Tuesday, May 6, 2014

When the personal becomes non-political

If you read enough material on a variety of topics, you’ll occasionally find a passage from one source that resonates strongly with another passage from somewhere else, despite the topic of one being ostensibly different from the other. I was struck by an example of this recently.

In January I borrowed Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots ofCountry Rock by Peter Doggett from the Ottawa Public Library. I’ll spare you a book report, except to say there is a chapter in which he notes that the protest music of the mid- to late-1960’s had, by the mid-1970’s, given way to the more confessional approach of the so-called “singer-songwriter” tradition. Doggett opines that while the confessional stuff is to be lauded for its artistic value, it should also be criticized for being a retreat from concern for the wider community to something much more insular. The upshot of this, he says, is that the singer-songwriters (and in turn their listeners) became depoliticized, or at least much less radical, just in time for the 1980’s and all that decade has come to represent in popular memory. (The mantle of musical radicalism was happily and ferociously taken up the Dead Kennedys, but I'll save that for another time.)

As of this writing I can only recount the above by memory, as I returned the book, paid the overdue fines and moved on to other things. The passage was brought back to mind  last week, however, when I read an essay by Megan Behrent entitled The personal and the political: Literature and feminism in the Spring 2014 issue of International Socialist Review. In this piece, Behrent makes an observation about the trajectory of the feminist movement that seems analogous to Doggett’s opinion vis–à–vis protest music. In discussing the oft-used catchphrase “the personal is political”, she says that it initially referred to “…the need to understand the social, economic, cultural, and political oppression of women as the basis for all 'personal' problems that afflicted individual women.” Over time, however, the meaning of the term had changed. She writes:

In its later years, as the feminist movement itself collapsed amid myriad internal divisions, increasingly “the personal is political” came to represent an ideology that consciously advocated for individual or personal change as a solution to collective problems. Thus, whether one shaved one’s legs, wore makeup, or spelled women with a “y” was political and determined one’s relationship to feminism. This caricatured understanding of feminism’s legacy is part of the reason that subsequent generations have distanced themselves from second-wave feminism, becoming what is sometimes characterized as the “I’m not a feminist but…” generation.


The overlapping wisdom of these two passages seems to be that it is not enough to simply focus on yourself if you want to change the world – at some point you need to engage your fellow human beings and think beyond your own perfection. Put another way, a world that could really use your help will pass you by if you’re too busy gazing into the mirror.