Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic stance is repugnant, of course. But exclusionary attitudes are common across the Republican Party and largely shared by its nominees. The 2016 primary debates are reflective of the GOP candidates’ minimal or non-existent capacity for what Arendt called “representative thinking,” which includes the ability to inhabit other standpoints. The stories the nominees tell are enemy-centered, grounded on the demonization of the “other;” those who are not like us are suspicious and must be feared. This politics of fear stages a drama of group inclusion and exclusion, ranking those outside as inferior, alien and ultimately less human, and trivializing their lives and stories. The “other” is present in the Republican imagination insofar as she or he is a threat. Muslims, Syrian refugees, and Latino and Asian immigrants, among others, have all been the target of this rhetoric.
All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.
The quotation appears as an epigraph to a chapter in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, as well as in her Truth and Politics. These words are attributed to Isak Dinesen, a Danish author, whose influence on Arendt is evident in the latter’s adoption and description of storytelling as a means of understanding. Referring again to the Danish novelist in Between Past and Future (1977: 261-62), Arendt writes:
Reality is different from, and more than, the totality of facts and events, which, anyhow, is unascertainable. Who says what is… always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning… The political function of the storyteller…is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.
Arendt highlights judging as an activity which creates the public space. Storytelling presents one with “the special presence of others,” and is significant for making judgments, as “the more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would think and feel if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking,” (221). Narratives involve imagination, which in Arendt’s work is a critical tool of cognition, for it highlights the absent perspective. Conceiving of narrative as a means of understanding calls attention to the fact of plurality: stories are communicative acts for being imaginative. It is the faculty of imagination, Arendt (1994: 323) writes, that enables us
to see things in their proper perspective, to be strong enough to put that which is too close at a certain distance so that we can see and understand it without bias and prejudice, to be generous enough to bridge abysses of remoteness until we can see and understand everything that is too far away from us as though it were our own affair.
The storyteller, in Arendt’s work, becomes the truth-teller, the one who attempts to represent the “non-objective” yet faithful standpoint. Storytelling is the way we deal with the fragmentary nature of the past, allowing us to comprehend it, and allowing it to reveal its truth. Arendt deploys storytelling throughout her scholarship, from the distress experienced by Jews in Nazi Germany, to stories about Dreyfus and Disraeli, to references to Lawrence of Arabia in The Origins of Totalitarianism, to the experience of the collapse of freedom in On Revolution. She frequently makes use of biographies, anecdotes, and etiologic tales. Arendt sought to tell stories about fragments of the past that enhance our ability to “think without a banister.”
Rather than expanding their audience’s range of options for thinking through present dilemmas, the Republican candidates’ populist narratives reduce politics to a constant battle between good and evil, and render political correctness beside the point. These judgments are made in the absence of a plurality of perspectives, without a prior willingness to tell or hear multiple stories of an event. This has led to a failure to recognize the complexity and ambiguity of real-world situations and predicaments. Arendt’s insightful lessons on thinking, imagination, and judgment are remarkably pertinent to our time, when the excluded “other” has begun to be thought of as non-human.
Arendt, Hannah. 1977. Between Past and Future. Middlesex: Penguin.
Arendt, Hannah, and Jerome Kohn. 1994. Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.