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The Personal IS Political

“Eating is the most political act we do on a daily basis.”  These words, uttered by raw milk farmer and activist Michael Schmidt at a talk I attended in May, 2007, changed my life.  These words came back to me this morning when I read a friend’s post on facebook asserting that “the decision to vaccinate is personal.”  While few give a moment’s thought to the implications, decisions such as whether or not to get a flu shot jab, or – even more mundane – what to eat for breakfast, are incredibly political.  In brief, they state loud and clear whether we’re buying into the system, or not.

I don’t think I’ve ever understood the originally ‘feminist’ assertion that “the personal is political” as clearly as I do now, this morning.  To get an H1N1 flu shot is doing a lot more than taking a precaution against getting the flu.  It is saying to the government – and to the pharmaceutical companies that produced it: “I trust you, and I think you are doing the right thing.”  The same is true with grocery shopping, and with nearly everything else we do for that matter.  The decisions we make support those who have provided the options.  It’s the idea of “voting with your wallet” to the extreme. You vote with every choice that has any interface with the world around you.  And are there any choices that don’t have external impact?  Even going to the bathroom – using bleached toilet paper and publicly sanitized water to flush it all away – is political.  You are following social norms and supporting them.  You are saying “it’s ok to put  my waste in public water; I’m fine with that.”  And speaking of water, drinking it is tremendously political, although many are becoming consciously aware of this today.

To say other than “I trust you, and I think you are doing the right thing” is not easy.  Our system is so hegemonic, so all encompassing, that we rarely even consider that what we are doing on a mundane basis through our small, everyday practices, has any impact beyond ourselves.  But we each are doing our part to uphold the system in which we live.  Even by eating, drinking and defecating.

I had never considered any of the above before hearing Michael Schmidt talk about his struggles to sell raw milk, over two and a half years ago.  Or should I say, only two and a half years ago.  For the previous nearly four decades, I was completely oblivious to the part I played in perpetuating the system in which I live, even when I felt things needed to change.  I am extremely grateful for this new awareness, although it makes my life difficult.  I am acutely aware of the implications of many of my daily actions and decisions and often struggle with what to do.

Despite my awareness, I still do my part to carry on capitalism and the destruction of our environment.  While I buy recycled toilet paper, I still use the flush toilet system.  I drive.  A lot.  And buy gas (far too frequently).  Heck, I work.  If that isn’t participating in the mainstream system, nothing is!  And not only do I work, I teach.  The ultimate act of perpetuation.  The education system is the belly of the beast when it comes to perpetuating the norms and practices of our way of life (especially capitalism).  Why do you think the first thing colonizers do is set up schools in developing countries?  To training young minds to fit in, to think things are great, to learn how to participate in capitalism.   I do my best to wake my students up and at least be aware of how they are doing this.  But very little of it sinks in.  I can tell by the blank stares and hostile vibes I receive as their worldviews are probed and questioned.  They like their state of complicity.  It’s comfortable, and easy.

I do think there is a growing awareness in the population that things need to change, and that includes our habits and practices.  However, the capitalist system is quick to co-opt such movements.  Not happy with chemical cleaners?  Well, here’s a new array of biodegradable detergents!  Don’t like pesticide covered apples?  Here are six varieties of organic ones!  Worried about eating chocolate produced by child slave labour?  Just buy products with this fair trade label and you can eat away to your heart’s content, feeling warm and happy about the safe children in Africa.

But do these choices really change anything?  Perhaps.  I don’t know.  They do let the system know that we’re not happy, but they don’t require any change of habits on our part.  We still carry on shopping and otherwise supporting the status quo. New companies pop up, old companies change ingredients, and to a certain degree, some of their practices.  So now food may be grown with fewer pesticides, but that entails more manual labour.  Are these labourers paid a decent salary?  Are they given good benefits and work conditions?  Or are they migrant works coming up from the south, living in trailer parks, paid a pittance and deprived of healthcare and time off?  Is this better than pesticides?  Can we justify these changes by claiming these people now have jobs of some sort at least?  Is this what I want to support when I buy that organic apple imported from California?

It is all but impossible to live outside the system, here in Canada at least.  Those trying to do otherwise end up on the streets, and then often in institutions.  I suppose one could go up to Crown Land and try and make a go of being a hermit, but life would be solitary, nasty, brutish and probably short.  The long and short of it is that we really must participate in society, in this capitalist power structure that dictates so much of what we can do.  But this doesn’t mean we must be complacent.  Indeed, this situation demands that we become hyper aware of our impact, of how political our personal choices really are, of what message we are sending when we flush that toilet or drive that car.

Where I do have a choice, I choose carefully and do my best to send a message I believe in.  It cost me a fortune to figure this all out (some are very lucky and instinctively get it without spending a dozen years in university), and now I have pay it back. This means I have to work, which in turn means I have to own nice clothing and a car.  Can I walk away from it all?  Not without severe repercussions that extend beyond me, as I have co-signers on some of my student loans.  I am trapped – have trapped myself – in my current situation.  That’s ok.  I’m relatively happy and enjoy this work (even if I am damning future generations to the same fate) and I admit that I love my little car, flush toilet and house in the country.  To drive less I’ll need more property, so that I can raise sheep and train and exercise my dogs at home.  That will require more work, more money, more purchases.  There’s really no getting away from it.

So what is my point, you ask?  My point is that it is still important to be aware of the consequences of our actions.  I don’t think the system we have is terrible; there are many good things about it.  But there are also many things that need to be changed.  How we eat is one; how we run our healthcare is another.  Don’t even get me started on the education system.  These are all aspects of our social practices that I can impact through my choices.  While it requires a lot of effort on my part, I can choose to eat outside the international agro-industrial complex, and through long hours of study and a lot of searching, I have found healthcare practices that truly heal, and that are not run by Big Pharma.  As for education, I do my part by bringing all of the above to the attention of my students, even if they don’t like it.  Some do, and that makes it all worth while.

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One Response

  1. Your post reminded me of something Slavoj Žižek said. “The moment you flush,” he noted, “you’re in the middle of ideology.”

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