Everyone is familiar with the slogan ‘The personal is political’ — not only that what we experience on a personal level has profound political implications, but that our interior lives, our emotional lives are very much informed by ideology. We oftentimes do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. What we often assume belongs most intimately to ourselves and to our emotional life has been produced elsewhere and has been recruited to do the work of racism and repression.
— Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
Is any human decision purely apolitical?
The answer, put simply, is no.
When you’re still a child, there’s no such thing as politics. Not even if, say, you’re born a local politician’s daughter or suffer the devastating impact of your country’s civil war as your neighbourhood is reduced to rubble. Sure, children are often subject to the effects of political trends (one might even say they’re the prime victims), but before you’ve reached a certain level of awareness it’s hard to acknowledge the larger framework around you. First, you’ve got to learn to abstract from your immediate experience to a societal one, which isn’t an easy feat. But even so, reaching that stage of abstraction is only the beginning.
The personal is political!
This rallying cry has become an emblem of feminist history. Popularized during the 1960s, the simple claim that all private matters have a political dimension served as a method of critiquing rigid social structures – like the traditional gender roles of the nuclear family – which dictate the lives of individuals without them noticing.
Even though the idea has since seeped into the mainstream, to me it looks like it’s lost some of the grip it used to exert on people’s minds. And that’s a shame. I would argue that it still has a hell of a lot to teach us. Viewing our consumer choices, our workplace ambitions, or something as minute as our behaviour toward homeless people on the street as mere surface appearances of some deeper structure – that presence of mind is what we have to curate if we’re serious about reducing our negative footprint on the world.
Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly wary of my own lines of reasoning that bespeak an ignorance of the political. I’ve been thinking about how, as a vegetarian, I’m still responsible for so many animals’ suffering. You know, male chicks being killed at birth because they’re of no use to an industry selling unfertilized eggs as food, calves being separated from their mothers so that I can feast on my Gouda – that sort of thing. There’s so much gruesome stuff going on behind my blinders. It demands a much better excuse than your usual “I can’t help myself” retort people routinely use to defend some guilty pleasure.
I have no excuses. My body is fuelled by cruelty.
Seriously, it’s the kind of thing that gets me worried I’ve succumbed to some phony capitalist ideal of individualism that manipulates people into mistaking oppression for freedom. It’s hard to draw a line between actions whose harmful implications you can’t be blamed for and actions that make you an accomplice in systemic injustice – be it against animals or against the “Third World”. That’s why I’m kind of paranoid of becoming this blissfully ignorant cog in the mashine flattering itself with an illusion of independence and self-reliance.
Like, when I’m working at the student cafeteria and have been tasked with preparing or arranging some carnivorous dish, am I being complicit in anything? Am I “profiting” off some poor pig’s suffering because I’m claiming my wages from the people who ordered the food, and thereby the slaughter? After all, I wasn’t coerced into working for an exploitative food industry.
A small change I can report making at my workplace is on the reduction of food waste. Even though it’s basically my job to contribute to this problem when I’m on my weekly dish-washing shift, despairing at the heaps of perfectly edible food people leave on their plates, I can somehow take comfort in the notion that I’m “fighting the system from the inside” as I gulp down untouched couscous and sliced cucumber brought in from the buffet. I’m in constant fear of being caught “stealing” food headed directly to the compost bin. (Isn’t it the height of absurdity that they could literally sue me for that?)
All that is to say, the next time you scavenge your fridge for leftovers or pull down an item from a shelf at the supermarket because it has appealing product design, keep in mind that what you’re doing is a statement. It’s a political act. We’re all activists of sorts. So let’s act like it.