Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Identity Politics Are Not For Me

The idea of identity politics is to give a voice and a presence to the historically disenfranchised, which is good and necessary. For many people, identifying themselves as part of a group or community is empowering and it gives them a sense of self, belonging and purpose. This helps them become a more visible, cohesive and accepted part of society. However, what often ends up happening in the cacophony of conflicting identity politics currently being broadcast at an alarming volume by social media, is absurd (college cafeterias that serve sushi are accused of cultural appropriation), divisive (pitting men against women, gay against straight, liberals against conservatives, black against white, etc.), and overly simplistic.
I have always had an aversion to clubs, even those I can conceivably belong to. In that respect, I'm with the Marx who would not belong to a club that would have him as a member. And I'm even more averse to identifying myself by some willfully chosen slice of my complex makeup. I am from Mexico, born and raised there in a Jewish family, with an atheist dad and an observant mom. This is complicated enough, if not downright exotic.
The other day I was ranting about white people when someone interrupted to remind me that I am white. This stopped me in my tracks because I don't see myself that way, being Mexican and Jewish and all. Indeed, I am pale, have blondish hair and green/gray eyes, and according to everyone, I am swimming in great vats of privilege (another overused word currently in vogue to make certain people feel guilty for existing).
Having grown up well-fed, clad, educated and traveled in a country where children beg for food on the street, I have been aware of my privilege and my enormous luck since I was a toddler. In Mexico, the color of you skin may very well inform your station in life, with whites mostly on top. Still, I find that making people feel bad because they were born rich, male, white or lucky by accusing them of "privilege" is spurious. Privilege is not a choice. I am an accident of history. I find it a precious privilege that both sides of my family had the presence of mind to escape Eastern Europe long before the nazis came to get them, and that, having had less than zero privilege as Jews in the shtetl, for circumstantial reasons they chose Mexico, where it turned out I could be born free of persecution, into privilege.
I was straight for about 40 years and then fell in love with the woman who is now my partner. However, I like to say that if Michael Fassbender shows up, she'll be toast in a New York minute. I have been accused by gay friends of being in denial about my own sexuality when I have protested that I don't consider myself a lesbian. I had a gay male friend who, upon hearing me confess I had a girlfriend, exclaimed, "I always knew you were a dyke!" Well, isn't that rich? Because I didn't know, and not because of some closet I have yet to come out of. The problem with identity politics is that there is usually someone expecting you to be what they think you are.
I was invited to join Pantsuit Nation, a group of Hillary supporters on Facebook. A man was banned from the page because he had the temerity to put forth his views, which were in agreement with the liberal tenor of the group, albeit in a way which some women considered offensive. In truth, his post had an admonishing tone. But was this a reason to ban him? The responses to his post and subsequent deportation from the page went from puerile put-downs to women sensibly if timidly chiming in that banning him was a bit extreme. In fact, it was appalling. The guy was not disrespectful, just full of himself. He did not say anything offensive. He was contributing something of value. Do we expect all of us to think alike and agree on everything and sound exactly the same? In a democracy?
The current climate of polarization separates all of us into rarefied niches that end up floating away into their own select, put-upon bubbles. Recently, some of these bubbles have burst into attacks by legions of offended people, such as the reprehensible student behavior at Charles Murray's lecture at Middlebury College, or the brouhaha over a painting of Emmett Till created by a white artist at the Whitney Biennial, that devolved into some people demanding that the painting be burned. I was compelled to write on a Facebook post:
You may criticize the aesthetic and conceptual shortcomings of the painting all you want, but saying that a white person cannot make art about a topic that is judged unrelated to their ethnic background is absurd and a noxious kind of censorship. Does this mean that I as a woman writer can only write about women or women like me? If I want to write a story about Japanese internment camps am I not allowed? Till's is a story that shocks, saddens and outrages many Americans who are not Black. Is it possible that the artist feels the same? Attacks like this are a threat not only to freedom of thought and expression but they are against art, since according to this logic no one can create anything that is not directly related to their own personal history. Identity politics is reductive and instead of liberating people, it categorizes them into one-dimensional stereotypes, which is ironically what it is supposed to protect them from.
This tiresome cacophony of grievance, in my view, is related to seeing everything through the prism of one's identity -- it leads to the escalation, exaggeration, and distortion of alleged offenses against whatever labels define you as a person. I'm not saying that we should deny who we are, quite the contrary. The more people are antisemites, the more Jewish I'll be. The more anti-Mexican, the more proudly Mexican. All I'm saying is that we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Our enhanced sensitivity on behalf of ourselves and others is preventing us from fighting real evil. Accusing students of racism because they put a sombrero on a bottle of tequila for a Cinco de Mayo party, or firing a college teacher for defending the right to wear offensive costumes on Halloween doesn't help against the real forces of darkness, it actually abets them. In fact, the forces of darkness are rolling on the floor with glee at the crypto fascist excesses of the politically correct "left".

--> Identity politics affect people on both sides of the divide: the rabid conservatives with their bizarre sore winning and brutal contempt for the whining liberals, and the whining liberals with their p.c. concepts like cultural appropriation, microaggressions and triggering, which increasingly feel like censorship. Social media amplifies the abuse of terms like oppression, privilege, safe space, and has made them into overbearing clichés that weaken the actual meaning of those words and ultimately threaten the free exchange of ideas, which is the cornerstone of progress. If everything is offensive, then nothing is offensive. If everyone is a racist, then no one is a racist. Skirmishes about identity politics leave everyone exhausted and none the wiser. Everybody loses.

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