It’s a trend at the moment. On social media it’s becoming a daily thing to see people talking about how they aren’t doing politics this year, or they’ve stopped using Facebook because of the overly political content, or they are focusing on some hobbies instead of talking about politics. Implicit or explicit is the idea that ‘politics is out of control’ or ‘everything is political these days.’ It’s a desire to return to some imagined previous time when things weren’t political.
In many ways, it’s understandable. The problems that 2020 has exposed and exacerbated are overwhelming. It’s hard to find ways to cling to hope, and taking care of your own mental health by filtering what you focus on is no sin.
It’s impossible. You can’t take a break from politics. Or rather, you can say that you are taking a break, but it isn’t possible to live in such a way that political considerations do not directly impact your life and livelihood. There never has been.
It’s easy to decide not to look at social media but that won’t change the overall climate in which you live, discursively. You can decide to insulate yourself and only talk to people who you know agree with you, but you won’t be able to avoid whatever policy changes are made that affect you in future. We are saturated in political discourse. Take it from me, living thousands of miles away from the US or UK. It’s here, too. Every day. I barely even work with anyone from my country of origin but politics creeps in, before lunch or in between classes or while I try to sleep.
And this is the crux: None of this is actually what people dismissively refer to as ‘just politics.’ It’s a discourse about more important things. Getting yelled at about antifa from either direction? People feel as if their ‘way of life’ is under threat and they are freaking out. Catching ire about mask-wearing from anyone? People are confused and want things to be certain, but uncertainty and change are the rule at the moment (and…shhhh….they always are).
Feeling pressure about reproductive justice or paid family leave or difficulties with healthcare costs? My most in-your-face personal issue has revolved for eight years around the ability to live in the same country as my life partner, which at times has led to incredibly hurtful comments from even family members (“Why don’t you just sneak him across the border with all the damn Mexicans?” My wished-for but swallowed response: “You’ve got $10,000 to give the coyotes?”). Changes to policy have measurable, direct impact on real people. Just ask people who’ve shouldered Austerity for the better part of a decade.
These are not merely political issues, but deeply-felt human desires to live well and be able to afford to have a family. To have what is needed. To feel secure. To have a recognized identity. To be safe from harm. For many, the anger and outrage come from deep places of wounding and hurt because they have experienced the removal of or conflict over these basic needs. What people refer to as politics is really Fear, that old arsehole. Political discussions often ask us implicitly, “What are you afraid of?” Political transitions and political decisions make nightmares reality or hold them back where they only play on the edges of our minds.
The depth of the issues means that the maxim “the personal is the political” is as true now as ever. If you take a public stand and advertise your trendy political disengagement, you will still feel the direct effects of whatever plays out on the national, state, and local scales. Worse, you make it clear that you are not willing to put yourself into discomfort in order for others to be able to express their views and deep-seated needs, a lot of which are ignored or outright opposed by the systems we all live in.
You run the risk of being a bystander, innocent or not. And I wouldn’t expect reciprocal grace from anyone who happens to be on the “other” side.
Charitable engagement and building personal resilience could be the answer. You don’t have to change your views if you see something that you disagree with. You don’t have to feel outrage, but it’s okay if you do feel it, too. You can notice that you are in disagreement, and move on. You don’t need to correct others, but you can express your opinion about the situation and deal with the potential fallout as a grown up.
Watching protests or riots or marches and feeling conflicted about it, or gung-ho, or disgusted, or confused, or saddened, or anxious because of whichever groups are manifesting their opinions by taking to the streets? Notice the feelings and maybe even jot them down for later. Return to the feelings and write about other ones. Engage, rather than disengage. There’s no reason to make a lifelong commitment to an ideology in a few minutes, unless you see something that becomes what galvanizes you into your new thought patterns and actions.
A lot of people are running on fumes right now, and have been for months. Things feel more important at the moment by virtue of the collective experience of Covid-19 that we’ve been weathering this year and will continue to putter through.
The pushback goes something like this: “But nobody listens anymore! No one wants to hear different political opinions! Everybody is so polarised and there’s no getting through to anyone!”
But are you doing those things? Are you open to listening? Are you so outraged and afraid that you can’t engage in meaningful talks? That’s okay if you are; this is a shitty year. No judgment if you are crying in your shower or if you’ve decided to stop writing your blog because Donald J Trump is President and nothing makes any sense anymore. I’ve been there. But it never stopped being a part of my life, even if I pretended to be totally disengaged. It doesn’t even matter if you feel like you shouldn’t bother participating, because you won’t be able to change anything anyway.
It’s probably true that nobody can change anything. Reading history has been a comfort this year because everything has always been fucked up, and in some ways, we have actually managed to stumble toward progress over the course of human history. Things can get really, really, really bad and people still find ways to get through, even if they don’t make it out unscathed. We will, too.
And after all these words, if you really want to take a break from politics and just live, you are certainly welcome to try. Take it from someone who tried for the last 3.5 years…it isn’t possible.