beyond the personal being political
October 4, 2016
That the ‘personal is political’ is an old (white) feminist proverb. One that, by and large, is largely considered received wisdom by a lot of people (even those of us who aren’t necessarily into white feminism). Not that this is a problem, necessarily, because there is a great deal of truth in it. But… I think this framework of understanding our lives causes subtle harms when applied incorrectly or too broadly.
Perhaps the most important thing underscored by the proverb is that we, as individuals and as oppressed people, do not exist in isolation. That we exist in a whole social, political, and cultural context that colours everything we do. Our beings and our selves are inextricably caught in a web with all of the lives of people around us.
I think the part of this most often left out is how this applies to oppressors not just the oppressed. Just as my inability to find a FT job cannot be meaningfully separated from the various aspects of my identity and how ideology comes to bear upon them, the unwillingness of both the institutions and the individuals working within to hire me is tied into the same social, cultural, and political context.
This small aspect of individual, personal responsibility is usually de-emphasized on purpose, since people get super defensive and shutdown when you point out that they, themselves as an individual human agent, do oppressive things. We all do this (there is no ‘perfectly’ oppressed person). The personal is political. So the unconscious junking of my resume by some HR person because I have an ethnic name is political.
But. BUT. I know, especially considering the first point, people often take me as advocating for some politic of despair. If we are inextricable bound into webs of power and oppression, if we cannot help but enact oppressive ideologies, then what is the point of trying to fix things?
Fewer people grasp the importance of the converse of this feeling of despair. Or rather, few people understand why the ‘personal is political’ isn’t a universe truth applicable to all domains and why it is an error to apply the above framework to everything.
This post was motivated by seeing yet another blog post or whatever title, “x is resistance”, wherein the value of x is anything. Literally anything. We have reached a point where it takes very little effort to find some blog post or whatever saying that any given thing is counts as resistence to oppression.
A favourite of mine is the adage that ‘survival is resistance’. A statement that has always troubled me on some level (even as I’ve occassionally drawn comfort from it myself). This isn’t to say that I think it is false or that the converse is true (that dying would be resistance). But that its truth isn’t universal. It is true within a given context but false outside of it.
We can even point out how this one statement becomes true or false based on the precise context. Within white supremacy, wherein all people of colour/non-white people, are degenerates who must die, survival is resistance.
But… if we consider capitalism (on its own), its hard to conceptualize survival within capitalism as ‘resistance’. Capitalism doesn’t necessarily want all of us to die. Indeed, it requires an oppressed class of workers to function. It wants us to be manageable, not necessarily dead. Remember, we are ‘human resources’. Rather, I’d say that survival under capitalism is precisely the goal for most of us.
Wal-mart is the ideal, here. By and large, most of the people employed by wal-mart are merely surviving. And I’m talking about the third world people who manufacture the items they sell to the people directly involved in selling those same goods. Only the upper echelon of wal-mart is living, is living some kind of lifestyle we could understand as beyond survival.
This is the reality of many workers (and increasingly so as the middle-class continues to shrink). Its important within capitalism that we have enough to keep providing labour but very little beyond that. Perhaps if the day comes that robots can replace most of us menial, survival workers, the goal of capitalism will be to eradicate us entirely and then we can start talking about survival under capitalism as resistance. Fulfilling our role within an oppressive system shouldn’t be considered resistance.
Beyond this particular example, the statement that ‘survival is resistance’ has never sat all that well with me. I know that part of the motivation is trying to turn our suffering into something ‘good’ (or at least not bad). Perhaps my issue is that it gives an almost… glamourous sheen to bare survival. That it begins to preclude criticism of how people survive, simply lauding the fact that they haven’t died yet. Existing in and of itself becomes virtuous.1
Moreover, I guess I’m just tired. Just as much as it makes me unhappy to understand that I’m inextricably complicit in systems of oppression, I’m equally unhappy with the notion that anything/eveything I do is resistance to oppression. I’m tired of it all. I just want to live and be free. It brings me no comfort or joy to think that my sheer existence is resistance.
I’m also just tired of all the simplistic reductions of this problem. Especially since it creates so much contradictory results. Ask one feminist and they’ll tell you that wearing makeup is resistance. Ask another and they’ll say you’re being complicit. Thus, ideological battles are born. Especially since few will take on the view that wearing makeup is both resistance and complicity. Or perhaps wearing makeup is neither.
I guess I’m railing against the inherent (white) individualism within the ‘personal is political’ and the way the people understand this as being more meaningful than it actually is. So many take this as an excuse to examine everyone’s personal actions and decisions under a moralistic light.
And I’m not even saying that judging people by personal action is wrong, since we are morally responsible for the things we do. What I am saying is that if something as simple as a woman wearing makeup is used to indicate someone’s complicity or resistance is simple and boring. Particularly since this level of scrutiny is rarely directed towards oppressors. Where is the Discourse on whether or not a man wearing pants is being complicit or resistant? Complicit in what? Resistant to what?
I really think its time more of us explored the spaces beyond the ‘personal is the political’.
Now. What I’m not saying here is that the ‘noble’ or ‘virtuous’ option is to martyr yourself for some cause or other. Nor am I attempting to create a framework wherein people are shamed for how they survive. Saying that survival isn’t necessarily resistance, does not entail that not surviving is the real resistance. Rather, it is about resisting the urge to simplify things and make blanket statements. If my method of survival is going around and randomly punching people, should we consider this resistance? I’d hope not. ↩