The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

Compliments, Criticisms, Questions?