One of the feminist movement’s biggest contributions to public discourse is the phrase, “The personal is political.” Recently, I’ve started to doubt the utility of the idea. Why? Because most people are acting as though the reverse is true. In our current political climate, friendships and families are torn apart by the mistaken belief that the political is personal.
I was reminded of this sad state of things today when I came across a beautiful tea magazine gifted to me by a former friend. She decided not to talk with me any longer when I threw my support behind the Moral Mondays movement here in North Carolina. I post to my personal social media accounts fairly often on subjects of racial and class injustices. I strongly support Medicaid expansion; I strongly support sensible gun control laws (actually, my favorite idea is to employ the more sensible idea of controlling, taxing, and registering ammo, especially for assault weapons); I support programs that seek to end poverty. Somehow my friend took this support to be opposition to her life of comfort and prosperity and privilege, which it was not.
The problem with the idea that the political is personal is that it does not scale. While it’s true that our household choices can reflect our political values (the personal is political), it’s not a good idea to take someone else’s politics personally.
Perhaps the most salient reason is that politics work on a macro level. Policies have practical outcomes that don’t necessarily correlate with the lingo of causeheads or media soundbytes. For instance, I am against most abortions, but I’m not part of the Pro-Life movement. Why? Because research shows that the policies that drastically reduce the number of abortions have nothing to do with regulating abortions, and because setting a legal precedent of medical interference seems dangerous to me. What lowers abortion rates? Comprehensive sex education and access to birth control (such as condoms and other methods), stay in school programs that help disadvantaged young women get educations, educational and job opportunities for the poor. Besides, I get nervous when non-medical persons try to legislate women’s health. For instance, already, because of the work of abortion regulators, women whose babies die in the second or third trimesters have very few options open to them to remove their dead fetuses; it is extremely traumatic for some mothers to undergo stillbirth, especially of babies that were severely malformed. I don’t like anonymous policies telling doctors they can’t provide families with other options in those circumstances, regardless of what my personal preference might be if I had to experience such trauma.
The other problem with taking politics personally is that the focus on one’s personal life and past as the standard for common good blinds us to the actual needs of others. Here are some common misconceptions that play out in the political shouting (I won’t dignify it by calling it a debate):
1) Mistaking cash flow issues for systemic poverty.
No, you might have never been poor. Just because your family has sometimes had a modest budget does not mean that they were poor. Poverty is inherited, and one of its hallmarks is lack of status, lack of access to financial, job, and educational resources, lack of network to advancement, lack of durable goods such as houses, appliances, and vehicles. Some rare people escape poverty (usually through schooling), but they are exceptions that prove the rule. (I’m one of those. One shouldn’t have to be a genius in order to make a living wage. How many people making middle class incomes are geniuses? Very, very few.)
2) Mistaking modified standards for discrimination.
Here’s the deal. If your Hispanic classmate whose parents legally immigrated when he was a baby, who only began learning English when he was 6, who worked his tail off to become top of his class, gets into Harvard with only a 1200 on the SAT, and you don’t get in with your 1300, that’s not discrimination. That’s recognition on the part of the admissions office that your classmate worked very, very hard to overcome a language and cultural barrier.
3) Class privilege and race privilege are not the same thing.
Now I’m talking to the majority of white people, nearly a third of whom are poor. When you see white people on TV acting offended at the thought that poor people might not have to pay a higher tax rate than the most extremely wealthy persons in the nation (making hundreds of times more than you per year), please know that they are talking about you. They want to steal the little you have in order to add to the unspendably vast fortunes of the mega-rich. Just because the mega-rich faces they show on TV are white, does not mean they are coddling your interest. They are playing on your inherited assumption of racial privilege to blind you to the fact that they don’t care about you.
3a) At the same time, even wealthy persons of color in this nation face racial prejudices on a daily basis. You may think being wealthy would make up for it, but imagine if every time you pulled up to a gas station to fill up your car, you were questioned or eyed suspiciously. What if people talked to you as though you were the caterer when you were dressed in finery at your own party? What if you got stopped by police often, for no reason, for bogus reasons, just so they could check that you belonged there?
4) Mistaking asking different questions with mindless stupidity.
Here’s the deal. Yes, I know a few mindless persons who uncritically spout whatever [stupid] thing they heard on a cable news show or internet video as fact and research and evidence. But most of my friends are deeply thoughtful, whether I agree with them or not. Many of them are asking different questions; a lot of them are reading different things. Some of them are concerned, as I am, about the issues of legal precedence in matters of personal liberties, only they apply the idea to different subjects. If I find myself dismissing these thoughtful and informed persons out of hand, I take a step back and try to see how our differing views could work towards a common good.
I’m excluding people who just like to argue for no reason. When I come across a friend who won’t pick an opinion, but who just wants to grouse, I don’t talk with them; I’m not interested in sophistry, even if I could “win” an argument for arguments sake. Nothing is less genuine than the person who, when pressed as to why they support a controversial idea, says, “I hate/distrust/dismiss ALL politicians and politics.” Either that person is cowardly or ignorant; we all benefit or suffer together for our common life; pointing at the foibles of leaders does nothing to improve things.
5) Mistaking local or anecdotal trends for overarching statistics.
This applies on so many levels. For instance, there are public figures who say “all vaccines cause SIDS or (fill in horrible outcome),” because they heard about someone who had a miscarriage/lost an infant/whose child got very sick within a week of the mother or child getting a vaccine. Regardless of the fact that correlation is not causation, elevating an anecdote to the level of scientific evidence of hundreds of millions of persons vaccinated with no serious side effects is just plain faulty logic. Another place this comes up is in race relations. Working class whites often complain about how a black or Hispanic worker they heard about got a construction or trade job (that the teller or his/her friend wanted) and proceeded to be incompetent or lazy. This profoundly subjective and biased account is used to justify the idea that all persons with brown skin are stealing jobs from more worthy whites. But! EVERYONE tells me similar stories; how could it not be a secret conspiracy trend not picked up by the powers that be, when I am told similar stories wherever I go? Read on.
Here’s a non-political trend that shows you why it’s misleading to mistake anecdotes for overarching reality. I’m gearing up to have my 5th child. Guess what happens when you’re pregnant? People come out of the woodwork to tell you their pregnancy stories or baby stories. It’s especially rampant when you’re not so experienced. During my first pregnancy and early new motherhood, I had people tell me about babies born with no brains, babies who died young after having vaccines (maybe), women whose lady bits were torn asunder, traumatic C sections, traumatic natural births, traumatic medicated births, babies who failed to thrive, babies who were giant, babies who got stuck, the horrors of transition, the horrors of pushing, the horrors of colic. For real. The anecdotal evidence, if I had counted it as the revelation of overarching standards, would have left me surprised that even a minute fraction of women would ever consent to childbearing, and even more surprised when even the smallest number of offspring made it through the newborn stage. But, you know, there’s actually a huge population of humans in the world, so I could take the cray-cray stories in stride.
What I’m getting at, is that people will tell you what they think you want to know or that you’re open to. There are doubtless lots of people who never talk about religion with anyone. Then there are some of us to whom strangers will speak on that intimate subject. If I’m with a progressive friend, I’m likely to mention a politically progressive idea. If you’re around someone who agrees with you, remember that their anecdote may be more about you than a wider trend.
6) We are all prone to self-delusion and denial.
It’s popular to tell people to trust themselves, but that’s not always a great idea. We have a profound ability to deny facts and statistics even when the evidence is in front of us. If we decide to believe a particular idea – often because it gets us off the hook or meets a purely emotional need – we will grab at any scrap of argument or evidence, no matter how insincere, irrelevant, or false it is.
Now that I’ve made it plain that anecdotes don’t fly as evidence, I’m going to mention, anecdotally, the many times I’ve heard otherwise reasonable people say, “I just don’t want to believe ____ is true.” Well, there you go. Truths are not very comfortable. The famous truth tellers are those whose pillows were made of stone, not those who lived comfortably. We may not like truth, but we need it in order to make good decisions and love one another.
7) It’s big business to sell you things by exploiting the above tendencies.
Self-justification is big business on the internet and in consumer culture generally. I know someone who adamantly supports illegal drug use by mentally ill persons, even though evidence points to the dangers in such behavior. But she thinks that she has researched the subject because she was fed slightly related news stories by a social media algorithm that made her feel justified in her idea. She doesn’t see the money exchanging hands behind the scenes to make her feel comfortable in her denial of evidence.
No matter what you want to do or how distorted your reasoning for doing it, someone will encourage you to do it. They will also sell you the means to do it, or the accoutrement to do it in style.
Those are some of the biggest roadblocks I see to talking about politics on a personal level. They make me wonder if we should try to find another way to talk about political engagement and our personal lives.
But there are places where politics have huge personal costs-- When someone is shot by an unregulated gun, when someone dies because there is no hospital in the county due to lack of Medicaid expansion, when someone graduates without being able to read, when someone cannot find mental health care in the whole state. What do we say then? Can we avoid the pitfalls of taking things personally and work for change, without falling into bickering? Maybe we need a better guiding phrase. I’d love to hear your thoughts.