Politics of Personality
To speak of personality as an object of politics is to tread on dangerous ground; the issue of totalitarianism is very close. Authoritarian regimes of all persuasions in the twentieth century have made sustained attempts to mould the upbringing and outlooks of their citizens. Liberal critics of ‘totalitarianism’ such as Hannah Arendt have their most effective moments when documenting and rejecting the invasion of personal life by the party-state.
Yet liberal regimes have done the same kind of job. In One Dimensional Man Marcuse described the general process of cultural and psychological manipulation in the United States. The argument can be pinned down to particular institutions, such as schools. Mass schooling in the United States, from the late twentieth century to the present, has been characterized by relentless propaganda in favour of the regime and against its opponents. As a small example I cite some chapter headings from a history textbook used in my (relatively liberal) high-school class in New York in 1959:
UNIT NINE (1920-1945): AMERICANS DEFEND DEMOCRACY IN A TROUBLED WORLD
28 The nation faces the threat of world depression
29 The United States becomes a friendly neighbor
30 Americans fight round the globe in World War II
UNIT TEN (1945-now): AMERICAN DEMOCRACY MEETS
THE COMMUNIST THREAT
31 Modern Russia arises to threaten the free world
32 The United States leads the free world in the West
33 The United States leads the free world in Asia
34 Americans practise and protect democracy at home
YOU ARE AMERICA
It doesn’t leave much to the imagination – nor much room for unauthorized attitudes. Beyond the obvious propaganda content, mass schooling in the United States over a long period has attempted to shape attitudes and work habits, and to sort, classify and specialize its pupils, in response to the policies of the central state and business leadership.
So a politics of personality exists in the ‘free world’ as well. On the argument of this chapter, it must. Personality being a field of the dynamics of social relations, its construction must be affected by the formation of social interests, the functioning of institutions and the mobilization of power. The early women’s liberation slogan ‘the personal is political’, intended mainly to validate political discussion of sexuality and domestic work, expressed a general truth.
To make this connection is not to welcome state intervention. There are good reasons for resisting the state as we now find it, and many of its policies and mechanisms for influencing people. Along with several millions of other children I was taught a pack of lies about American history. Such a practice should be rejected as noxious to growing minds and dangerous for the future – as it has proved to be, with the terrifying growth of American chauvinism in the 1980s. The point is that criticisms of such practices have to be conducted on the merits of the case. The idea that we should, or can, draw a general line between politics and personal life is logically misconceived.
The New Right doctrine of‘small government’ and ‘rolling back the state’ does not end or seriously reduce state influence on personal life. It simply changes its direction. As Elizabeth Wilson, Lois Bryson and Martin Mowbray argue, cutting back on welfare and ‘returning’ care of the sick, elderly or troubled to the ‘community’ or ‘the family’, in reality means loading extra unpaid work onto women. The sexual division of labour and inequalities of gender are intensified. Gutting the ‘burden’ of taxation does not increase freedom for citizens in general. It increases the advantages of groups who benefit from income being distributed through the market (capitalists as against workers, employed as against unemployed, men as against women) at the expense of those whose welfare depends on distribution of income through the state.
The real question is not whether politics can be removed from personal life, but what kind of politics invests personal life and how far it can be democratic or egalitarian. Most important is the political question as to whether personality can be formed and reconstructed ‘from below’.
Radical movements have, by and large, been much less interested in these questions than authoritarian movements, the state and business. But in the last twenty years the problem has come into focus in radical politics, especially in sexual politics. The methods available for working on them are complex and not well defined. They have mostly been evolved by trial and error. Still, a good deal of experience has now accumulated, which needs examination if we are to judge the prospects of a radical sexual politics.
The most widespread has been the ‘consciousness-raising group’ (CR group) developed in the early years of women’s liberation. It was not a completely new invention; aspects can be found in the ‘affinity groups’ of anarchism, in sewing-circles and other traditions of women’s informal organization and in American group-therapy techniques. But the combination was new, the needs it met were general and the technique spread rapidly. In the early 1970s the women’s liberation movement in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia could well be regarded as a network of CR groups which coalesced in partial and often fleeting ways for public politics.
The CR group aimed at the reconstruction of femininity in two main ways. First was discussion and re-evaluation of the past and present experiences of the women in them. Doing this in a group meant that everyday relationships, with men, children and other women had to be thought through as ‘being-for-others’, their everyday logic no longer presupposed. It also meant that there was support for ‘speaking bitterness’ (to use the Chinese phrase) about men, saying and thinking hostile things that were censored or suppressed in everyday life. A CR group might set an agenda of working systematically through oppressions in different areas of life. This would call attention to the political dimension of practices and symbols that normally go without comment, such as housework, dress and habits of speech. The overall result was to disrupt the taken-for-grantedness of many of the practices that constitute conventional femininities.
The second step was to support new practices that might displace the ones thus disrupted. The CR group became a forum for talking about what to do in households, in sexual relationships, in bringing up children and in public politics. In many cases the group itself became a new friendship network, with the members going to entertainments, travelling, sometimes working together. In this way the CR group merged into the construction of feminist communities as the 1970s wore on.
As a technique for the reconstruction" of femininity this had several important strengths. It was flexible, easy to start, inexpensive and easy to manage in an egalitarian way. It contrasted sharply with both traditional party politics and traditional psychotherapy. It could deal with work as well as domestic life and sexual relations. It was easy to disband if things went wrong.
It also had some significant drawbacks, which were slower to emerge. It was good at dealing with what was common in women’s experiences, less good with what divided them. If serious conflicts arose there was little to prevent the CR group simply splitting up. Like the ‘talking cure’ of psychoanalysis, it suited the highly educated and affluent and never spread far among working-class women. The exclusion of men, which was a condition of much that the CR groups did, meant that heterosexual relationships were likely to be worked at from only one end. CR technique had little power to reach unconscious processes or constitutive commitments, and might therefore work on emotional issues only at a surface level or within narrow limits. One such limit, pointed out by lesbian feminists, was a widespread failure in CR groups to question heterosexuality.
The process of ‘coming out’ as gay is a form of reconstruction that contrasts sharply with CR work. In the collective coming-out at the end of the 1960s, the low-key, even covert, strategy of seeking tolerance and law reform that had characterized earlier homosexual politics was replaced by a highly visible celebration of gayness. The public demonstration of ‘gay pride’ went along with a playfulness about gender, a subversion and recombination of elements – radical drag, gay weddings, pink boiler suits and so on – which gave an air of carnival to many gay liberation activities. Public celebration, for instance in the Mardi Gras in Sydney, has remained an essential part of homosexual politics.
Coming out individually is less spectacular but still involves a visible break. It means repudiation of a whole history of interactions – in families, workplaces, the street – that were predicated on an assumption of heterosexuality. Nothing as drastic is implied in CR work. Two things moderate the drama of the act. First, ‘coming out’ is not done once and for all, like a wedding; there is no Registrar of Births, Deaths and Comings-Out. As autobiographies make clear, coming out to friends is different from coming out to workmates, and both are different from coming out to one’s parents and other relations. They may be done at different times and with very different results. Second, declaring oneself gay, in whatever setting, can be only one moment in a process. It may result in major shifts in relationships, but even so has to be followed by making the new situation work. Friendship networks, political practices and sexual relationships have to be constructed on new foundations.
In this sense ‘coming out’ inverts the order of things in CR groups; a personal reconstruction has to occur, or at least be well advanced, before social support can be generated. The social support is variable in the extreme. Coming out in a supportive workplace may be easy and enriching. In a hostile one it probably means losing the job. In some families the result is easy acceptance, in others appalling emotional trauma, depending on the interaction with parents’ masculinity and femininity.
In another respect the process is closer to CR: the extension of reconstructed personal networks into a gay ‘community’. There were of course networks of homosexual people before gay liberation, whose stories are gradually being retrieved by gay historians. The 1970s saw a qualitative change in their conditions of existence and those of the discreet businesses based on them. Gay communities developed on a considerable scale in cities like San Francisco and Sydney, with a rapid growth in the number, size and visibility of the businesses servicing them. ‘Gay capitalism’ emerged and gay businessmen became a force in homosexual politics, with an influence comparable to that of the radicals who had launched the gay liberation movement.
This development sharpened the question implicit in ‘coming out’ from the start, what exactly one was claiming to be. Dilemmas about the nature of homosexual identity have been mentioned in chapter 7. For both sexes coming out as gay meant repudiating central features of one conventional sexual character. Did this mean claiming the other? Attempting to mix masculine and feminine characteristics risked dissolving the category of homosexuality itself. Where then was gay pride, and the basis of movement and community? Though theorists like David Fernbach insisted on gay men’s effeminacy and Mario Mieli argued for the transsexual basis of gayness, the drift among homosexual men during the 1970s was increasingly to resolve these tensions by defining a gay masculinity. The ‘clone’ style of the late 1970s and early 1980s was its most visible crystallization, the moustache, T-shirt and tight jeans proclaiming a male body. This in turn produced tensions with lesbian women, some of whom have found this uncomfortably like a claim to the privileges of conventional masculinity.
In one dimension the deconstructionist argument does continue the logic of‘coming out’. To come out is to repudiate the business of keeping up a front of heterosexuality. This front is not likely to be a trivial part of personality, and may involve an elaborate ‘false-self system like those described by Laing (see the case of ‘David’ discussed in chapter 9). One cannot simply obliterate such a structure of personality. Nor will it be replaced by some natural gayness that wells up from the inner self. The deconstructionist argument extends the critique of the false self to the constructed selves that replace it, which equally may freeze the person in outmoded and repressive postures.
But ‘coming out’ was not just a gesture of personal reconstruction. It was also an attempt to reach out, to create solidarity. A thorough deconstruction of gay identity would undermine this, and risk dismantling the personal and collective resources for dealing with shared problems and combating the hostility that gay people still meet. The spread of AIDS, creating a need to support those with the disease, to work out strategies to halt its spread, and to deal with scaremongering media, shows how important these resources are. As long as the definition of homosexuality is sustained in the larger structure of gender relations, gay people are not exactly free to adopt or deny it as they please.
In the face of this the reconstruction of personal life is always done under pressure and at risk. CR groups were vulnerable to criticism that they did not go deep enough. The personality politics of ‘coming out’ likewise include strong motives to limit the amount and visibility of change.
The emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation challenged not only the power of heterosexual men but also the worth of their masculinity. While most ignored or dismissed the challenge, some were affected strongly, an experience particularly well described by Vic Seidler in his essay ‘Men and Feminism’. A historic moment was reached on the American Left when one of the authors of Unbecoming Men saw his girlfriend head off for one of the early feminist conferences and realized he was no longer where the action was. The resulting essay, ‘Women Together and Me Alone’, is a classic of mixed emotions. After some early experiments with mixed CR groups, feminism more or less told the men to get their own house in order. The tangled public politics of the resulting ‘men’s movement’ will be discussed in chapter 12; the point of interest here is the two practices it developed for the reconstruction of masculinity at a personal level.
The first was very simple in conception. The idea of a CR group was borrowed from feminism and applied to men. A group of men would meet regularly over a period of months to discuss their lives and emotions. Such ‘men’s groups’ were central to the anti-sexist men’s movement through the 1970s and some are running now. Documents such as Unbecoming Men and the narrative of a men’s group in Warren Farrell’s The Liberated Man show that even in the early days their focus was divided. In these and later accounts by Paul Morrison and others, three main themes emerge: recognizing and working on participants’ sexist attitudes and behaviour towards women; discussing their own masculinity, how it was formed in growing up, and how it constricts the expression of their emotions and limits the depth of their relationships; and providing emotional support to each other.
This contained both a political project intended to support feminism and a therapeutic project intended to repair the damage bad gender relations did to men. They were not necessarily consistent, and may even have been contradictory. Certainly the political project of rooting out the sexism in masculinity has proved intensely difficult. Work in men’s groups on how one oppressed women was very different from work in women’s groups on how one was oppressed. It provoked guilt rather than anger, a reaction intensified by the accusatory tone of radical feminism’s interactions with men. A massive sense of guilt runs through mid-1970s literature such as Jon Snodgrass’s collection For Men Against Sexism. It seems likely that guilt and frustration between them destroyed many of the groups set up.
Frustration was a likely outcome and is obvious in Andrew Tolson’s discussion of mid-1970s men’s groups in Britain. While women’s CR groups fed into the construction of wider networks, counter-sexist men’s groups made it more difficult to work in men’s networks outside. On the one hand the routine and often vicious sexism in masculine milieux became hard to handle at a personal level. On the other hand, sticking to the task of raising issues about sexism and challenging patriarchal practices was likely to result in a drastic loss of credibility. A man pursuing issues about women’s interests was easily defined as a fool, slightly mad, or a pervert.
An easier answer to the sense of guilt was to deny the oppression of women; better still, to claim that men are equally oppressed. This path was taken in the United States by authors such as Farrell and Jack Nichols, whose Men’s Liberation presents the reform of masculinity as a simple parallel to the feminist reconstruction of femininity. The sex-role interpretation of gender relations made this very easy: if a woman’s sex role was oppressive for the person in it, a man’s sex role was also likely to be. The appropriate response was to try to break out of the stereotypes and repair the psychic damage they caused.
The result was a practice that might be called ‘masculinity therapy’, which rapidly outgrew the anti-sexist men’s movement. Some was undertaken in self-directed men’s groups, but more occurred in settings like encounter groups, retreats, courses, clinics and centres, and one-to-one counselling and psychotherapy. The defining feature of these settings was the presence of therapists with a message about masculinity. Their writings, such as Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male and Albert Ellis’s Sex and the Liberated Man, make clear that the message is one that depoliticizes gender. Guilt is treated as irrational or obsolete. The oppression of women is treated as an illusion or an excess of role rigidity. Homosexuality is, as far as humanly possible, ignored. The main thing to be overcome is men’s inhibitions and inexpressiveness which leads them into emotional binds.
I have seen no evidence whatever about the success or failure of this therapeutic program. But it is clear what its point is: not contesting inequality but modernizing heterosexual masculinity. The discontent many men feel as holders of power under challenge is to be relieved by a change of personal style – a change of tactics in dealings with women, perhaps a changed self-concept – without any challenge to the institutional arrangements that produce their power. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this business is that it often requires a therapist’s assistance.
It is easy to conclude from the difficulties in these attempts at reconstructing sexual character that the politics of personality would be best left alone. The trouble is that it will not be left alone by others. The New Right, for instance, is actively constructing aggressive, dominant and violent models of masculinity for adolescents and children. Rocky has led to Rambo and Rambo to Rocky IV, nicely keyed in with Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ campaign. A large marketing program is currently pushing exceptionally violent toys into young boys’ hands, like the ‘Masters of the Universe’ whose he-man models seem to be based on images from the Nazi cartoonist Mjolnir. It is difficult to justify abandoning the field of personality politics to influences like these.
More positively, the experiences sketched in this section show that there are several ways in which a self-help reconstruction of personality can at least be started. Whether it goes very far depends on other people; for this experience also suggests a strong connection between personal change and social movements in sexual politics. Chapter 12 will come back to the issue in the collective context.