“There are two failures here, though. The first is her reliance on a “public” – which requires a private, a binary between visible and invisible space. This meant that whatever takes place in private is not political. So, you can beat your wife in private and it doesn’t matter, for instance. You can send private emails containing racial slurs, but since they weren’t “meant for the public,” you are somehow not racist. Arendt was worried that if everything can be considered political, then nothing will be, which is why she divided the space into one that is political and one that is not. But for the sake of this anxiety, she chose to sacrifice whole groups of people, to continue to banish them to invisibility and political irrelevance. She chose to keep them out of the public sphere. I’m not the first to take Arendt to task for this. The failure of Arendt’s political was immediately exposed in the civil rights activism and feminism of the 1960s and 70s. “The personal is political” can also be read as saying “the private is political.” Because of course, everything you do in private is political: who you have sex with, how long your showers are, if you have access to clean water for a shower at all, and so on.
There is another problem too. As Judith Butler put it in her 2015 lecture, “Vulnerability and Resistance,” Arendt failed to account for who is allowed in to the public space, of who’s in charge of the public. Or, more specifically, who’s in charge of who gets in. Butler says that there is always one thing true about a public demonstration: the police are already there, or they are coming. This resonates with frightening force when considering the context of Black Lives Matter. The inevitability of violence at a demonstration – especially a demonstration that emerged to insist upon the importance of bodies who’ve been violently un-cared for – ensures that a certain amount of people won’t, because they can’t, show up. Couple this with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities that keep people in bed and at home, and we must contend with the fact that many whom these protests are for, are not able to participate in them – which means they are not able to be visible as political activists.”