The personal shouldn’t be political - but it is


Stop saying ‘don’t make it political.' To live your personal life free from politics is a privilege.

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By Ally Smith

It should not be a controversial or political statement to say that every single person deserves the right to enjoy basic freedom, respect, and dignity. We should be able to have human rights as a baseline from which other governance comes from, but until we get there, experiencing your personal as apolitical is a privilege that every person should be aware of.

‘The personal is political’ is a phrase that was popularized by a second-wave feminist article of the same name, written by Carol Hanisch in 1969. Although this was the work that brought it wide visibility, many leading feminists of the time cited thousands of women as the originators of the slogan. In its original context, the phrase was used to explain the intricate links between personal experience and political and societal structures. In her essay, Hanisch succinctly puts into words what many women and oppressed groups have often felt: that problems oppressed people face are not personal or unique, they are political and have been created by political decisions. To treat them as otherwise is to perpetuate discriminatory systems of power.

Why am I giving a brief history of a feminist slogan from the 1960s? Because I am tired of seeing people spout things like “don’t make this political” and “things are too politically correct these days”. Most often these statements are made when someone highlights racism, sexism, ableism etc. in something and they are a way to shut down any ‘uncomfortable’ topics. The most egregious example of this I’ve seen is regarding the Black Lives Matter movement - when did it become political to demand Black people not be killed? Heartbreakingly, it’s been political for a long time and telling Black people ‘not to bring in politics’ is nothing other than a deliberate decision to continue white privilege.

It should be possible to separate basic human rights from political systems and establishments but as the world has seen recently, and for many centuries before, it is very rarely the case. Most of the dominant political systems in the West were built, and are sustained, on a basis of racism, ableism and sexism (and pretty much any other discrimination you could name). With that as the starting block, is it any surprise that people who were not involved in the creation of these systems have been so sidelined that any mention of their personal experience is deemed as ‘political’ when it is so different from the ‘personal’ experience of those in power? Being able to experience your personal as separate from the political is a privilege.

As a disabled queer woman I’ve often been in jarring situations where someone is talking nonchalantly about something that deeply affects me personally and having to debate things that this person takes for granted is endlessly draining. As a middle-class white woman, I know that I have probably contributed to this exact thing myself and know that I must keep working to understand the ways I uphold the systems I benefit from and how to dismantle them. Some people may read the last few lines and decry ‘identity politics!’ The thing is, my identity is political. Currently, the Conservative government are still debating whether or not to criminalise conversion therapy and just last year a Tory MP said people with learning disabilities should be paid less as they ‘don’t understand money’. Those governing the country aren’t just governing land; they are governing my body, my right to love, and my right to survive. For me to even begin to debate why disabled people should be paid the same wage as abled people is humiliating and degrading.

Ideally, we will get to a point where the personal can stay personal, where all people share the same fundamental rights and respect, but until that point, it is not only futile to say ‘don’t get political’, it is uneducated. When political systems decide who lives and who dies, who prospers and who stays poor, it’s not fair to those people to say that their problems are personal or blame them when they don’t succeed in a world that’s not built for their success.