Unfortunately, the personal has become political

Feminism is on my mind: I’m currently reading some fascinating journalistic writing by Nellie Bly, as well as Leslie Kern’s interesting, but slightly problematic, Feminist City. Interesting, because it shows how necessary a feminist approach to cities is : Kern highlights urban issues that men are either unaware of, or feel constrained by their gender roles to not address. Problematic, because Kern spends a lot of time drawing general conclusions from her personal circumstances. Although she does not state it explicitly, reading her book reminds me of the slogan ‘the personal is political‘.

The personal is political‘ was a slogan used by second wave feminists to galvanize action: it conveys the idea that individual circumstances reflect wider social structures (in this case biases and discrimination against women). It also conveys the idea that personal circumstances can only be altered through collective action.

It is useful slogan – it helped politicize people who would not otherwise have been compelled to action – but it can be harmful if taken at face value.

Unemployment demonstration, 1930s
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-F8- 44120 [P&P], Creative Commons, https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/737047aa-e208-48bf-bed7-d134e94fcad9

That the personal can be political is obviously true. But the belief that the personal is political is dangerous, since it implies that each individual is justified in using their own circumstances as the basis for generalised political arguments.

  • I am a billionaire who does not wish to pay taxes. Since the personal is political, I will generalise this desire into the notion that taxes are bad and that tax loopholes are a constitutional right!
  • I am an unemployed man who has few prospects. Let me generalise this into the idea that all men are hard-done by and that we should return to the traditional family!
  • I am a woman who has hit a glass ceiling. Let me generalise this into the idea that all women face workplace discrimination!

Of the three examples just given, you may think that some are obviously correct (if you are a feminist, you probably sympathise with the third generalisation; if you are an unemployed factory worker in the Mid-west, you may have more sympathy with the second; if you are Jeff Bezos, you’ll probably campaign for the first).

These (admittedly hypothesised) reactions to the three examples suggest that (someone else’s) personal is only political if we happen to agree with the politics it implies: in an age of social-media silos, ‘the personal is political‘ approach can become an apology for selfish identity politics. Indeed, it is straightforward, now, to identify groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-sub-groups who’s personal circumstances, be they those of systemically suspect black men or of self-pitying incels, mirror one’s own.

Identities become politicised – justifiably so if we agree that ‘the personal is political‘. However, the personal can only selectively be political: ‘the personal is political‘ is a bad foundation for politics, as it requires double standards (my personal is political, but not yours unless it is similar to mine!).

Far stronger foundations for politics are fundamental values and generalizable arguments, such as justice for all people, equality of all before the law and the police, and equitable principles through which everyone obtains a fair share of society’s wealth. The details and implementation of such principles are critically important and are difficult to work out – hence the need for open debate that does not shut out others nor devalue their voice simply because of who they are.

Rahila Gupta discusses this in an interesting piece. Fortunately, feminists and other people fighting for justice and equality have by and large moved beyond, or at least qualified, ‘the personal is political‘ slogan. But this idea, important in the late 1960s and in the context of galvanising women into political action, can be seen as a precursor of today’s identity-driven politics and divisive public discourse. It also lurks in the background of some current books – and, as Gupta argues, it is a misleading idea because “the public square operates by different rules [than a private host’s drawing room]”!

The personal is not political. In fact, politics is about distinguishing the personal from the socially desirable. For instance, whilst Jeff Bezos appears to confound the two (“I want to maximise my fortune by paying almost no taxes!”), Warren Buffet doesn’t (“I also want to maximise my fortune, but at least I recognize the social importance of taxing it“).

Likewise, it is quite feasible for the unemployed midwestern man with few prospects to acknowledge that his desperate plight – which merits compassion, concern and action – does not mean there is systemic discrimination against men; and neither does it mean that a regression in women’s rights would extract him from his difficult circumstances. He can separate the personal from the politics.

And, finally, it is not because a woman has hit a glass ceiling that the plight of unemployed men in the Midwest is unimportant and should be brushed aside. Nor, if a woman happens to be well-off (well-off women exist, notwithstanding systemic discrimination – take, for example, the president of Citigroup) should the principles of equitable taxation and fair wealth distribution be abandoned.

For politics to work, each of us, whatever our individual circumstances and however righteous our identity makes us feel, should carefully distinguish the personal from the political. Our identities should remain distinguishable from our politics, even when they overlap.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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