In 1969, the salad days of New Left activism, a writer named Carol Hanisch penned an essay that the editor called “The Personal Is Political.” She was seeking to explain the ethos of the women’s therapy sessions she was running. The point was not to improve psychological well being. The point was “political therapy;” that is to motivate people to political action. The idea is that one’s own grievances ought to be turned into political action. “There are no personal solutions at this time,” she wrote. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”
Let’s leave aside the case for or against her brand of politics. The slogan itself was fire. It spread to every cause, every group, every nook and cranny of life. If you experience dissatisfaction in your life, don’t look within for a personal solution; get active, join a collective, and demand a political solution. Think of this as the left-wing application of the Schmittian principle that only through politics do we find meaning (the very opposite point that has become the main theme of Jordan Peterson’s work).
Fifty years later, I’ve been following the meltdown of a number of “social justice” organizations and causes over the past months, as they turn in on themselves, purge themselves of their own self-defined evil and ultimately crumble based on their own inner contradictions. This happened to the Women’s March. It has happened to the US Congress. It has happened to the most well-funded social justice activist organization in the country. It’s happened in Hollywood, which faces the problem that the more it complies with the identitarian code, the less profitable are its films.
There seems to be no end to the feeding frenzy caused by the politicization of every personal tick. A new entrant into the Democratic Party presidential race cannot even give a public speech without spending the week wailing mea maxima culpa for all the ways in which he violated the canon, however inadvertently. There are no penances sufficient to put one back in the good graces of the moral police of the left.
There are other absurdities, such as the candidate Elizabeth Warren’s alarming dalliance with genetic testing to verify family lore that she is part Native American and thus entitled to sympathy as a victim of oppression. The test not only failed to verify her lore; it produced outrage among tribal groups who clarified that their collective identity is cultural and social, not genetic.
When politics becomes so driven by personal identity that candidates imagine that DNA testing can garner them votes, we’ve reached not a moral high but a low that compares with some of the worst political experiments of the past (see Eugenics).
What’s happening here? The attempt to turn every subjectively felt personal issue into a collective cause with a collective action has hatched a brutal form of identity politics that has generated no end to social conflict, with vast carnage along the way.
The Theory Went Wrong
There are many problems with the slogan “the personal is the political” but two stand out. First, personal experience is as diverse as the people on the planet; surely not every personal experience can become a political cause without infinite clashes and contradictions. Second, the plan results in all-consuming state power to the point that you can’t speak, act, or even breathe without bumping into a cop – or a screaming mob.
Both problems have reached their boiling point sometime in the last two years. Surely you have noticed. In the name of justice, equity, and fairness, people are being fired from jobs for utterances or writings from decades ago. The wrong word or look can result in a mob attack and the loss of a career, no matter how successful one happens to be. The spotting of evil is endless and so fast-moving that it is impossible to keep up. Words and phrases that were the height of political compliance just five years ago (“his or her”) are now denounced as oppressively binary.
And the howling attacks against anyone and everyone who dissents is shutting down debate. One dares not take issue with, for example, the pummeling of a prominent person in absence of evidence for fear of doxing and flogging from howling moralists who will exact retribution against you. This explains the many strange pockets of silence on certain topics in the Twittersphere.
The moral system being constructed by those who made “personal is political” their mantra has become infinitely complex to the point of being nonoperational. They once said that discrimination is wrong and many people agreed. The trouble is that the law is not a mind reader and so it uses proxies for what it deems to be discriminatory. That means racial and sexual quotas at the least but that’s only the beginning.
To achieve an absolutely even balance in every profession, at every level, not only in position but also in salary, is inconsistent with the actual choices of individuals. So what if those individuals are conscripted by outside observers into a group that the experts believe to be more decisive than mere choice? Instead of mere non-discrimination, the new demand became mandatory diversity.
But a diversity of what? That depends on how you want to slice and dice up the human family based on identity. There is race, sex, age, religion, physical ability, and also sexual preference, language, accent, gender identity, geography, class, and educational background. Maybe you think the diversity mandate should stop at physical biology alone but those too are in dispute (there is no pure race and, more recently, biological sex itself is said to be malleable).
The new additions to the canon include anti-harassment rules based on any of the above categories but that term has no clear definition, no evidentiary rules, no guidelines for compliance, and no statute of limitations. What it means in practice is to have as little human contact with others as possible, especially in a business environment. Literally, anyone can be accused and play-it-safe companies would rather toss out the targetted employee rather than risk bad public relations and an unwinnable lawsuit. The toll adds up daily.
Do Not Appropriate
Then most recently the architects of the identitarianism have added another impossible-to-keep law to its canon: you may not appropriate another culture. The intuition here stems from a genuine appreciation for the contributions of a people who deserve some kind of social credit for having made them. But does this mean that no one else may imitate, or be influenced by, another culture for the purpose of celebrating it? Hard to know for sure: we’d better ask official representatives of the culture to tell us. They will probably say no, and accuse you of theft.
The crucial theoretical problem with appropriation theory is that culture is at once malleable and infinitely reproducible at least in its outward appearance. Culture is not inextricably attached to a certain people however you want to identify those collective people, the members of which may or may not appreciate the identification. The crucial historical problem is that it is impossible to think of any point of progress in history that did not depend on appropriating cultural traits from beyond the experience of a small tribe. Follow this logic through far enough and you have to end in condemning all of human experience as inherently exploitative – and many do exactly this.
So let’s put all this together. The demand that we politicize every personal grievance presumes that people only exist as part of groups and those groups must be defined politically and such groupings can be infinitely complex as intersectionality theory demonstrates. One group’s winnings come at the expense of everyone else, and thus does every advance create the conditions for more oppression, disgust, outrage, condemnation, activism, and power grabbing, even as those groups are constantly changing in composition depending on political influence. There is no safety for anyone under this moral code; there is only fear and dread of exposure, and a miserable life overall.
Consider the old code of civic norms that all of this complexity of identity is designed to replace. As regards the law, it is simple: compulsion should only be deployed in the case of attacks on life and property. A wall exists that separates the use of state power from that which should be dealt with personally and in cooperation with others. The courts of manners and taste govern the rest. Keep your promises. Cultivate good relationships with others. Be empathetic. Admit failings when appropriate. Forgive when necessary. Respect the dignity of others. Do what you can to make others comfortable. Seek to live a good life but never at others’ expense.
This old code made a distinction between the personal and the political, with full knowledge that once you politicize anything, you create a zero-sum environment in which compulsion and bureaucracy rule. It is for this reason that the old code sought to restrain the state and empower society to be the primary venue for the development and cultivation of everything we call civilization. This is the code that brought to the world peace, prosperity, and understanding. Any "activism" that seeks to achieve social good should be animated by that ideal.
What we are seeing in our time are the results of a mandate that all personal problems must and should be channeled to political solutions demanded by a collective activist army, with the goal of constructing an apparatus of coercion and compulsion that knows no limits to its power. The results are pouring in: division, vituperation, personal destruction, and no end to the carnage. The implosion of the individuals and institutions that have professed fealty to the creed is a testament to its unworkability in real life.