Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Personal & Political, Part II

Or part III, depending on what you're counting.

I see that I have mushed together several different arguments; let's see if I can sort them out.

1. The rules that determine what counts as "real" politics are not objective. This is NOT to say that the rules are arbitrary, or irrelevant, or even inherently unfair, only that the rules themselves are a product of our own activities, that the rules are themselves a social/political/economic construction, rather than something set in stone. Those who believe that human life and activity are governed by discoverable, immutable rules that were handed to us (on stone tablets, for example) will take some issue with this. And, really, it's a lot messier if you have to take responsibility for your own actions, and if there isn't a deity or some other higher authority to whom you can refer all the time. Contrary to the caricatures of those who are more certain of the Truth than I am, I do believe that just because we adapt and change does not mean that it's all always up for grabs willy-nilly. I think that it is our responsibility to try to establish rules that are fair and just, that it is our responsibility to establish institutions that will promote those ends and that will take care of the those of us who cannot take care of ourselves. We're going to make mistakes in those efforts, but we only compound the mistakes by continuing to perpetuate them with the argument that "we've always done it that way." The rules are our rules, which means we have to take responsbility for them rather than merely shrugging our shoulders and saying, "Well, those are the rules," as if they belonged to someone else or were immutable.

2. The rules shape what we think counts as a legitimate move in a particular game. Again, this is neither plot nor conspiracy, this is just the ways rules in general work. However, we do have a tendency to accept the rules as we find them, without necessarily identifying the underlying assumptions. Sometimes, something happens to jar our sense of the rules--we might suddenly see how a particular rule is unfair in some way, because of how it privileges a particular person or group of people. Should women have the vote? Should women be able to get credit cards in their own names? Should men be able to get custody of their children?

Often, though, we don't see the assumptions embedded in the rules. Think, for example, of the implicit message sent by separate sections in a newspaper. If the sections are labeled "news," "sports," "business," "comics," and "women's" or "society" pages--which was not uncommon not that long ago--what does that tell you? One might assume, for example, that "women's concerns"--typically articles having to do with cooking, children, the household--aren't "news." One might assume that (Real) men wouldn't be interested in the content of the women's section. One might assume that the rest of the newspaper implicitly belongs to men. One might assume that the economic conerns of "business" are relevant in ways that the concerns of "labor" are not. Or, most likely, one reads the newspaper and doesn't think much about those divisions, even as they shape our own notions of the categories of our world.

For another example, consider the matter of raising children. You will get a different answer if you ask whether women with young children should work outside the home than you will if you ask how families can meet their children's needs. If you want to make sure that both parents are able to earn a living, should one parent die or the parents get divorced, for example, then you have to take into account the effect on future earning power of dropping completely out of a workforce or career path for a few years. If affordable, convenient daycare isn't routinely available, then you're going to have to develop other solutions. In other words, there are multiple dimensions to the whole issue, and the questions you ask are related to which of those dimensions you regard as most important and what assumptions underlie your questions and answers.

3. Demands to change the rules aren't special pleading. If you're with me so far, then you can see that arguments that the rules should be changed because of a bias embedded in them or embedded in the enactment of them are not necessarily some kind of special pleading. The NBA rules were changed to create a three-point shot, and the NCAA rules were changed to allow dunks. The designated hitter (which is an abomination and should be banned, via a Constitutional amendment, if necessary) was added in 1973; spitballs were outlawed; the height of the pitcher's mound has been changed repeatedly. Each of those rule changes was instituted because the sports' governing bodies wanted to get a particular result or address what they saw as a particular problem.

Thus, it is not special pleading to insist that matters like household economics, or childcare, or other matters frequently assigned to women--and designated as "personal"--are, in fact, political. Instead, it's saying that the things that have made the front pages of the newspapers as "serious" stories are not, in fact, the only "serious" stories out there. The demand for rule changes is neither special pleading nor a matter of getting men to take women's issues seriously--it's an attempt to reconceptualize what counts as an issue for all people, and this reconceptualization is not an uncommon part of life.

4. The intimate, personal, private aspects of our lives have political dimensions. One dimension is the aforementioned "indoctrination" that is an unavoidable aspect of growing up in every society. We learn the shape of the world, the kinds of beings that exist in it, the principles by which they interact, the causal forces presumed to govern our lives and the lives of those around us. We cannot avoid this--we are literally being civilized--taught to live in our civilization. Another dimension is figuring out when the parts that cause us pain are the way it is rather than the way it must be, and that we can therefore object to the way it is, try to change the way it is. And others might be feeling the same pain, and you might be able to identify some of the institutional(ized) forces that propogate this pain, and you might be able to work against those forces. First, though, you have to connect your struggle, your situation, with the situation of others, and that's a political act.

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