Defining and Understanding “Politics”

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This past Monday, I was interviewed by a Hunter College student on how my identity as a Filipinx American Womxn impacts my political engagement. Her first question was “How do you define ‘politics?'” Thank goodness I had the questions beforehand because it took me a while to develop an answer. My definition is a long-winded response produced by my lifelong and on-going process

Prior to this interview, I had never been asked to define politics. I actually spent most of my life steering clear of politics. Ask me that question five years ago, I would have told you, “Controversial topics that no one wants to talk about.”

I had been a leader in my Fil-Am college organization for three years and I remember politics was the topic that must not be named. Politics referred to the government landscape of both the United States and the Philippines. Politics also referred to the awkward drama and chismis (gossip) that played out behind organization decisions. Both within the Fil-Am org and my own family, I was told to avoid talking to members of Anakbayan because they were “too political.” All were viewed as uncomfortable topics and dismissed as politics.

Now, “controversial” doesn’t cut my definition of politics.

Words are hard so I turned to the Internet for some guidance. According to good ol’ Wikipedia, the word politics comes from the Greek word, politikos, meaning “of or relating to citizens.” Also according to Wiki, politics refers to “the process of decision-making that applies to all members of each group.” Some definitions seem to use more oppressive language: “activities around the governance of a country, area or people”

I like Wiki’s general definition of a “process of decision-making” though this definition feels greatly robotic. Yes, politics is the process of decision-making, behind which are human beings.

A friend of mine who took feminist classes in college (I now wish I had), shared with me the 1960s feminist movement chant, “the personal is political.” This phrase refers to the theory that personal problems are political problems, meaning many of the personal problems women experience in their lives are the result of systematic oppression.

“The personal is political” jives with me not necessarily because of that above theory (although that too). It jives with me because of the interconnectedness of our country’s issues that Grace Lee Boggs mentions in The Next American Revolution(PLUG: This is an awesome book especially book post-Trump election decision. I’ve been feeling renewed and empowered since reading it). Having lived 100 years through both World Wars, the Great Depression, Jim Crow, the Black Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of the LGBTQ, Women and Environmental movement and Obama’s first term, Grace shares incredible wisdom on the interconnectedness of movements and the various systems we interact with on a daily basis.

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The Banaue Rice Terraces (Photo taken by me in 2014)

My belief in interconnectedness really formed in conjunction with my growing understanding of globalization. In high school, my teachers attempted to explain globalization by throwing around meaningless words (bless their souls for attempting in the confines of a classroom). It wasn’t until I travelled to Banaue in the Philippines that globalization started to make sense. The Ifugao (the indigenous folks there) told me that many of them starved because they didn’t have enough rice to feed themselves… since the majority of their rice was being exported to other countries. And many of their youth would move to the city and not return to tend to the fields, decreasing their overall capacity to produce mass quantities of rice.

My belief in interconnectedness solidified further as my consumer consciousness rose in the Philippines and during my year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that every purchase we make is a political statement.

Sounds crazy if you think as I did, that politics is simply controversy and debates…but think about it.

When you make a purchase, you are saying that you support that company (whether you know about their internal practices or not). It’s because of this idea that I’m trying to find a sweatshop free option to Nike products (I still own a pair and cringe every time I wear them). It’s because of this idea that I’m beginning to seriously consider going vegetarian or at least pescetarian. I’m also working on finding a credit union to move my money to support #NODAPL by divesting my funds. All of these are in process…because detaching from this system is difficult the more you benefit from it because you have more to lose.

However, I’m beginning to realize that all of these decisions are political statements of what I value and believe in that demonstrate my complacency with the status quo.

What’s personal to me is incredibly political to most…but only because what’s personal to me isn’t what the current capitalistic cultural system wants me to value (money, status, and power).  I’m struggling with this right now. I have a deep desire to break free from how this world is telling us we need to live but also a deep fear that doing so will essentially be my own political, social and physical suicide. I already feel an intense fear while writing this knowing that I’m essentially denouncing the way things run now.

This entire post is “politics” because it runs counter to what our education system teaches us. Opinions, ideas, and actions that run parallel with what our education system teaches us are also political: you’re saying you agree. And sure, there’s more nuance than that, but tell me, what do you value and how do you live out those values?

Because politics is the process of decision-making…but that doesn’t mean only politicians are politicking. We are too, with our everyday decisions.

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