Few Americans outside of feminist circles have heard, much less understand the term “the personal is political.” Yet its societal effects are easily identified. Debates like one that blew up around Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the pledge are examples of the “personal is political” rearing its head in public. It is a theoretical reality that proves useful for analyzing both its benefits, and the socio-economic position of the reactionaries who continually protest its insinuations.
“The personal is political” originated in Second Wave feminist circles during the 60s. The theory behind the rallying cry is that personal experiences are connected to larger political and social systems. Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay, “The Personal is Political,” elaborated on the implications of the term. Hanisch took issue with leftist activists dismissing female issues as personal problems to be fixed with therapy. Hanisch saw this as derogatory; therapy implies a sickness, an abnormality within a person that can only be fixed with a cure, a “personal solution.” Assuming female issues were merely personal problems to be fixed by therapy downplayed the role of women in the movement and their experiences. It implied that female issues were not real issues to be addressed by the movement. For example, demands that men share in the housework and childcare was considered an issue between a husband and a wife; not a problem of social norms that relegated women to domesticity. Hanisch’s response to this was that “women are messed over, not messed up! We need to change the objective conditions, not adjust to them,” adding that “therapy is adjusting to your bad personal alternative.” Hansich denied that personal experiences and lifestyles were benign, or existed in a vacuum, detached from power relationships and system:
“Recognizing the need to fight male supremacy as a movement instead of blaming the individual woman for her oppression was where the Pro-Woman Line came in. It challenged the old anti woman line that used spiritual, psychological, metaphysical, and pseudo-historical explanations for women’s oppression with a real, materialist analysis for why women do what we do.”
The necessity of the term can be seen in the environment where many female issues arise. While male issues take place in public arenas, like the workplace, female issues took place in isolated circumstances, like the home. This isolated nature perverted the perception of what the issue was, and who was supposed to fix it. Hanisch mentions how opponents to female mobilization suggested women just be more assertive and take on more responsibility in their lives.
To declare that female issues extended beyond their individual lives into the realm of the socio-political necessitated the mobilizing of women for a common cause. Once they realized their problems were not unfortunate incidents of day-to-day life, they could remove the victim-blaming that had suppressed any potential upheaval of socially exploitive norms.
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The “personal is political” melts the social myth that leads you to erroneously believe the day-to-day is unhinged from any political forces outside your control. It also threatens the faux-innocence of those who benefit the most from living these non-politicized lives.
Like the formerly unliberated women that Hansich discusses, these people also believe their lives are the culmination of individual choices left to their own responsibility. They believe, consciously or not (as demonstrated through their behavior and outlook), that their lives and the environment they participate in are apolitical. Their definition of the political is limited to the world of electoral politics (campaigns, Congress, bills, etc). With the exception of tax policy and the job market, they believe the two rarely intersect; not in any theoretical way, that is.
This apolitical social myth is the result of the dominant social class. They are the privileged class, the bourgeoisie, etc. Regardless of the name, this class benefits from the status quo and social norms that permeate society. Apolitical people live as – or imitate – the social norm. They are the social majority. And their apolitical nature emanates from their position as the social norm/dominant. A defining characteristic of the dominant class is their blissful unawareness that they are the dominant class, as the French semiotician Roland Barthes argues. They are a class with no name because they are the norm. The bourgeoisie do not walk around identifying as such; neither do most privileged Americans. To benefit from what society has deemed normal/natural is to be blissfully unaware of those benefits and of your status.
This lack of awareness is clearly seen in the phrase “keep your politics out of my entertainment.” The phrase is the poster-child for the blissful ignorance of an apolitical lifestyle. The beneficiaries of this reality do not see the political nature of their entertainment, except when a controversy brings it to their attention. To interrupt, question, or revolt against the norms is to do so against their norms. It is a threat to the peaceful social regime that has been constructed. Peaceful only to the beneficiaries; they are unable to see the harm and destitution outside their neighborhoods by design.
To react against a deviation from the norm with fear, anger, and/or grumbling is to voice your privilege and standing in society. “We don’t appreciate these people pushing their politics and anti-American views at our football game!” says the beneficiary. Only the beneficiaries of the dominant class can naively proclaim that entertainment was innocent before others mobbed it. Only they can accuse others of politicizing, when in fact, beneficiaries consume and propagate politicized language and behavior all the time.
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To be the antithesis to, or excluded from the social order and its benefits, is to inhabit the social position of “Other.” “Other” is a reductive state, as defined by the exclusion from social norms and those who adhere to them. Otherness theory can be seen in colonialism, sex and gender, and race, etc. It is used to give a group an identity, as defined by what they are not.
Minorities who are unequally treated, socially and politically, compared to the dominant majority, do not have the privilege of being apolitical. Their lives are molded by vastly differing experiences from the majority; experiences that have been shaped and affected by oppression, bigotry, and stereotypes. Only the privileged can dismiss political issues as intrusions into their life: their identity solidifies their position as the powerful. In the introduction to the International Journal of Theory and Research’s “Identity” issue, Andrew C. Okolie writes that:
“Identity is rarely claimed or assigned for its own sake. These definitions of self and others have purposes and consequences. They are tied to rewards and punishment, which may be material or symbolic. There is usually an expectation of gain or loss as a consequence of identity claims. This is why identities are contested. Power is implicated here, and because groups do not have equal powers to define both self and the other, the consequences reflect these power differentials. Often notions of superiority and inferiority are embedded in particular identities.” [Full access PDF here]
Okolie goes on to elaborate on the exclusionary aspect of identities. Identities are subjective creations, influenced by the historical, social, and political realities of their day. The excluded, or other, are usually aware of the segregation that their otherness imparts on them. They are excluded from voicing their political concerns in the realm of entertainment. Owing to the unlabeled nature of the dominant identity, and their consolidation of power in their identity; they fail to realize the socio-political forces, assumptions, and values that shape entertainment.
This is why criticism of greater diversity in entertainment is so misguided. For the dominant majority, who have experienced all-encompassing representation for as long as they’ve been alive, the inclusion of more minorities seems like a nefarious political ploy. Although it is not nefarious, it is political. But to see their own resistance to change as political would be destructive to their social position. Equally dominant and blissfully unaware of their dominance, they have concocted a perception of innocence. To recognize their own politicization would shatter that illusion of innocence, and no one likes sentencing themselves as guilty.
Instead of accepting the reality of their identity, they counter and justify their societal position. Meritocracy is a favored counterargument to claims of injustice and otherness. Mostly because it tickles the fancy of the dominant identity’s fantasies of fairness and faith-by-works outlook. The American Dream is an extension of this fantasy. If you work hard enough, avoid trouble, and be a productive helpful member of society you will “make it.” The titans of industry, and Silicon Valley founders, are lionized for making more worthless objects for our consumption.
On the other hand, homeless people are perceived as lazy and unproductive members of society. Giving the homeless money, or any kind of break, is tantamount to an injustice. We see their addictions as sins that they continually feed. “Getting a job is easy,” we say, “why don’t they just get a job and stop being homeless?”
Believing life is fair is a delusion that many would admit is utopian to the point of insanity. Yet, their belief in the dominance of competency is in the same vein. The best people are not routinely elected, hired, or successful. This is why calls for increased diversity of people and opinion in entertainment are seen as political and malicious. If the competent (usually) get in to begin with, then anyone pushing diversity is trying to take power. If the system is already “fair,” then diversity is just a ploy for utopian leveling.
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The apolitical (that is, the dominant social identity) not only deny the political nature of their environment; they also deny the political necessity of the solution. Put another way, a common refrain is accusing activists offering up political fixes of being privileged. Since the average person has no time to worry about politics, it is left to the leisure classes. The judgment might be correct, but they are in bad faith.
Denying political solutions is equally as privileged. First off, it builds on the denial of the political. The dominant identity subsists on this denialism. Secondly, it assumes a nonpolitical solution exists. If the political references power relationships throughout society, how is a solution going to be devoid of that? And, can issues with roots in these power dynamics, entangled with identities, be adequately solved without taking these things into account?
As mentioned earlier, “personal responsibility” and competency are routinely used as clubs to bludgeon activists that dare disrupt the bourgeoisie’s ecosystem. Arguing that systemic issues are merely individual life issues to be overcome with grit is a form of diversion. It is also victim blaming. Second Wave feminists denied their male comrades’ accusation that their issues were “personal.” Shifting blame onto the individual became a form of repression.
How Americans approach homelessness is one example of the personal responsibility motto turned repressive denialism. Homelessness is one taboo with little to no mass pushback. The homeless are dehumanized, judged, and dismissed. They are the other, as defined by the work-obsessed, hyper-individualism that dominates our culture.
Personally, I have come across various forms of this otherness. The upper-middle class determining the safety of a city block by its homeless population; the only reason they could provide as to why they felt unsafe there. A store manager sharing a story of his self-righteousness toward homeless people asking for money on the metro. He would buy them food, or a specific item, but never give them money. Exercising his form of paternalism and judgement by assuming they would use the money to fuel their addiction, because that’s (in his mind) what homeless people do. They suffer from their own decisions. Or, the friend who would only give homeless people money if they did something for him (i.e. worked for it). A photo here, or a little song there. It communicated his perception of homelessness: lazy, unproductive, and welfare moochers.
The commonality throughout each perception is the individualization of suffering. Homelessness is seen as a byproduct of poor choices, slothfulness, immorality, addiction, and an absence of determination. Although homelessness does involve individualistic factors, the structural issues are conveniently left out. Homelessness rates result from home foreclosure, limited employment opportunities, shrinking budgets for public assistance, and a lack of affordable health care. But perceptions of what causes homelessness determine how benevolently people act toward the homeless.
It is this disconnect between the reality of homelessness and our personal views that proves destructive. As mentioned earlier, to portray suffering as personal is to dismiss the possibility of structural failure. It also solidifies cultural values; that being, the dominant cultural identity. The homeless often serve as scapegoats for our own self-delusion. For example, you believe your success is a testament to your choices and grit: “I raised myself up by my own bootstraps,” you proclaim. It is ego-stroking. Defending this worldview entails blaming misfortune on the actions of the individual. If someone is homeless, it is because they failed at some point. They are to blame.
An alternative to this is to recognize that your success is a result of numerous known and unknown factors. The same is true for misfortune and suffering. Society does not attempt to structurally prevent homelessness. It merely reacts to it with a mindset of salvation through works: you have to get “clean” and “healed” before you can partake in the privileges of life (a home, bed, food, job, etc).
It is through this perverted social process that we can see what society perceives as moralizing. You must become perfect before society accepts you back. You must heal yourself of your erroneous ways before society even thinks of giving you something for free (even here it is considered a handout, not grace, or human decency). Or even harsher, you must heal yourself before you can work for your keep
By looking at perceptions of homelessness, we can see the hyper-individualistic narrative of the personal as both whitewashing and defensive. It whitewashes structural sins, and subsequently the collective guilt of society. And it defends the illusion of innocence people have concocted around their lifestyles. They are righteous and moral because they are successful; their responsibility in their success builds on that righteousness. The political reality of their life – the power dynamics that gave them a leg up, and conversely helped bring others down – is left out in the cold.