By Russell Johnson
Leading up to Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, countless bloggers wondered about whether or not she would “go political,” and whether or not she should. After her performance, many debated whether or not it was “political,” including one memorable op-ed that argued precisely by being apolitical she made the perfect political statement.
We’ve all heard people get frustrated when a TV show gets political or a company makes a political statement or a Facebook friend makes too many political posts. The general sense is that in these contexts one should stay non-political and if one does address politics, one should do so in a non-partisan way (e.g. saying “make your voice heard, get out and vote” is fine, but telling people how they should vote isn't).
The obvious sense of “political” in these contexts is “making reference to a topic that is currently disputed by politicians or a bone of contention between the right and left.” Hence, showing a gay wedding in a commercial is a political statement, but showing a heterosexual wedding isn’t. Showing an interracial couple fifty years ago was political, but it wouldn’t be now (or at least not as much). Saying “everyone deserves a chance” isn’t political, but saying “abortion takes a human life” is.
What is worth noting is that what is “political” depends on the different positions taken up by leaders. If a group of congressmen release a statement proposing that eating red meat should be illegal, and the next day Stephen Colbert eats a cheeseburger on his show, that cheeseburger is now a political statement. What a week before would have just been a cheeseburger is now an act of satirical defiance.
Take, for example, Sean Spicer’s recent comments about Hitler. The very next day, a research librarian at the University of Chicago put together a library exhibit detailing the Nazis’ use of lethal gas. What days beforehand would have merely been a sobering, informational exhibit is now (quite rightly) recognized as a political statement. Supporters of Mr. Spicer that heard about the exhibit would be miffed, I’m sure, and perhaps assert that librarians should stick to books and not get political.
To paraphrase William James, politics is something that happens to an idea. Nothing is “political” in and of itself; a person’s convictions are “political” because of what politicians argue about. A person is not responsible for whether or not his or her beliefs are controversial. That’s why the most common rejoinder to “you shouldn’t get political” is simply, “What I’m saying shouldn’t be ‘political.’ It shouldn’t be controversial at all. The blame for making this commitment political rests on those who contest it.” The argument is either (a) commitment to this value goes deeper than politics, or (b) this is a fact and it should be uncontroversial. This is the defense used—fairly—when priests preach about caring for the poor or the unborn, when athletes talk about racial profiling by police officers, when movies depict history with obvious parallels to the present, and when professors teach about systemic inequality. In these and other cases, people don’t set out to make a “political statement,” they set out to tell a truth—a truth that just so happens to be politicized by some members our culture.
This is not to say that all statements of this type are actually true. It’s fine to argue that a statement is wrong, misleading, or irrelevant. But to protest or dismiss a statement simply because it’s political is to deny that there are some truths which have a claim on us regardless of our party affiliation.