The Tricks of Identity Politics

By
November 10, 2008

My last column, as some of you may might know, caused quite a stir on some sections of this campus. My intention for writing these columns is partially to shake things up, partially to use sarcasm to illicit a guffaw or two, and yes, also to question certain trends in the academy that I believe are intellectually no longer working. My intention is, has never been, to hurt anyone. But the column hurt people and for that, I am truly sorry. I never meant to upset or violate anyone. I did those things, and for that I apologize from the bottom of my heart.

I must apologize most of all to the class that I used examples from- it is a class filled with intelligent and good people, and the discussion we had was ultimately enlightening. I did what columnists do- I took a single incident from a greater moment and used it to illustrate my larger point. But in doing so I demeaned not only the true spirit of the classes conversation, and worse, I actively hurt many involved in that discussion. This was never my intention. I am sorry.

In politics they often talk about the teachable moment- the moment in the aftermath of a gaffe, a mistake, anything that has caused or created pain. A cynic would see it as a way to mop up the spill, and it is, but the day we stop making mistakes is the day we stop breathing. And since I am still huffing and puffing I might as well keep learning. So here is some of what I have learned:

1. I made a major breach in not recognizing the difference of my roles; my role as columnist is very different than my role in the class, and I conflated the two. Not seeing the fine edge of the knife between these roles showed an egregious lapse of judgment. In roles that involve other people, we must pride the roles that look after others. We all, as students, people, partners, parents, friends, and professionals, wear many hats. Sometimes crossing the line between these roles can also mean crossing an ethical line, like slicing DNA to make a super-sized glow in the dark monkey with a robot brain. If I wanted to make a real argument about the weak points in identity politics and the places in our campus where I feel it might do damage

I first needed to do no damage.

2. Sarcasm is a delicate tool. And it is easily misunderstood. In the column I was being a bit tongue in cheek. By pairing my support for a ‘besieged minority community’ with my support with the fully fictive ‘sexually confused underwater basket weavers’ I hoped I would be flagging the fact that I was making an overstatement. But because I am addressing an incredibly tender, delicate subject, these moments of tongue in cheek turned into moments of foot in mouth.

3. And here is a huge thing- while I still stand by the subtle point I was trying to make, by abusing my classmates privacy any argument I tried to make was lost. The only way to open up a conversation with those who disagree with you is to be respectful of the people with whom you disagree.

Let me be clear… I understand that in the real world being white and middle class puts you at more than a huge advantage. Those who are other are disenfranchised on a mass and disgusting scale. My argument was never to deny that reality. I take that as a given. But I do believe that on this campus we have a responsibility to be better than the world outside our gates. That means we must not merely right wrongs, we must aim to find a way to attempt to move beyond them.

Otherwise we are stuck in an endless argument. Not a dialogue. And my problem with identity politics as it is often practiced on our campus is that sometimes it just flips the script, and while that means that different people get the speaking parts, sometimes it is a familiar story. I am not sure that is enough. My problem with identity politics isn’t a denial of the realities it seeks to expose, it is with the solution, or lack there of, that it provides to those problems. If what we seek to expose on campus is the way in which color, class, gender, and orientation define us from the outside, we are also engaged in creating new definitions. Once we expose the world as a hollow fiction of the powerful, where does that leave those who partially inhabit pockets of power. Change is not just raising one fists against the status quo, it also means creating a viable new way to make that change permanent. I believe that means everyone needs a new narrative. And pure guilt for the way things are and the way in which you color or class helps practice disenfranchise does not a narrative make. The way in which I made my argument I deeply regret, but I stand by my assertion that the only way to move out of the reproduction of repression is to allow everyone a place, and a space at the table. Otherwise we are still clinging to the old narratives like they’re guns and religion.


The Tricks of Identity Politics was published on November 10, 2008 in Opinions

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