The Politics of the Apolitical

I’d like to start by acknowledging that I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time, but I kept finding more angles to come at this concept from, and wasn’t sure which was best.  So, with that in mind, this may be a sort of triaging of all of the angles because there’s value to all of them.  Particularly: I want to look at the performativity of objectivity in daily society, but also the labeling of anything as “apolitical” and the inherent politics in that, and also the tendency to do this to science.  So, without further ado:

We, as a society, have this strange and slightly horrifying tendency to value the things we label as “objective” or “apolitical” over literally anything else.  This manifests in a number of ways, not the least of which include people thinking men can think objectively about women’s rights and thus should be making decisions about them, people viewing science as an objective and unbiased truth, and people viewing technology as inherently objective, apolitical, or unbiased. I’d like to posit that the inherently objective, unbiased, or apolitical is a falsehood constructed to further societal norms, be it consciously or subconsciously. As a corollary, the binary of subjective versus objective is a false binary, and one we will readily fall into, and so frequently have fallen into.

The Merriam-Webster definition of apolitical is, “having no interest or involvement in political affairs; having an aversion to politics or political affairs; having no political significance.”  The Merriam-Webster definition of objective is, “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”  I find both of these definitions to be full of loaded language, and (perhaps obviously) both hinge on the idea that you can remove politics or “personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations” from literally anything.  You can’t.  Obviously, this is an opinion that is open to being contested, but the apolitical and the objective don’t exist – there is no way to abstract the politics and the prejudices from anything.  Rather, the momentary (and fluctuating) definitions of “apolitical” and “objective” hinge upon our current societal norms.  Our society views something contested as inherently political, which makes the norm viewed as apolitical.  An easy example of this is heteronormativity and its many manifestations.  Let’s say yet another movie fixating on the narrative of a cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) couple comes out and is labeled “apolitical” because it abides the social construct of heteronormativity.  If this movie focused on the narrative of a queer couple, it would inevitably be labeled as political.  Why? Because queerness is the alterity, or the “otherness” in our society.  But there is most certainly just as much of a political statement in yet another cishet romance narrative.  It’s (subconsciously or otherwise) agreeing with and feeding the societal norm that erases queer narratives and labels queer folks as the alterity.  And if the erasure of humans isn’t political to you, then you need to take a hot second and check your privilege.

The labeling of ideas, cultural content, and quite honestly literally anything else as apolitical is a political strategy, whether it’s acknowledged as such or not.  There is a politics to who gets to define the apolitical/objective, and there is a politics to how this is applied.  People in positions of power (read: white, cisgender , heterosexual, able bodied, upper class, male, and the list could go on) have the power to define what is apolitical, and whether done maliciously or not this is a political agenda.  This is a way that people in positions of power and privilege can compound their power and privilege by othering narratives that are not their own.  I’ve said it before and I will say it again, erasure is a political statement, though it is so rarely labeled as such.  And, as I’ve suggested already by calling this a political strategy, this is performative.  In the same way we perform social norms (as I’ve discussed a bit in other posts), the defining of something as apolitical is a performance.  It’s a performance of power, class, privilege, and social choreography (all of which are, perhaps obviously, related).  Furthermore, the definition of apolitical/objective is ephemeral, which is to say it has not been the same throughout history.  It’s in constant flux based on who is in power – AKA who has the privilege to define the apolitical.

To bring this into the realm of science: there’s been a lot of talk lately (and historically, but it’s been super prominent in the general news lately) about the pure, unbiased objectivity of science and, more generally, STEM fields.  This statement needs all kinds of unpacking.  AKA it’s just blatantly incorrect, but incorrect statements that are repeated as often as this one is don’t just come out of nowhere – there’s a history there, and it’s important to look at how and why we got to the incorrect statement, and what we can do to be better.  I realize that I just made a very vague and sweeping statement, and there’s a reason for that.  I feel pretty strongly that this kind of logic should be applied to literally everything.  Nothing we say or do comes without a history, and so often that history is problematic and deserving of whatever kind of analysis or unpacking that applies to that specific trajectory.  And, as discussed previously, there’s nothing apolitical about the objective or the unbiased.  And the labeling of science as such is simply conforming to the inherent and built-in societal biases that history has spent years and years building and feeding.

“Unbiased” and “objective” science has historically been used to further racism, sexism, the gender binary, homophobia, queerphobia, ableism, and a whole host of other social constructs and norms.  I have so frequently heard it said to, “keep your politics out of my lab,” or, “science is an apolitical truth,” both of which are loaded statements.  You don’t get to keep politics out of science.  As I spent a good while explaining in the prior paragraphs, the apolitical doesn’t exist.  It is no more objective truth than the thing labeled political.  So claiming to keep politics out of science for the sake of keeping science “objective” is simply a falsehood.  It can’t be done.  It is conforming to the same host of social norms that anything else labeled as “apolitical” is, and these social norms are participating in the very political determining of the basic human rights of huge groups of people.  Science has been privileged in a number of ways in our society, not the least of which being careers in science are valued above many many other career paths (I will probably write another blog post on this later? TBD), and it has also (both historically and presently) boosted people in positions of power and privilege in the same way that the “apolitical” has.  As such, there is nothing unbiased about science.  It exists in a society defined by humans with inherent biases, and is performed by humans whose lives have been choreographed by and around these biases.  They’re literally built into the science.  It is impossible to abstract the human element from the science, and as a result it is also impossible to abstract the biases.

This is not to say that I don’t believe that science has done incredible things, because I do.  I’ve spent nearly three years of my college career in a lot of science classes, and that’s because I find it fascinating and I think it has incredible power.  But, I don’t want to pretend for a second that this means it is perfect, unbiased, or (for lack of a better word) apolitical.  As I said, science is powerful, and with that power comes the ability to take power from others.  For people who like diagrams as much as I do: power is like a positive feedback loop.  It continues to take from the people in positions of less power and feed the power of people in positions of power until some form of negative feedback comes in and disrupts the cycle.  We have to actively be that negative feedback.  And the way to do that is to make everything we do political, and to acknowledge that it is political.  We have to be actively aware that the labeling of anything as apolitical, and specifically science as an unbiased measure of truth, is a political statement of its own that is passively conforming to social norms and contributing to the positive feedback loop.  The apolitical doesn’t exist.  Or, rather, it is just a label with its own set of highly political problematics.  Pretending otherwise is conforming to those highly political problematics.  So let’s stop pretending and, in true nerd fashion (because diagrammatic metaphors), be the negative feedback in a toxic positive feedback loop.

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