This morning, one of my friends from a big ole suthun state, sent me a video from a national news station featuring a group that goes to the Dallas airport to welcome soldiers returning from Iraq. The piece was a human interest story, with lots of tearful families and soldiers, and veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars talking about how they weren’t welcomed back so they want to make sure that these “guys” (yes, all of the soldiers depicted were men, as were all of the interviews with the exception of one wife. All of the soldiers were physically unwounded, as well) didn’t feel the same rejection. Heck, I was feeling a tad choked up, even as I felt frustrated and manipulated.
This same friend, earlier this month, sent me a “joke,” told in the voice of a gray haired veteran. In this joke, the veteran was advising the young returning soldier that, when an anti-war protester comes up to shake your hand to thank the soldier for his service and welcome him home, the soldier should wink at the protester’s girlfriend because he knows that she knows that she’s “fucking a pussy.” I do not have enough room to analyze the things wrong with that “joke.”
I can only imagine why he sends me these sorts of things, knowing our vastly different politics. He probably thinks they are funny or touching and sent these e-mails to me assuming that I will think they are touching and funny. I had expressed my displeasure at the “fucking pussy” joke e-mail, so he either sent me the video to mess with me or because he thought it was apolitical. My dad used to do the same thing until not only I but also my aunt and uncle and one or two of his more liberal friends rather loudly and in all caps requested that he remove us from his list. He still occasionally sends along things that he must either have sent to the wrong list or he also thinks are apolitical.
This latest video e-mail from my friend, however, made me wonder about the extent of politics in personal life. I’ve written before that I am not a particularly political person, but I do believe that the personal is political since I am, after all, a feminist. Yet, in holding that “personal is political” belief, I also wonder how to manage that in personal life. How far can a person take “personal is political”? The obvious answer in my radical-yearning little heart is “all the way.” Ideally, yes, “all the way.” That is, until I have to interact with people from home, back in Texas, back where people whom I love for non-political reasons behave in ways that are quite abhorrent to me.
The answer, on the surface, is to not talk politics with them. If my love for them and their love for me are based on something else, then we keep the conversation to that something else. I don’t send them mass e-mail jokes or spam on anything other than pets or babies. I don’t ask them to sign petitions or “check out this video” or “very funny” lists of gender differences. The most I ask in the grain of politics is that they extend that courtesy to me and that they not teach their children to refer to women as “bitches.” The “bitches” part I take personally since I was referred to as “bitch” for about ten years by everyone in my home (and not in a nice way, either).
Avoiding political talk, however, is not easy when you consider the personal as political. I can’t not consider the personal as political since many of the political ideas that I hold are based on personal experience, some with these very same people. For instance, being called “bitch” by my family for many years. “Bitch” used in that sense had very much to do with me being female and me not acting according to the definition for “female” held in my house.
When I grew up and left my home, I quickly learned that the same held true for the rest of the world, and I believed that the use of language to control someone was not right. I learned that the shape of my body, my very chromosome, differentiated me and marked me for discrimination in a million ways, some of which privileged me but did not empower me, some of which put me very much at risk. Realizing that, I was able to look to other people who were subjected to the same process by nature of their skin color or country of origin.
Perhaps I became too sensitive, but I want to err on the side of empathy (which actually causes me problems in the area of religion, but that is another story for another time). So, for me, the subject of politics began with personal experience and empathy. That sounds ridiculously emotional, not at all rational, which may have something to do with my own language. In reality, however, most people act politically in their own interest. Many people, however, would not characterize self-interest as emotional or soft. They would characterize it as “survival.”
Yet, none of my family, even the liberal one, sees any connection between political ideas and personal life. For instance, because they all think this e-mail sending friend is cool and funny, they want us to “end up together,” as they told me this past Christmas. They see no potential marital conflict stemming from differing political opinions. They do not understand why I don’t laugh at those “jokes” that cast men as idiots and women as smart and good. I’m a feminist, after all, so shouldn’t I find “men are dumb” jokes funny, isn’t that what I believe? They don’t understand why I bristle at racial pejoratives because “we don’t mean any harm,” and “oh, yeah, we forgot, ‘some of your best friends are black/Mexican/Asian/gay.’” In fact, I am more often than not, told that I need to get a sense of humor or get laid (yes, that is my own family saying, “you really need to get laid”) until I finally become so uncomfortable that I feel silence has become complicity. In other words, to them, politics is something that has nothing to do with the personal. Politics is on t.v., and concerns policies and war and elections whereas to me, it is something that affects people I know and care about. It is something that affects me.
In some ways, I consider those visits, and my connections down there to be insights into the way that the “other side” thinks and behaves. They keep the “other side” human to me so that I don’t end up vilifying the other side the way certain well-known talk show hosts and politicians do. At the same time, I not only feel complicit but also personally attacked by much of the discussion, even when it is not explicitly about politics.
I suppose, in some way, this is a perennial problem with many families, especially between generations. Unlike Tolstoy, I think that many unhappy families are unhappy in very similar ways. This problem may also be endemic to old friendships in which the two friends have developed in very different ways. I also think this problem is related to respect. I want to respect their ideas and their own ideological development, so I don’t overtly try to convert them. At the same time, I want my own ideas and person to be respected, especially if I must have an ongoing relationship with them, as is the case with families (and I do rather like my family for many reasons). That means that I must, at some level, try to convert them or at least make them see how they are behaving badly towards me. There, in the point between asserting my right to be respected and my desire to respect them, the point where the political becomes personal, is where I am stuck.