Thursday, September 7, 2017

It's Politics All The Way Down

A common complaint that you'll read on the Internet these days is: "I'd rather not have politics in my [fill in the blank]," where the blank can be any number of things, from games to sports to cat memes. But people on the internet being who they are, any sufficiently motivated person can find a wrongheaded political message someplace where they'd rather not.

Perhaps this is because for many people "Everything is political." Which is a problematic statement in so much as "political" is rarely defined. For some people it means ones partisan affiliation, while for others it speaks to a deeper ideological bent. But for many people who see politics as integral to almost every human endeavor, it also seems that its first and foremost on everyone's minds.

For example, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent some time working with my aunt at her real-estate business in Chicago. And one day, for reasons that I don't recall now, one of the realtors asked me if I had dated any Black women. The moment she asked the question, I knew I was in trouble. The fact was that the answer was "no," because, for a myriad of reasons, I hadn't started dating at that point - and had become perfectly comfortable with being a bachelor. But four years of college had taught me what Slate's Jacob Weisberg would make explicit about a decade later: "Today we find the idea of nonsexuality more bizarre than deviant sexuality." And so I wasn't about to tell her that I was, at the time, nonsexual. And simply lying to her and saying "yes," was out of the question - after all, this was one of my aunt's acquaintances, and if she mentioned our conversation to my aunt, my parents might get wind of it. And another thing that I learned in college was while allowing people to assume that I had a girlfriend elsewhere was something of a viable strategy, having to create a fake person was not, especially if it was someone that people (like one's parents or aunts) would expect to meet in person.

So, I steeled myself for what was coming, and said "no." And promptly found myself on the receiving end of a lecture about why the answer should have been "yes." It was nothing that I hadn't heard before. After all, while I was coming up, and especially in late high-school and college, I'd heard the entire litany of arguments as to why Black men should only date Black women.

And the interesting thing about that litany of arguments was the assumption that not only was one's choice of Significant Other viewed as highly political, but for any choice of mate other than another Black person, the politics of it all was viewed as the driving force. The fact that two people mad met and decided that they had an affinity for one another was viewed as inconsequential; the important piece was the Black man having been brainwashed, by a White society bent on destroying the Black family, that non-Black women were somehow better than their Black counterparts. In effect, love and caring could only exist within a couple where both partners were Black - mixed-race dating, on the other hand, was always the result of the Black participant having internalized some negative message about themselves and their ethnicity from a hostile society.

And this logic, that undesirable choices that people make are driven, first and foremost, by politics (either their own, or someone else's) appears to be one of the drivers of the idea that "everything is political." It is, I suspect, part of what makes everything political. And it's something that we might do well to do away with. To be sure, for some people, there motives in doing nominally non-political things is openly political, and they have no problem with telling us as much. Which is wonderful. It's using that fact to assume that people who have done similar things are doing to in the name of similar politics that becomes the problem.

Sigmund Freud is said to have once remarked that sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. By the same token, choices are often driven by motivations that relate directly to the choice at hand, and not broader partisan or ideological concerns. Allowing room for that to be true may dampen our impulse to cast others' choices as cynical or otherwise insincere.

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