Resisting Hyper-Partisan Silencing: Arendt on Political Persuasion through Exemplification and Truth-Telling as Action

Andrew Spear


A central frustration of recent political discourse is the consistent reduction of politically relevant factual and critical speech to mere expression of partisan commitment. Partisans of “the other side”—members of the other tribe—are viewed as de facto wrong, because partisans, even when their speech invokes mere facts or purportedly shared political principles. Ideally, democratic political discourse operates along at least two central dimensions: a dimension of shared factual, historical, and political assumptions, and a more contested dimension of interpretation, prioritization, and evaluation that results in diverse and often competing understandings of what is good, and so of what is best to collectively pursue. Debates among advocates of competing conceptions of the good and partisans of diverse world views identifiable in terms of the second dimension are, on this picture, constrained and grounded by the shared factual and political commitments of the first, thus ensuring a meaningful basis for ongoing political engagement. While there is little reason to think this ideal has ever been perfectly realized, in recent political discourse statements that events have occurred, drugs are effective, or transparency is important in political conduct cannot seem to get uptake except as mere expressions of political partisanship any more than an actor on stage trying to convince her audience of the danger of a real fire that has broken out in the theater can get uptake for this claim except as an expression in a theatrical performance. In both cases, the real content and discursive intent of speech is undermined by the context in which it occurs. In the case of the actor on stage, the appropriate rules for uptake and interpretation are being followed, just to unfortunate effect. However, in the case of political discourse something seems to be wrong with the rules for uptake and interpretation that have come to dominate in many quarters. This essay relies on recent discussions of silencing and epistemic injustice to introduce the ideas of partisan silencing and hyper-partisan silencing in an attempt to say more precisely what has gone wrong with the rules for uptake and interpretation in political discourse. It then relies on Hannah Arendt’s analyses of truth and lies in politics to connect these phenomena to underlying features of political action and speech. Conditions of partisan and hyper-partisan silencing turn out to be a natural, if not inevitable, consequence of the relationship of truth-telling and deception to political action itself as Arendt understands this. Finally, the essay elaborates on two suggestive passages from Arendt’s 1967 essay “Truth and Politics” to propose potential strategies for resisting conditions of hyper-partisan silencing. Because hyper-partisan silencing itself imposes a certain discursive logic, there are kinds of political speech and action that might succeed in being understood as sincere and so in being persuasive—even in the face of hyper-partisan silencing—precisely because they challenge the assumptions that underpin this discursive logic itself.


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