3 min

When experience obscures reality

Contrary to the feminist principle that the personal is political, my adage has always been that the personal is, well, personal.

OUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IS IMPORTANT; it makes us who we are. Credit: Xtra files

When someone suggested I take off my lawyer’s hat and write an editorial about having a child, I thought about it, but decided not to.

I don’t write about personal stuff. Contrary to the feminist principle that the personal is political, my adage has always been that the personal is, well, personal.

That’s not to say that issues involving our personal and sexual relationships are not political. The gay and lesbian community has been struggling against both the repressive regulation of our intimate lives, and the utter failure of law to recognize our personal relationships. Of course it’s political. But that is altogether different than writing about our own personal lives.

In fact, I’ve always thought that there’s something a little bit dangerous about generalizing from our own experience to pontificate about higher truths.

Here’s an example drawn from the very thing that I said I wouldn’t write about. It’s a cliché to say that having a kid makes you think differently about stuff, that it changes your priorities. I now find myself musing about sending her to a boarding school in the north of Scotland to protect her from all the evils of the world. (In this fantasy there are apparently no evils in the north of Scotland.)

There are concerns about issues like kiddie porn. The idea of anyone coming near my little one with sexual intentions – I’d turn into a vigilante-mom from hell.

Now that I have a child, it’s not hard to imagine how people go from this emotional reaction to a demand for stricter child pornography laws. It’s not hard to imagine how people go from this natural reaction of protecting our children to the demand that films like Fat Girl be censored (as the Ontario Film Review Board has just done, though Alberta, Quebec and most of the US approved the film).

It would be easy but dangerous to generalize from my own experience, my desire to protect my little one from all the threats that the world presents and to make truth claims about how the world should be made a safer place with more laws to lock away all those threats.

But I don’t think that we would have stricter child porn laws. And I don’t think that films like Fat Girl should be censored.

Sure, there are disturbing scenes in the film – scenes of teenagers having sex, and, much worse, of violent rape. But censoring a movie doesn’t make teenage sex go away (nothing will ever make teenage sex go away). And censoring a movie does nothing to address sexual violence.

Despite my worse fears as a parent, our laws are more than strict enough, and I continue to believe that criminalizing and censoring teenage sexuality is patently absurd.

Non-parents out there run very little risk of turning into this particular kind of law-and-order fanatic. But they may have their own experiences change their views.

Consider what happens when you buy a house. Once a social democrat, you may now find yourself ranting about high taxes, and actually considering voting for someone who claims that she is going to lower your tax bill. Or once a social activist, you actually consider going to a community meeting to deal with the “problem” of street prostitution in your neighbourhood.

Our personal experience is important; it makes us who we are, and shapes our views of the world. It can open our eyes to things that we never knew, it can politicize us in exciting ways.

A health crisis of our own or that of a loved one might lead to a crusade against the miserable state of the health care system. A run-in with the cops might lead us to lobby against discriminatory police practices. Or our experience of discrimination at work, at home or at play might lead us into coalitions with other marginalized communities. These are good things.

But personal experience can also be a dangerous and self indulgent thing. It can lead us, all of us, to the kind of narrow and knee-jerk politics that we spend so much time and energy fighting against.

* Brenda Cossman is a member of the board of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra.