What does it mean to be “political”?: Politeness, taboo, and implicit support for the status quo

“When I was a kid, we were taught a few rules among which was never talk about religion or politics in polite company”.

This quote is the first sentence of a 2004 editorial in the Kentucky New Era. The author goes on to admonish the public for the increasingly heated discussion of the Iraq War that she perceives as having permeated into spheres of “polite company”, where apparently such things should not be discussed.

Recent events involving the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and its targeting of Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status have created quite a buzz about political biases in government operations. They have also, however, brought to our attention questions about which groups in the United States should be eligible for tax-exempt status. A number of editorials (like this one at the New York Times or this one at the Washington Post) have been published suggesting that a central but seemingly ignored question at the heart of the IRS debacle is whether “political” groups like the Tea Party should even be allowed to have 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status on the grounds that their “political” nature violates their role as organized “exclusively for the promotion of social welfare” (as well as other regulations that more explicitly restrict involvement in political campaigns).

All of this, however, leads me to ask a simple question the answer for which many people seem to take for granted: What does it mean to be “political”? Defining exactly what is “political” and what is not “political” has proven quite difficult for the IRS. Indeed, most people are quite dissatisfied with the major test for whether a group is engaging in political activism: whether or not their materials contain one of the “magic words”, such as “vote for”, “vote against”, or “elect,”.

These words make it clear that we connect “being political” with discussing elections and candidates for elected office. However, dissatisfaction with this magic word litmus test suggests that we define “talking politics” or “being political” more broadly than simply involvement in elections. Certain issues also become labelled “political”, whereas others we insist are “not political issues”. In particular, we label things “not political issues” when we want something not to be a matter of public debate. For example, discussing global climate change, Al Gore famously stated that, “This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue — it affects the survival of human civilization”. Gore seems to imply here that moral and political issues are separate, that morality trumps politics, and that questions of morality are not really debatable.

We can also observe the idea of some issues “not being political” in the common accusation that someone is “politicizing” some type of tragic event. This is a common accusation from conservative groups whenever issues of gun control in the United States are raised following a mass shooting (for example this accusation from Grover Norquist following the Sandy Hook massacre). As another example, in India, Congress leader Digvijay Singh recently accused his political opponents of “politicizing” a young girl’s rape when they called on the government to enact harsher penalties for sexual assault. In a very recent example, Republicans in the United States accused Democrats of “politicizing” the tragic events in Oklahoma after some Democrats suggested that the strength of the tornadoes were evidence of the increasingly dire situation with climate change. For example, this accusation:


Essentially then the accusation that someone is “politicizing” an event implies that the event is inherently “not political” meaning it should not be brought into public discussion and debate.

Correspondingly, those topics that are deemed “political” are only allowed within narrowly defined aspects of our lives. We can observe this in the taboo against speaking about politics in “polite company” (from the quote above). However, these boundaries are constantly being erected. We can see them in popular internet memes like this one that suggest that using social media to post information about “politics”  is socially undesirable:


Boundaries for “political” issues are also erected around other areas such as anything to do with children. This article, titled “Gay Activists, Planned Parenthood need to STOP politicizing our youth organizations”, bemoans the recent controversy over the Boy Scouts of America’s policy not allowing homosexual boys to participate. It also alleges that Planned Parenthood has “infiltrated” the Girl Scouts of USA.

Our public discourse then suggests that some issues or events are “not political” and thus should not be brought into our public debate or mixed with discussion of “political” issues. Others are “political” and should be allowed to be discussed only within a narrow arena and should not be allowed past socially-erected boundaries.

The result of the ideological meanings bundled into this word (and the taboos associated with it) is the silencing of  movements promoting social change or challenging the status quo. This is because the relegation of certain topics to the category of “political” is done so selectively. For example, homosexuality is a “political” issue so we shouldn’t talk about it in “polite company”. Not coincidentally, heterosexuality is “not political”. So it’s polite to talk about your different-sex marriage any time you want. Conversely, rape and murder are “not political” issues, and hence it’s not polite to discuss them in the context of “politics”. It’s polite to say that this rape is tragic, and we feel bad for this victim. However, it would be impolite to say that this rape and others like it were enabled by patriarchal societal discourses and laws that portray women as the causes rather than the victims of sexual assault. That would be mixing “politics” and “not politics”. The polite behavior is to shake our heads and say “what a shame”.

Words like “political” then are a means of controlling when (perhaps even if) we will allow discussion of some issues and what the nature of that discussion can be. Silence on issues like homosexual rights, sexual assault, climate change, and war all promote the status quo. If we don’t talk about homosexuals, then they remain deviant. If we don’t talk about sexual assault, then it remains a private problem of a few isolated women (who might have been “asking for it” anyway). If we don’t talk about climate change, then we can keep consuming and polluting without feelings of guilt. If we don’t talk about war, then the gears can keep spinning. In addition, by limiting tax-exempt organizations to discussing things that are “not political”, we keep them from pointing to problems in society as the cause of the issues they address. They can feed the hungry, but they can’t call for the end of the root cause of hunger in an extremely wealthy nation: wealth inequality.

The only way around this privileging of the status quo is to acknowledge that our actions (or lack thereof) are always political, that even in attempting not to be “political”, we are still political. When we choose to shake our heads and say “what a shame” in the face of sexual assault, we participate in the political project of patriarchy. When we hide others’ or our own sexuality out of politeness, we provide political cover for heteronormativity. When we let the topic of war remain a taboo, we participate in the violence.

What does this mean for our tax-exempt organizations? Certainly there are valid concerns that lax regulations on tax-exempt status could give those with the most wealth an unfair advantage in influencing elections. However, we should also consider that much of what we think of as “political” is the very work we desperately need to do, like pointing the finger of blame for rape at laws that are ineffectual at preventing and prosecuting it, and that tax-exempt organizations may be the very people to do it.

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Posted in Language and politics
5 comments on “What does it mean to be “political”?: Politeness, taboo, and implicit support for the status quo
  1. Fabiana Cesa says:

    Just what I was looking for… a concise way to explain how not doing or saying anything is also a political act.

  2. Thanks for your article. I was Googling for a good definition of what it means when someone accuses you of “being political” (such as when some people say that Shen Yun is a political performance) and what you said pretty much nailed it :). I guess it really boils down to getting the person to define what exactly he/she means by “political” and whether it is actually just an excuse to avoid taking a closer look at something due to pre-existing biases or prejudices (but which actually is something that merits further examination based on its own merit).

  3. arsenome says:

    Ha ha so glad I found your post…especially this summing up: “The only way around this privileging of the status quo is to acknowledge that our actions (or lack thereof) are always political, that even in attempting not to be “political”, we are still political.” I may need to quote it as I am getting pulled into having this “discussion” (which never is (a discussion or even a dialogue) as you so rightly note) on something so benign as an art and photography FB group…which, it seems, others seem to only want to see happy happy happy pics of birds, bees and old rusting cars. My recent post (an old white guy holding a poster noting his privilege) elicited a fire storm as being provocative and “political” and hence dis-respectful of the art nature of the site. It was a wonderful portrait though and wish that I had taken the one of the young black woman at a BLM protest–where she appears like an angle confronting the evil forces of the world. Ugh, I though that art was supposed to challenge our thinking. But maybe I will stay in this newest fray thanks to your shaping of a rational discussion of what exactly constitutes politics. Great job. thank you.

  4. […] (or maybe a lot of) political will: which is to say, everyone gets political about something. (Read this for a deeper dive into the semantics of the concept of “being […]

  5. […] and phrases to represent new meanings. I’ve seen the verb ‘to be political’ increasingly being used as a way to implicitly promote the status quo…often unfortunately so. ‘Let’s not get political, because that might make us change the way we […]

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