A political animal

A political animal

Words: Zat Rana

Photos: Various. Header photo by Ryoji Iwata.

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A thoughtful curated piece by essayist Zat Rana where he explores the inherent sense of justice that is within all of us.

Today, I want to talk about some thoughts I have been having over the past week.

I don’t often talk about politics. It’s intentional. Politics as a topic of conversation is often a game of those who know things staying quiet because the truth is difficult, nuanced, complicated, and perhaps even ugly, and those who don’t know much shouting at the top of their lungs, enforcing their meaning-making ideology onto the world. Frankly, more often than not, it makes people dumber.

Still. Man, Aristotle once said, is a political animal. He was right. Politics is about establishing institutions that moderate violence. It’s the public realm where we project our instinct for war to coordinate complex societies. Beyond a select few that romanticize that kind of thing because they haven’t actually lived it, almost everybody would agree that violence should be limited where possible. That brings us to the question of justice – employing the power of violence only when it is just to do so. That’s what Plato zoned in on in The Republic before Aristotle.

Zat Rana
Zat Rana is an essayist writing at the intersection of philosophy, science, and art. He runs a publication called Thinking Better, Together, where 40,000+ smart, curious people gather to better understand the world. Join here.

Photo: Kyle Glenn

Photo: Warren Wong

The core problem when it comes to the question of justice is that people define it differently. Everybody has a particular genetic disposition, which meshes with a circumstantial history, and that gives them a different feeling for what is meant by justice that they then rationalize afterward. Many disadvantaged people consider equality to be more important – ranging from equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. Many advantaged people prefer their freedom – ranging from freedom to be left alone to freedom to take over the world. That’s a rough divide. Some seemingly disadvantaged people will choose freedom. Some seemingly advantaged people will choose equality. Reality is messy, and people fall anywhere between the two – mixing and matching – based on their own unique emotional makeup, which is usually more instructive than just purely material factors.

You can choose not to care about justice as a matter of abstraction in society, but no one who actually experiences its opposite – injustice – has any choice in the matter.

As you can probably sense, this is quite important. You might wonder: If I care so much about truth and meaning and all of the other stuff, why don’t I get into all of this more often? Well, the simple answer is that it’s all related, and my approach is just to do it indirectly and let people make up their own minds as to how they want to be, which I think is a far more sincere and honest way to do genuine good. My sense is that if you give someone agency to think and to feel in new ways, you can eventually give them a kind of power to look beyond the simple dualities that comfort the masses – and to truly look beyond those dualities gives you no choice but to act out of love, however that might manifest in your particular world, whether that be a world of religion or non-religion, left or right.

To add to that, if political leanings are based on emotional makeup, you are often attacking the deepest parts of people’s identities, and it’s naive to think that they can have these conversations rationally. The internet in general is a good example of that. People only see what they want to see when it comes to these things, and most are not even self-aware enough to want anything else.

Photo: Jennifer Lo

Photo: Jon Tyson

Finally, make no mistake about it: Politics by both form and function is about war, and no matter how detached people are from the actual act of violence, that’s what they are engaging in when they get into these conversations of intensity. It’s a transference mechanism. Carl von Clausewitz once said that war is politics by other means. I think it’s just as fair to say that politics is war by other means. It doesn’t mean that the process isn’t necessary or can’t be just. Only that it’s tightly coupled. And it goes on and on in a cycle of power and revenge, dictated by our collective and changing moods of unity and tension, and these cycles never end but only keep perpetuating that same state of war until the good becomes evil over the long arc of history.

That’s a loose summary of why I don’t usually talk about it or engage with it. And yet the question remains. Justice. Is that a question anyone can ignore?

My answer is this: You can choose not to care about justice as a matter of abstraction in society, but no one who actually experiences its opposite – injustice – has any choice in the matter. Injustice is visceral, real. It’s not about strength or weakness, being able to deal with pain or not. It’s about unfairness.

Anyone that has any intimacy with violence or knows people who do will recognize this sense, this feeling, described by Viktor Frankl recounting his experiences at a concentration camp in Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Beatings occurred on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all… Once, the man behind me stood off a little to one side and that lack of symmetry displeased the SS guard. I did not know what was going on in the line behind me, nor in the mind of the SS guard, but suddenly I received two sharp blows on my head. Only then did I spot the guard at my side who was using his stick. At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

Viktor Frankl
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and a Holocaust survivor, most noted for his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.

Victor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

There is something deeply reprehensible about this kind of unfairness that goes beyond traditional moralizing. On one level, life itself is unfair. If not because of our different genetic makeup that favors some more so than others in very real ways, then at least so because certain life paths paved out for people before they are even born also affect how this genetic makeup shows up in their life. This is true today. It was true in the past. And it will continue to be true until we become something entirely different. Materially, some win, others lose. At the same time, though, the unfairness imposed by someone who has power over you just because they can – that’s an abuse of the trust placed in what is supposed to be a representation of competence. It is a power that is weak and deserves to be outdone.

Society is a complex system. Politics is the control mechanism that moderates violence to encourage either good behavior (through public works) or discourage bad behavior (through law and order). When it does this with a sense of fairness, then it is working and people trust its institutions. When it does this unfairly, then people eventually break under its pressure until there is a revolt, and usually, this revolt has been a long time coming because the system itself has become so biased and incompetent. It is exercising power for power’s sake, not for the people.

Photo: Markus Spiske

Photo: Jon Tyson

You can take this model and add race to it, which in the US has deep, historical roots that reach beyond the surface of today’s issues. You can apply it to a broken global financial system currently running on its last legs, handing out money to those who take bad risks at the expense of others. And from those, you can also apply it to the power gained by the masses in the movements that shape these revolts, often becoming a version of that same power that is incompetent and willing to destroy for the sake of destruction, even though many of the people in these movements have the best of intentions and deserve their justice.

Politics isn’t about truth, and it never has been. But questions of justice and injustice reach to the base of what it means to be a human being. While nobody can and should force you to take sides in every single issue at hand – whether that be with actual force or with some holier-than-thou moralizing – our sense of thrownness into society means that we are already in this drama making those choices by default. And that is something we have to face sooner or later – whether that be quietly on the scale of our local communities, or more loudly out in the world.

I bring this up not so much to preach anything myself. I respect you enough to think and to decide for yourself what you feel. I do it because it’s something I have been pondering as I have been bombarded by the news cycle recently, and I do it because I hope you’ll at least consider what these questions mean, and why they are important, and what role best suits your own sense of ethics in all of it.


This article was first published as “Letter 8: A Political Animal” on on June 9, 2020.