Your Personal Problems Are Not Always A Social Cause
I originally wrote this as a response to a letter in Savage Love, in which a young gay fellow in college complains “It seems like every gay/queer person who is involved in anything gay/queer on campus has this idea that gay people are SO oppressed that we need to constantly discuss it and feel like victims. How do I respectfully say, ‘STFU, we’re doing just fine, you white, upper-class American kids’ without sounding like an insensitive assdouche?”
When I was young in high school and college and even into my twenties and thirties, I was often a miserable sad-sack. I was a virgin, including no kissing, until I was 26, though I had been falling in love with girls and dreaming about sex since I was about 5. And although I actually had and still have deep friendships with amazing people and was well-known and well-liked in college and at many other points in my life, I still found lots of reasons to be miserable, and whenever I was away from those friends (summer vacation or moved to a new town) I experienced long periods of deep loneliness and alienation.
At the time, whenever I was depressed, I would seek any kind of group identification I could find to explain my suffering. I’m an introvert! Introverts of the world unite against the extrovert world! I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. HSPs of the world unite against our oppressors! I’m too kindhearted in a world that rewards ruthlessness! Or, look how easy it is for attractive young women to make friends and find sexual partners! They are not ignored when they walk into a bar or cafe the way I am. Nobody looks annoyed and superior when they try to start up a conversation with a stranger. Nobody is threatened by them. Men of the world unite!
I don’t do this anymore. Good fortune and a little self-help have left me a pretty well-rounded and happy person, and looking back with everything I’ve learned, I can completely understand my position in the world as a young man. The me of today would have treated that guy exactly the same way everybody else did, maybe a little worse. He was socially awkward, sometimes insensitive, and yet emotionally needy.
But I also know that if at the time I had had any publicly legitimized oppressed group that I could have identified with to explain my unhappiness, I would have sat right in the middle of it and bitched and whined all day and night. Being black, or gay, or a woman would have not only explained all the shitty things in my life that actually did result from being black or gay or a woman, but would have explained any other grievance I might have had as well.
College age people are young and have lots of problems, and some people have lots of problems all their life. People who don’t understand their own role in their own problems will look for outside sources that cause their misery, but sometimes even if you are black or gay or a woman, it might just be a personal problem, either something you are unwittingly bringing upon yourself, or just a part of the messy world we live in, the kind of thing everyone goes through.
But it’s hard for anyone to disentangle the political/social from the personal, and so much more so for the still vulnerable minds of the young. We could certainly all benefit from having a lot more patience with each other.
But still, many people manage to do it quite admirably, keep these two separate. What I want to suggest here is that, if you wish to have your cultural criticism taken seriously, you would do yourself and your readers a great service by making it clear that you are aware of the difference, and that you make efforts in your theorizing to keep the two separate.
(Here’s the original Savage Love letter, if you want to read it. Dan didn’t run my response.)