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In Which the Personal Is Political… But Is Also Allowed to Be Just Plain Personal

March 2, 2010

When Mary Bullstonecraft and I first began talking about hosting a blog, we did a lot of hashing out over what sorts of topics were part of our “beat.”  One of the things we realized was that we were deeply afraid of being “too personal” in our writing.    But why?  The more we talked about our interests in the realm of feminism, the more we realized they were intertwined with events from our personal lives.  So why were we so terrified of talking about the events themselves?  Why did we feel restricted to distanced, analytical writing alone?

And then we examined all our preconceived notions about the personal.  We admitted that talking about our individual experiences often made us feel “self-indulgent” or “overly serious.”  Sometimes, when those experiences were traumatic, discussing them made us feel “self-pitying” or “navel-gazing.”  As I look at all of these adjectives now, I realize that all of them are tools that have been used to derail and discredit the histories of marginalised people.  We were discrediting ourselves before we even printed post #1.

When I was a graduate student, I studied rhetoric – which means I taught freshman composition courses, then took seminars that were all about teaching freshman composition courses.  One of my professors was the author of our freshman comp textbook, a book that had caused quite a bit of controversy for its focus on personal – rather than “objective” – writing.  Our professor’s theory was that students in English 101 could cut their teeth on personal topics before tackling argumentative writing in 102.  Plenty of grad students/instructors objected to this theory on the grounds that personal writing was too “self-indulgent” (There’s that phrase again!) to belong in the academy.  There was nothing substantive about personal writing alone.

Once, though, a fellow teacher expressed an alternate reason for his objections to the personal assignments.  “I just don’t think that all students flourish when writing about themselves and their lives,” he argued.  “I certainly wouldn’t.  I’d much prefer to write about politics, current events.  I’d prefer to keep myself out of it completely; writing about myself just makes me uncomfortable.”**  What I realize now, looking back at his argument, is that the choice to avoid the personal altogether is a choice available only to the privileged.  A marginalised person is faced daily with reminders of her marginalisation.  Even if she might like for a day to forget her personal experiences as a woman, or a person of color, or a disabled individual, society at large is certain to remind her of these things.  She will be marginalised every day in a thousand tiny ways – and a thousand giant ones.  She does not have the option to just forget the personal, to pretend for a second that her body and her identity are extricable from her experiences of the world.

Avoiding the personal is just not an option for some of us.

Consider, for example, the controversy surrounding VA legislator Robert Marshall, who recently stated that disabled children are part of a “special punishment” visited by God on women who have abortions.  You’ve probably already heard something about this by now.  The remarks were made during a press conference against Planned Parenthood, and shortly afterward the blogosphere erupted (rightly) in cries of dismay.

Of course, Marshall has since attempted to recant.  Sort of.    He still stands by his remarks, but claims that (Surprise!) they were misinterpreted.  He makes the usual attempts at backpedaling, claiming his statements were taken out of context.  But what’s really interesting to me about his “apology” is how he suddenly attempts to wield the personal as a weapon in his favor.  According to this article in the Washington Post, Marshall said that “his belief in the sanctity of all life was demonstrated by his commitment to seeking state-mandated insurance coverage for specialized therapy needed by autistic children, a stance so at odds with his own party’s that he said he was threatened with expulsion from the Republican caucus last year,” (emphasis mine).  Suddenly, Marshall once to speak about his experiences as a persecuted (old white male) minority within his own party.  He wants us to understand that he is like us.  He has suffered personal torment at the hands of others.  And he believes that that torment, which he supposedly suffered on behalf of the disabled, should override his contradictory, detrimental words.

In attempting to identify with the marginalised through a shared sense of suffering, Marshall forgets that, much like my graduate school colleague, he has the option of utilizing personal anecdotes only strategically.  He can employ them when he needs them, then quickly forget about them.  He can lay claim to suffering, while not having to carry around the reminders of that suffering as literal marks on his person.  He can attempt to garner sympathy by discussing his ostricization from his party, then turn around tomorrow and continue to be the privileged, powerful man he has always been.  His narrative of (temporary) marginalisation does not take away from his position as a privileged man.  He retains his subjectivity either way.  The women and children he discusses, however, remain the objects of the discourse, the backs on which Marshall builds and maintains his privilege.  (SharkFu’s post at Feministing takes Marshall’s attempted apology out for a spin and reminds us that, while Marshall may claim to be a friend to the disabled, the women and children he has slandered – among whom are her mother and brother – “will always have the scars” by which to remember their torment at the hands of those like Marshall who seek to shame and silence them.)

In other instances, privileged parties benefit by eliminating the personal from discourse altogether.  When I was in graduate school, I was raped by a colleague.  In the aftermath of the incident, said colleague sent an email to me explaining, in detailed academic language, why our encounter should not be classified as “rape.”  He eliminated all personal elements of the story, instead analyzing what had happened via dense post-modern definitions of “love” and “intercourse”.  He inhabited a world in which, as a privileged academic man, he reserved the right to change the very definition of the word “love” to encompass the act of rape.  In that instance, I had only my anecdotes left.  The only power remaining for me lay in my memories of what had happened – my certainty that I had been raped, and that no manipulation of words could change the emotional and physical scars I carried.  I wielded the personal because I had no other choice – because it was the only weapon I had against his cold dispassionate argumentation.

The personal is a powerful tool – sometimes the only tool available to the objectified, the only means we have of confirming our subjectivity in the face of those who would tear us down.  And so the personal is something from which we’re going to refuse to shy away.  While our posts will never be “Here’s how I spent my summer vacation,” and while we’ll try never to give you dreaded journal-style TMI, we’re going to address the personal head-on in the hopes of reclaiming it as a valid, useful tool for fighting oppression.  Assuming we don’t convince ourselves we’re being “self-pitying” in the process.

**This quote is an approximation, of course.  I didn’t write down his exact words, but I’m pretty sure I’ve come close here.

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