The Political is Personal

Back in the 60s or 70s, one of the insights feminism gave us was that the personal is political. It’s been a valuable insight. Many of us now routinely interpret personal interaction politically: we try to understand the influence of race, class, and gender; we try to determine the nature of the power differentials.

I suggest that the converse is an equally valuable insight: the political is personal.

I think we often imagine politics, broadly defined as decision-making by those in power, to proceed according to carefully considered principles and policies. Decisions are thought to be well-informed, conscious choices. We may not agree with the decisions, but we recognize them as decisions nonetheless.

I’d like to suggest, however, that the outcomes are seldom by decision; most of the time, they’re by default. From the local shop hiring a secretary to the corporation hiring an advertising firm to the government appointing a Supreme Court judge – it may appear that resumes and recommendations are carefully considered and compared, but I think more often it’s just a matter of ‘you go for who you like’. It’s ‘the personal’ that makes the difference.

That’s why interviews are so important. They’re personal. Oh sure, the masquerade is that the questions asked during an interview enable a finer appraisal of merit; but those questions could be given to shortlisted applicants with the request that a written response be submitted. The truth is the interviewers are trying to figure out if they like you, if they can get along with you, if they want you to be in the office with them every day. It’s personal, through and through.

Oh, they may not know it; I dare say most people in positions of power are not that conscious. In fact, they’ll probably justify their choice on grounds of merit. Perhaps the more honest will simply admit they’ve ‘got a good feeling about this one’. Which is why it’s less a decision, a deliberated choice, than it is a default, a failure to act, a failure to deliberate.

Perhaps men in particular, having relegated the private, the personal, the subjective, to women, cannot and will not see, let alone consider, its role in their own behaviour. And if they deny the psychological (individual), they must also deny the social (individuals in groups). So they are ignorant of, and often derisive of, any mention of psychological factors – that’s too personal. They deny the self, the ego, the pride that motivates them to obey orders without question, to stand firm and never reneg. This in particular has serious consequences: to live without the possibility of revision – no wonder they seldom get it right.)

Consider also the importance of networking – making friends, by any other name. People know that’s the way in – to offers, to opportunities. People ask ‘someone they know’ – they don’t advertise. And if you aren’t someone people know, you won’t be asked. Knocking on the door won’t work – no one’s there to hear you. Having a key won’t work – there’s no lock. The door only opens from the inside. They call you and when you show up, they’ll be there to open the door for you.

If you think about it, this notion of ‘the political is personal’ makes sense of a lot. The tennis court, the golf course, and the after work pub – we all know that’s where the deals are made. Not literally, of course: the contract to be signed is back at the office. And often not even directly: the contract may not even be discussed; it may not even exist yet. But if and when it does, it’ll go to good ole’ Jack. We like Jack. We’re personal with Jack.

That’s why Joan won’t get the contract. Oh she’s not excluded from the Board room. She’s not even excluded from the clubs anymore. But still, a man and a woman can’t ‘just’ be friends. They can’t get personal. (Well, they can, but only in a way that would exclude her altogether.) Race and class are as high a hurdle to friendship.

And if you think about it, this is a scary idea. Not just the cronyism part of favour. Think of the other side: the foeism part of disfavour. Maybe ‘the government’ makes cuts to ‘education’ because the Prime Minister doesn’t like the Minister of Education – they go way back and there’s no way he’s going to increase funding, in fact, nah nah, I’m gonna decrease your budget. Maybe President X really declares war on Country Y because he doesn’t much like President Y – maybe President Y insulted him, and President X could’ve just resorted to economic sanctions, but his ego is involved, this is personal!

(So should we be voting for the most likeable person? Well maybe. If the other guy likes our guy, he’ll trade with us. He won’t come over and kill us. Social skills is all. I suddenly understand the value of PR, all those lunches and dinners I thought should’ve been negotiation meetings. This doesn’t necessarily preclude voting for the smartest person, the most experienced person, or the person with the most integrity. But it probably does. Think back – how many friends did the smart kid have? And standing up for the right thing, rocking the boat, seldom makes you a nice guy. So, next election, who do we want? “Norm!”)

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