of all, we participate in the public square. The most radical element of politics is not about change or revolt. Rather, it is a dialogue that demands we recognize that we cannot possess one another, and most of all, that we cannot totalize one another, either.

This means that no matter how hard we try to reduce what is essentially human, we will never own the metaphysics of another being, never have that individual’s freedom. After all, totalitarianism is an event. It begins with various forms of singular dehumanization until it extends beyond the small scale and into a full fledged system. Totalitarianism is the anti-thesis of politics because it rejects the notion of an individual voice as well as our right to participate in the public square.

Today, we confront a large problem. In order to save politics from ideology, it is crucial to affirm the singularity of an individual. How can any person be political and, especially, a citizen—if his or her “I” is denied? But most of all, the biggest restoration or renaissance that is desperately needed is that of the face-to-face encounter. Only then will ideology be confronted and unmasked, and true political activity take its proper place.