When the personal isn’t political

Zoe Williams at the Guardian talks about the often-heard complaints of those trying to discredit public figures talking about climate change: the old “if Al Gore is so green why does he have a big house, huh? Huh?” and why it’s cynical and dumb. (And the update: “AOC rode in a car!”)

The idea that “the personal is political” has always made demands that were exceptionally hard to live by. Yet what it emphatically never meant is what it has become: an injunction that until you are living perfectly, according to the values you espouse, you are a hypocrite and an irrelevance. There’s a logical impossibility at the heart of this new norm: to change society, you have to exist in it; yet to do so involves compromising with its imperfections, whereupon you supposedly become just a cog in its workings.

Looking back to the feminist activism where the “personal is political” comment took root, Williams points out that you really need to go to a simpler analysis of things:

[Carol] Hanisch’s counter-argument was basically a Marxist materialist one: if you want to understand how and why people are oppressed, you have to ask who benefits from their oppression. If you think it’s trivial who did the washing up and had their professional prospects dimmed as a result, you have to ask who didn’t do it. If you think women’s reproductive rights are a personal matter, you have to ask who gains societally from the power imbalance created from their restriction.

Of course that analysis can be twisted into odd shapes as well; if you’ve heard people insisting that climate scientists are all part of the plot to cash in on those sweet, sweet grand dollars by promoting a climate change myth, yet never consider that the management of ExxonMobil has far, far greater financial stakes in the whole thing, you can see how one can use any kind of analysis to reach one’s preferred conclusion. But that, at least, gives some structure for debating and debunking. (If climate scientists are deceiving us all for profit, they picked one of the stupidest and least profitable cons imaginable. They should have just gone to work for oil companies.)

Think about it next time someone says “Oh yeah you say you care about the climate but you have a car, you big hypocrite!” It’s not an argument, it’s not a fair point, it’s just a cynical technique to stop a conversation.

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