The past decade has seen a pronounced rise in the everyday use of terms related to interpersonal abuse and psychiatric well-being. Notable moments include the introduction of “self-care” to the popular lexicon, the propagation of the term “gaslighting” to describe the actions of politicians and critical discussions around popular media, and the now-constant debates about whether or not the most powerful people and corporations in the world are feminist have blurred the line between the societal and the personal. There are some good things about this development, like a normalization of concepts with which marginalized people have long been familiar — but there’s a problem with it, too.
At a moment in our national history when the COVID-19 pandemic and our collapsing, inadequate health infrastructure make prioritizing the welfare of the many more crucial than ever, this type of linguistic crossover encourages a hyper-individualistic viewpoint where optics and immediate emotional reactions take unjustified precedence over the long-term needs of the most vulnerable among us.
One prevalent trend traceable directly to this phenomenon is the belief that social change should not cause discomfort. As exemplified by author and columnist Sady Doyle’s above tweet, this viewpoint holds that anger and rudeness in the context of political causes mean that the proponents of those causes are insincere in their commitments. The idea that a push for major structural change in a nation of 327 million, where few Americans have even the most meager measure of financial security, should be polite is contemptible. It’s a viewpoint which prioritizes the comfort of the proportionately powerful and secure over the survival of the vulnerable and debt-ridden. Doyle’s fixation on “nice” behavior is indicative of a much wider system of belief among the moneyed elite, who prize civility and manners above public welfare.
In a March 2020 tweet, author Lacy M. Johnson compared Bill de Blasio’s call for former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to endorse rival Bernie Sanders to her own experience being pressured for sex in high school. There is a profoundly solipsistic element at work in such applications of feminist and therapeutic language, a weaponization of victimhood and gendered suffering to support the primacy of the middle and upper-middle classes. Johnson’s experience with sexual pressuring in high school was surely difficult for her, as it is for many women, but how does it relate to the work of civil servants and their obligations to uphold the stated ideas by which they attract voters and maintain a political camp? Even if such political pressure does bring up painful memories for an individual, isn’t that a personal issue without material bearing on electoral processes which affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people?
This fixation on relating personally to non-personal issues is by no means limited to social media. In a widely publicized 2014 paper titled Drone Disorientations: How “Unmanned” Weapons Queer the Experience of Killing in War, then-PhD candidate Cara Daggett argues that drones are “genderqueer bodies” and that committing murder via drone disorients the murderer in a way analogous to experiences of queer identity. The paper, which won the prestigious Enloe award, is a farrago of imperialist apologia wrapped in pseudo-feminist jargon, a nightmarish vision of feminism as a mode of thought and behavior reduced to whether or not a person feels comfortable performing an act of state-sanctioned murder. Journalist Matthew Yglesias’s infamous 2013 Slate article titled “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's Okay,” a defense of the lax safety regulations which led to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, similarly repurposes academic arguments about moral relativism to contend that exploitative garment factories are a public good.
It’s not much of a stretch to draw a line from such grimly cynical deployments of the language of well-being and feminism to the modern cults of personality surrounding women politicians, no matter their histories of carceral, racist, and imperialist violence. If your understanding of feminism centers around the admission of women into the halls of imperial power, then the mere presence of women is in itself a victory. If you transpose ideas of abuse within the context of domestic relationships onto parasocial relationships with men in politics, then Bernie Sanders raising his voice when he discusses the grievous wealth inequality and predatory insurance industry practices in America becomes a personal transgression of your boundaries.
What does it matter if a woman holds supreme authority if the very act of attaining such an office is immoral on a massive global scale? What does it say about feminism if what its public figureheads celebrate is women getting a chance to order drone strikes or torture Mexican and South American children in detention? What does the word “abusive” mean if we invoke it whenever a politician we don’t like is loud on television? The idea that these concepts meant to define entire systems of behavior and social change can be applied meaningfully to fleeting interactions between strangers, or between public figures and their audiences, is laughable, a self-involved misapprehension of everything central to radical thought.
It’s a mindset which has wormed its way into every corner of American life. While the 2008 election of Barack Obama certainly signaled a shift in cultural attitudes toward blackness, the Obama presidency itself was largely of a piece with the Clinton and Bush regimes. Guantanamo Bay remained open, our wars in the Middle East continued and metastasized to Africa, and mass deportations of Mexican and South American immigrants were commonplace. Was president Obama’s blackness in the context of the violence perpetuated at home and abroad under his regime any more important than Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren’s womanhood would be if, once in power, they ignored the blights of prison slave labor and war profiteering?
“The personal is political” is an ubiquitous rallying cry stemming from the second-wave feminism of the late 1960s, an assertion that women and other oppressed minorities’ personal actions can carry the weight and generational pain of the political systems behind them. To reduce that pained cry for recognition to a matter of hurt feelings and a demand that the oppressed treat their oppressors with deference when asking for change is an insult not just to the minorities who have fought bitterly for every inch they’ve gained but to women who face real violence in their homes, the queer people murdered abroad by drone warfare and American occupying forces, the people of color shot in the streets of America’s cities every day.
Approaching the world’s suffering as a purely personal matter isn’t just selfish, myopic, and destructive; it transforms feminism’s attempts to lay the bricks of a better world into the mythologized and self-indulgent violence of a death cult.