The Personal is Political

By Kari McGregor 

Safely isolated from our public political personas, our personal lives are sacred territory. We strive to convince ourselves that our personal choices are not politically relevant; that if we talk the right talk it’s as good as walking it, that our unconscious habits don’t snitch on our real values. But actions speak louder than words, and the personal is political.

A familiar slogan coined during the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that the personal is political is a deep challenge to our sense of separation.

Where first wave feminism was mainly concerned with achieving the right for women to vote, second wave feminism took note of the social and systemic causes of gender inequity. Personal experience came to be viewed not as restricted to the individual, an isolated experience, but as reflective of structures and systems of power and control. In recognizing their personal experiences as reflective of the political status quo, second wave feminists began to overcome self-blame for women’s issues and confront the structures that upheld inequalities.

Learning from social movement history

Sustainability and degrowth advocates have much to learn from the second wave of feminism. Our sadness, frustration and maladjustment to the perpetual growth-based system that undermines sustainability are symptomatic of a social structure in which the environment and many of our fellow humans are systematically dominated, subdued and exploited. Jiddu Krishnamurti put it well when he said that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Rather than striving to align ourselves with the status quo, we ought to instead take the time to reflect on the connections between our personal experiences and the sociopolitical structures that frame our world. Only then can we become empowered to transcend the binary of lifestyle or consumer-based activism versus political campaigning. The women’s movement has not achieved its piecemeal victories by burning bras and rejecting makeup any more than it has through carefully crafted messaging. Change has been made possible through deep personal introspection and comprehension of the structures of political domination. Lasting and meaningful change therefore isn’t top-down or bottom-up – it grows from within to manifest without.

We reflect and serve

Feminist and sociologist Paula Rust offers up six different interpretations of the connection between the two overlapping domains—the personal and the political—forming the foundation for deeper analysis:

  1. The personal reflects the political status quo, so examining the personal helps provide insight into the political.
  2. The personal serves the political status quo.
  3. Personal choices can be made either in response to, or in protest against, the political status quo.
  4. Our personal choices reflect our personal politics.
  5. We should make personal choices that are consistent with our personal politics.
  6. Personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable.

Bound as we are by sets of norms and values, rules and laws, taboos and unquestioned rituals, we have internalized the system to the extent that it does not exist as separate from us. The distinction between our own thoughts, dreams and desires, and those of our society is not always clear cut. In fact, if we pause to examine ourselves, our choices, our biases and prejudices, the things we take for granted, it becomes clear that these are largely reflections of the political status quo.

If we are surprised or put off by male nurses and female plumbers, for example, then we are reflecting a political consensus that reinforces gender roles, making it difficult for any of our sons and daughters to break new ground.

And if we catch ourselves listening more intently upon learning the letters that follow a person’s name – symbols of their educational attainment – then we are reflecting a bias that values society’s prescribed knowledge pathways more than the accumulation of wisdom.

Far from being detached observers of the systems in which we live and breathe, an examination of our own personal lives – our behaviours, attitudes and decisions – inevitably brings us face-to-face with the parameters of politics. Whenever we act in accordance with society’s norms and values we are (often unconsciously) supporting the status quo. When we eschew these accepted rules and customs, we pose a challenge to their supremacy.

There can therefore be no such thing as a ‘neutral’ position when it comes to the political.

The power of choice

Without the mindfulness to challenge what we take for granted, or to question those everyday actions that seem so unremarkably ‘normal’, any bid to opt out of our participation in the system is illusory. The decisions we make remain neatly within acceptable parameters. But once we begin to look a little deeper, to interrogate these parameters, and gently unravel some of our cultural stories, a whole world of possibilities begins to emerge. This is the power of choice.

Of course, enjoying the power of choice is but an ideal, and something of a luxury for the majority. Most of us only begin to reflect on the alternatives when we become sufficiently dissatisfied – or angry – with the way things currently stand. And only then, where alternatives are available to us, can we demonstrate our dissent through different choices.

Those of us with the financial clout may choose to make a (clichéd, but valid) vote with our wallet for a more sustainable, or less destructive option. For many, though, such a choice remains a pipedream; and for others still, relying on economic incentives alone is simply ignoring the forest for the trees.

Often our circumstances leave us with a single critical choice to make: to acquiesce, or to stand our ground and protest for what is right.

Impoverished families facing eviction from social housing, for example, are confronted with the stark choice between homelessness and battling as David against the Goliath of the political powers that be. The very fact that this choice exists reflects the fundamentally personal nature of the political. This is no less true for the indignant Indigenous communities and minority groups fighting for the preservation of their cultural heritages against colonization and their landbases against ecocide.

These individuals know all too well that yearning for change is not enough. Neither is simply demanding it, or even lobbying for it. For them, personal action is the only way forward.

At some point we, too, must face up to our own choices between supporting the status quo and seeking meaningful change. If the decision is for change, we cannot succeed without aligning our actions with our values, our personal choices with our personal politics.

And because political change is an eternal and incremental process of crossing the line and pushing it ever further—not a reward for staying safely within the lines—the personal must inevitably evolve with the political. If we want equality, then we might have to accept a smaller share of the pie; if we want sustainability, then we might have to shrink our material aspirations; if we want justice, then we might have to relinquish some of our privilege.

Everything is political

Of course it’s a weighty claim, that everything is political. But when we acknowledge that in every action and every decision we have a choice—a choice to either remain within the parameters of the status quo, or to instead push the envelope, cross the picket line, or breach the boundary—it soon becomes clear that politics is a fundamental element in everything we do.

Silence, apathy or habitual adherence to the rules of the game may not adversely affect us, but these decisions undoubtedly affect someone. In the game of politics, even our personal ‘non-participation’ is political.

As we look to the future, the path we must tread may seem unclear. And for many there is no obvious end point, no image of political perfection to strive toward. Even with a vision of the model citizen or the utopian civilization in tow, we must be prepared that the reality may turn out radically different. But it is only through the conscious choice to unpack our baggage and attempt the deeply personal journey that our next steps towards a more sustainable and just society become possible. We at least have that power. Let’s use it.


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