When the Personal and the Political Don’t Mix

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

An internet advice column responded to the question of a man who was uncomfortable with the idea that, assuming the two of them would marry, his girlfriend would not agree to take his last name.  The columnist deftly turns his original question around in her reply, suggesting that perhaps he should agree to take her name or that the two of them could form a new surname unique to the both of them.  Inherent in the whole of the reply is the assertion that the soon-to-be husband in question isn’t nearly as open and accepting of a woman’s right to individual choice as he thinks he is.  The major issues expressed in the column are an articulation that men who place demands upon women, especially in situations like these are speaking from a place of privilege and in so doing need to rethink their attitudes.  When politically problematic and personal choice butt heads, the two almost always clash.  

A particularly popular line of thinking states that, should a woman make a conscious decision to participate in what would at its face be a restrictive, oppressive custom, she should be allowed to do so without being criticized as somehow violating the aims of women’s rights.  Up to a point, I think this statement is justified but if one expands the application, it becomes more and more problematic.  It should be noted that not all oppressions are the same, but in an earlier post this week, I tried to draw a parallel between all systematic injustices.  If, for example, an African-American chooses consciously to dress in blackface and to participate a minstrel show, offensive and demeaning though it is, is the practice any less evil and reprehensible if it is justified by deliberate personal choice?

I am completely in support of not putting litmus or purity tests upon people that would denote whether or not that they are authentic enough to consider themselves part of any activist movement.  Sometimes as activists we deliberately divide things into politically problematic categories for the ease of highlighting that which we oppose and know to be wrong.  We also end up being as rough on ourselves for not living up to our high-minded ideals as we are for those who inspire our disgust and anger.  To me, at least, I sometimes sense some cognitive dissonance between “here is something that is clearly wrong, which we oppose” and “well, if you invalidate that which is wrong for you yourself based on personal choice, then it ceases to be objectionable”.  I know that many of us attempt to avoid essentialist arguments whenever possible, but sometimes I think evil is just that…evil.

The concept of reclaiming epithets is a related topic to this one.  For example, the word “queer”, two generations back, was a very hurtful and damning epithet, which has in the past few decades been reclaimed as a very useful blanket term denoting succinctly that which is not heterosexual.  Yet, I recall that the first time I heard the term applied this way I still perceived of the word as a pejorative, one which I quite reflexively interpreted to be nonetheless deeply offensive, regardless of the context.  As a result, even now it still makes me uncomfortable to write it or say it, even around those aware of its alternate meaning and thus unlikely to draw the wrong conclusion.  Though I wish it were not so, I know I’m not the only person who seeks to nimbly walk an often blurry line.  Feminism, in particular, seeks to draw no distinction between the personal and political, finding them to be one in the same.  

So what happens when politically problematic and personal expression meet?  A blogging friend whose insight provided the impetus to write this post put it this way.

When I was a kid I really liked and admired pioneer days. I was particularly interested in making foods (cheese, butter, and so on) that I knew were once made by hand [in the past], but could not [visualize] making by hand in the modern world. So I read the Diary of Susanna Moodie and the Little House series. I bought a butter churn and asked my parents for antiques for my birthday. For me, it represented a way of connecting with women’s history that I was not learning much about in school. I also dressed up in pioneer dresses [as well]. [Doing so] was personally important for me.

At the same time, I think there is something weird about my having been fascinated with a time when people of my kind were chattel. I did not know about that at the time. And I think it half-horrified my mother who was award of what the political connotations were of the things I so wanted to do. On the other hand, how could I be interested in my own history without having the bad stuff [be] a part of it, [too]?

I think it is important to own the bad in ourselves and our pasts. But as far as dividing things into that which is merely personal and that which is politically significant, I am not sure it can be done.

It is tempting for each of us to draw lines of demarcation for the sake of ease: this is what is, this is what is not.  This is what we are, this is what we are not.  It is ironic, to say the least, that in tactics like these we often behave towards each other in ways that would have us crying bloody murder if our opponents used the same formula or even the same words.  At what point and to what degree can we claim supreme rights as individuals to make words, concepts, or phrases reflect our own conscious interpretation?  Is conquering evil merely a means of linguistic gymnastics?  If Jewish survivors of the concentration camps wish to reclaim the word “Holocaust” to mean something ultimately uplifting and optimistic, should they be allowed?  If they did so, would we then be inclined or encouraged to forget?  

Modern Feminists are well-known for their desire to counteract rape culture by educating men about what constitutes informed consent for sex.  In so doing they seek to highlight the numerous instances in popular culture where unhealthy views and attitudes encourage a blatant disregard for boundaries.  Every now and then, one hears about news stories or personal anecdotes involving women who willfully ignored the unfortunate, but necessary proper precautions needed to protect themselves from sexual assault and ended up being taken advantage of as a result.  I should state here before I am misunderstood that I never believe that placing full responsibility regarding rape prevention onto women is a good idea and that I believe that men should bear the ultimate burden of proof.  Still, the world in which we live is imperfect, and such are the sort of unfair steps and extra effort woman have to take into account for protection’s sake.I seek not to blame the victim here, since I am referencing instances where it is verifiable that women were aware of the risks well beforehand, articulated them beforehand, and yet still did not act in their own best interest.  

Situations like these are not frequent, but they are numerous enough to be troubling.  These women either blame themselves for their own foolish choices, or with a shrug of the shoulders assume that such is the way of men.  To them, that which happened was merely a case of unfortunate luck on their part.  Put this way, if life is a card game, they simply drew a bad hand.  In circumstances like these, it is particularly difficult to not immediately be judgmental and preachy, though an uncomfortable kind of reluctant acceptance of bad decisions and worse outcomes is the inevitable conclusion drawn.  

As much as we try to reject Paternalism, it is an inevitable view and one upon which we may not ever completely shed ourselves.  Not being Paternalistic would require us to believe that humanity always made proper decisions.  I doubt any of us believe in a particularly optimistic anarchist worldview.  What we are left with then is that mix between between the personal and the political, two constructs which in many ways are like oil and water.  To echo what my blogging friend said above, I’m not sure we’ll ever find a way to dissolve one in the other.


    • RUKind on April 19, 2010 at 04:47

    Mine is Irish, hers Czech. This was 1980. She did for a while and then reverted to the social standard of using my surname.

    On the other hand, I find something disturbing about hyphenated surnames. Around Boston it just seems pretentious to me. And that’s just to me. I don’t know what our children would have done for surname choices if she had kept her name. It would have been their choice I guess.

    I like to wonder what happens when two hyphenated couples get divorced abd remarried to another hyphenated couple. What happens to their childrens names? Especially if they have children of their own. I’d have to ask Kurt Vonnegut or Stanislaw Lem but that would be too late.

    On the rape front, use some common sense abut how you dress and don’t travel alone in dangerous areas at night. A rape is a mugging by sex. It happens to both men and women. And I’ll bet men under-report it a lot more often than women.

    “Be careful out there”, as Sgt.Phil used to say on HSB.

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