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The Personal is the Political

How far should we let our political opinions dictate our personal relationships?

He was a boy
She was a girl
Can I make it any more obvious?
He was a punk
She did ballet
What more can I say?
He wanted her
She’d never tell
Secretly she wanted him as well
But all of her friends
Stuck up their nose
They had a problem with his baggy clothes

He was a skater boy
She said, “see you later, boy”
He wasn’t good enough for her

The first date may have gone well. Really well, in fact. They were funny, didn’t offer too many times to cover the bill and compromised to split it with good grace. But throughout, and afterwards, familiar alarm bells are ringing, and you can’t get it out of your mind. A Facebook profile picture: they’re blissfully happy, standing in front of their second ‘country house’ in Kent, leaning down in a dark blue Schöffel to pet their Labrador. And, crucially, across the middle of it the banner “nooo don’t vote tory ur too sexy aha”. (If you don’t get it, I have some bad news for you.)

Joking aside, it’s evidently an issue. If you google ‘Can a relationship survive political differences’, you get 133 million results – if even a quarter of those are actually related to the question, it’s evidently worth talking about. It seems like what we once considered important is changing. More than half of people stated that they have no religion in a survey published in 2019 – perhaps that’s why more and more often people are finding politics to be at the centre of what they value.

Our identity is, at its core, made up of different ideologies – ideologies which in turn inform our political beliefs, and the way in which we view the rest of the world more generally. Speaking personally, as someone who is (formally, at least) on the political fence, I would struggle to have a relationship with someone whose ideological beliefs on subjects that are important to me were fundamentally different to mine. But equally, it’s hard to put it so plainly. Someone may be ideologically distant to me in some respects and simultaneously a person whom I may admire; some people have been. Is it possible to overlook these things? Somehow, I don’t think that strongly disagreeing over the legitimacy of the abortion-rights movement is the same as overcoming a particularly aggressive snoring habit, but equally it doesn’t necessarily have to spell the end.

But even before you get to the relationship or friendship it’s possible, or even likely, that the political may stop it from going further. As standpoints and opinions become more impassioned, it’s hard to coexist with other perspectives that may fundamentally go against your own. If that opposing perspective is also concerned with telling the world why their opinion is more legitimate and, by extension, why other opinions are less legitimate than theirs, it becomes harder. If it is a case of fundamentally conflicting beliefs rather than a case of different experiences, then keeping your opinion of them separate from your opinion of their ideology is a struggle. This applies universally to relationships – if you have a family member that polemically differs from you in terms of your ideological beliefs, it’s hard to separate the frustration that that causes from the way you feel about them. Indeed, there are members of my family who were born, and evidently remain, in the Victorian era; one such person recently tried to justify the gender pay gap to me on the rock-solid foundation that women are less reliable because they have children. Ground-breaking stuff. Clearly, I’m still not over it. I’m not saying that putting your opinions out there for the world to agree or disagree with is a bad thing – on the contrary, that’s how change happens. But in terms of relationships, the intensity of emotion that fundamental political dispute can create is definitely a factor that could cause complications.

‘The personal is political’ was a political slogan of the student movement and of second wave feminism from the late 60s, underlining the connections between what we experience in our personal lives and larger social and political structures. While what it fought against has changed with the times, what it argues is still incredibly relevant, especially with regards to politics and relationships. The personal truly is political, because the ideologies that we have make up the way in which we see ourselves and others. Importantly though, we may not be right and we’re definitely not entirely objective when forming these ideologies which naturally change over the course of our lifetime: something that may contribute to whether politics really does spell doom for a relationship. If our ideologies do change – because of the things that we live through, or the people that we meet, or come to admire – then the way in which we associate them with different people may change too. But somehow it seems less realistic – or at least less achievable – when it comes to essence-defining ideological beliefs.

However, if we were to consider what we’d be without these debates or differences in opinions, the answer is bleak. Insular, boring, and two-dimensional people that remain only in the comfort zones assigned to them at birth aren’t really human beings, they’re practically lemmings. It’s just not how human nature works. By encountering people that we disagree with, we evolve and adapt using the things we learn from them and, nine times from ten, it doesn’t create an insurmountable wedge between us. The personal is political, but that isn’t to say that the personal or the political will never change. As hard as it is, ideological disagreement does not make up the whole of a multi-dimensional relationship between people and, depending on the way it is approached, doesn’t necessarily spell the end of a relationship. Despite the impassioned division that has characterised political discussion more than ever, life, our relationships and ourselves would be boring without it.

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