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The personal is personal

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 15, 2003

Privacy rights are being battered these days, largely in response to increased security fears. National ID, biometric identifiers, airport screening, increased surveillance powers ... all these measures ring alarm bells for privacy advocates. But such advocates ignore a fundamental assault on privacy, which has nothing to do with security concerns: the belief that the Personal is Political.

This '60s feminist motto now dominates society and has been severely eroding privacy for decades, not in the name of security but for the sake of "political correctness."

What does "the Personal is Political" mean? The theory underlying the motto is that all actions and attitudes, however personal they may seem, have political significance and impact society. Therefore, almost in its self-defense, society should encourage proper actions and attitudes; it should discourage improper ones by force of law if necessary. This is the stripped-down core of political correctness.

PC feminist Susan Moller Okin explains in her 1991 book "Justice, Gender, and the Family":

"The earliest claims that the personal is political came from those gender feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who argued that, since the [traditional] family was at the root of women's oppression, it must be 'smashed.'" Otherwise stated: A "just" family was considered to be a prerequisite for a "just" social and political system. 

The logic of the "Personal is Political" flows as follows:

-- Nothing is personal or "behind closed doors" because everything affects society. This erases the traditional distinction between the private and the public spheres.

-- Therefore, matters formerly in the private sphere -- from marital relations to religious belief -- are the proper subjects of public analysis and political concern.

-- "Private" actions and attitudes that are found to be negative should be politically discouraged; correct ones should be politically encouraged. In short, social control that leads to correct attitudes is desirable.

Sometimes the social control is iron-fisted: For example, the hate speech laws and campus speech codes that forbid and punish ideas that are considered to be racist, sexist or homophobic. Sometimes the social control has an air of being voluntary, such as "non-hostile environment" rules in the workplace, which result from the fear of lawsuits. Often it is more subtle, such as the politically correct editing of school textbooks to exclude "wrong" words and ideas, or the tax funding of PC organizations and messages.

It all amounts to an attack upon the most basic privacy of all: The right to assess reality and come to your own conclusions about what is right or wrong.

Consider just one aspect of how "the Personal is Political" has impacted society: The idea that everyone's sexuality is of political concern. This means that bad sexual attitudes, like homophobia, should be discouraged; good sexual attitudes, like acceptance of homosexuality, should be encouraged. (I could as easily use "acceptance of heterosexuality" for this example; for that matter, as examples of "bad" attitudes to be discouraged, I could use racial, gender or religious prejudices.)

In short, the sexual lives and attitudes of neighbors, co-workers or a student in the next seat over are my business and that of society.

There is one sense, and one sense only, in which the demand to accept the sexuality of others is absolutely justified. It is this: Every individual should have same rights, regardless of his or her sexual bent. Same freedom of speech, same right to security of person and property, same due process.

But more often than not, the "acceptance" demanded is for respect or acknowledgement that a form of sexuality is "valid." Those who disapprove or just don't care are accused of oppression, discrimination or hatred. This is when problems arise -- when accepting an activity or an attitude doesn't mean legally tolerating it but becomes a demand for approval or respect.

Respect is not a civil right; it is an attitude of approval and admiration. No one can claim a "right" to the emotional or intellectual approval of anyone else. Indeed, to mandate such respect is to violate rights because human beings should be free to assess what is right or wrong, admirable or detestable for themselves. And, then, peacefully live according to their assessments.

If you dislike a form of sexuality and avoid those who practice it -- all the while respecting their rights -- then you have wronged no one. If you are utterly disinterested in your neighbor's sexuality, your indifference is not oppression. It is indifference. You are simply living your own life according to your own interests and values. And, historically speaking, individuals who mind their own business have been safeguards for both privacy rights and sexual freedom.

There is a door that rightfully closes to protect the peaceful individual from the scrutiny of society and government. People call this protection by different names: the Bill of Rights, the private sphere, individual rights.

Those who crusade for privacy rights in an ever more public world should begin with the reconstruction of a crumbling concept: the private sphere. This sphere belongs to the individual and family; PC advocates have intruded into it like neo-Puritans on a witch hunt. They should be heaved out with the door slammed in their faces.

Everyone today is concerned about privacy. Whatever disagreements may exist on how to balance security with privacy rights, perhaps it is possible to agree on one issue: Namely, your sexuality is none of my business. The Personal is Personal. It is a start.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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