The Personal is the Political

What does community mean? How do we live with others in a manner that is respectful of the larger group while still allowing for individual rights? This is an area that encompasses larger political issues as well as smaller, personal matters.

I live in a city known for its “lefty” politics, where there are thriving co-ops and formally set up barter groups and community cars. Where opinion polls show a decided majority against fracking and polluting and in favor of putting restrictions on the ability of private land owners to make decisions that will have a negative long term effect on the land.

There was a saying common in the feminist movement back in the day: “The personal is political”. It meant that small, everyday decisions had as much importance as larger ones, and the choices made in your personal life were just as critical as those made in the larger sphere. It was a simple way of saying that in those areas where you have options and control and the ability to make a choice, do so in a manner that is consistent with your beliefs.

So, here I am yesterday afternoon at a local mall. There’s a central section that is the traditional, enclosed mall flanked on the front by an outdoor mall. One end of the enclosed portion is a grocery store, the other a high-end movie theater . The outside area is across a “street” built several years ago. There are lots of seating areas, restaurants and stores. I was there Saturday afternoon to see a movie that let out around 5:30pm. Afterwards I ended up walking the full length of the enclosed portion to get to the grocery store. During my walk, I was treated to a non-stop chorus of loud shouts and screams from a toddler walking with his mother.

Now, before I start in on this, let’s establish some credentials. I did raise a child. Yes, it was back in the mists of time (the 1980’s) but I’ve been there and never, ever forgotten some of the highlights of those years: the time my daughter decided to have a classic old-fashioned tantrum complete with dropping to the floor kicking and screaming in another mall, or the melt-downs that occurred in grocery stores during those treacherous after daycare, before dinner shopping trips.

During those tough, challenging early years, one of the many things children are learning is social behavior. The importance of understanding that none of us are in this alone, that there is a web connecting us together. I’m kind of anti-libertarian in this area. I don’t think we’re all on our own, in fact I think the opposite. Society is made up of all of us, old and young, weak and strong.

Which means that a big part of growing up and maturing and being able to take your place at the adult table in life is understanding what is means to be a part of the whole, and considering the impact of your actions on people other than yourself. That the actions of one can impact the many, and the importance of what I’ve come to think of as social graces.

I fully get that young children need time be loud. I also remember the “witching hour” that happens late afternoon/early evening, when the most mild-mannered children become fretful and angry, and how giving them a chance to be active can help. What I don’t get is that there was a simple, easy option that was ignored. Instead of calmly allowing her child to scream and yell down the entire length of an enclosed mall, she could have stepped outside for the same walk. Outside, the noise wouldn’t have echoed and reverberated, seeming twice as loud as it really was. The actions of the child were fine and perfectly understandable; it was Mom’s complete lack of interest in finding a way to let her child let off steam in a manner that wasn’t disconcerting to others that bothered me.

So, back to the point of this whole screed: what was being taught to that child is that decisions are made by considering what is best for you, and you alone; that the needs of others are never important and should be ignored.

I bet if I had met this woman in another situation and we had been talking about keeping water-ways clean, she would agree that the needs of the larger community should be taken into consideration. And, yeah, I realize I’m stretching a bit here, but there is a connection between decisions made on the small, personal level and larger level. Teaching your children, from an early age, how to successfully balance their needs with respect for others helps is making the political personal. It’s community. It’s important. And it makes the world a better place.

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