I’m not sure if it’s an empirically-verifiable trend, or just anecdotal evidence on my TV and various social media timelines, but it seems like we’ve reached peak whining about “playing politics.” My state is the site of some closely-contested congressional elections. Thus, we’ve been bombarded with foreboding intonations that ruefully cluck “candidate x is just playing politics,” as if a politician playing politics is somehow surprising and out of character. WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? I’M SO CONFUSED. I’ve also been following the GamerGate goings-on*, wherein these poor delicate snowflakes–when not trafficking in self-righteous, whiny misogyny–decry the influence of those they call SJWs (social justice warriors) in the gaming scene. Gaming used to be its own awesome place, they say, before these interlopers made everything all “political” with their feminism and stuff. And hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear someone lamenting the fact that everything was OK until someone “made it political,” or started to “play politics,” or “brought politics into it”–like someone peed in the pool. THANKS, LOSER. NOW WE CAN’T SWIM ANYMORE.
But these lamentations are, at best, disingenuous. They’re weasel words, designed to evade rather than clarify. And they almost always emanate from people who are privileged enough that they can pretend “the political” is something that can be turned on and off at leisure.
However, we can’t turn off politics, because everything is political. We know this in the abstract, but I would argue that we don’t always consciously grasp that reality. And thus, we often fail to appreciate just how dangerous these calls to “keep politics out of it” really are.
In order to move toward such an appreciation, we need to distinguish between “politics” in the banal, partisan-hackery, why-is-Ted-Cruz-saying-stupid-things-AGAIN sense, and “politics” in the broader, permeating sense–which is the truer and more effective way to understand how everything we do (and don’t do) is thoroughly political.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “politics” in a number of ways. There’s the standard “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power,” as well as the definitions that refer to more quotidian forms of partisan activity. But where I think the essence of the term resides is in “The principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status: [i.e.] ‘the politics of gender’”–or, even better, “activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization.”
Politics is, above all, about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and what that allocation of power looks and acts like. As befits a word drawn from the Greek polis (referring to the entire body of ‘the people’), politics embraces the whole of a society. Just as the word “tall” has no meaning without its counterpart, “short,” politics ultimately describes the dynamic between powerful, less-powerful, and power-less. You can’t understand what’s political if you aren’t looking at the relationships and interactions. You can’t stir things apart.
Before you decide I’m engaging in semantics and root-word wankery, think of the implications inherent in telling someone to “keep politics out if it.” Those who do that admonishing do it because they can; in other words, they can ignore the political–pretend it’s not there–because there are no meaningful consequences from their doing so. The white student can tell the black student that slavery’s over already, so quit making everything so political. Stop playing the race card about Ferguson, man. Kid shouldn’t have run from the cop. The gamergate bro can blithely tell the female game designer to quit all this feminist kvetching. Gaming isn’t political, it’s gaming. Stop being such a bitch. [makes rape threat]. Ignoring the politics of race in the US won’t hurt the white student. He won’t even notice he’s doing so. But the black student who ignores politics proceeds at his own risk, especially in places like Ferguson, or Columbus, or any one of the hundreds (thousands?) of places in this country where black people can get shot for an outrageous and bewildering number of reasons. Gamer dude can be a raging misogynist, yet not believe he’s acting in a political manner, because he’s attacking those femi-nazi political crybabies. Able-bodied men can be exasperated by a disabled woman’s request for accommodations, because there are no consequences of his unjust callousness that he’ll experience. Jesus, what do you want me to do? Build a ramp? This is where the meeting is scheduled; stop turning it into a political crusade.
Only the powerful can claim they’re not acting politically, because they DOMINATE THE POLITY. Ignoring politics, and the contexts in which those politics unfold, possess no risk. In fact, it augments their own power over others. Silencing the political speech and actions of the less-powerful and power-less renders their experiences invisible, and thus posits a false equivalence that does violence to historically-produced reality. I’m aware your legs are cut off at the knees. But we’re racing the same distance, so quit your complaining. What do you want me to do about it? I didn’t cut them off. This is sports, not politics.
Those with the most to lose when there’s a general awareness of the political nature of the situation are invariably the ones who want to keep the politics out. And that’s why complaining about people “making things political” goes way beyond annoying to tread into dangerous territory. If we agree to “keep politics out,” we are actually doing nothing of the sort. We are instead privileging the politics of the dominant, and silencing the politics of everyone else.
We can’t stir things apart. We can’t escape the political. Nor should we want to, if we care about making and maintaining a just and equitable polity.
*Let the record show that I am not a gamer myself; MarioKart on the Wii is my upper limit (though I’m getting pretty good; I can beat my 9-year-old daughter almost half the time now). I’m approaching the whole thing as an outside observer interested in the, yes, political dynamics of the goings-on.