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Identity politics vs. productive discourse

Campus is saturated today with “identity politics,” the political phenomenon of various groups arranging themselves by their “identity.” One student writer at The Harvard Crimson recently made an eloquent case for doing away with this movement.

“Identity politics makes people feel better about themselves at the expense of productive discourse,” writes Michelle Gao at The Crimson.

Gao, a sophomore at Harvard and an editorial editor at The Crimson, writes frankly that she once ascribed to identity politics: “I used to believe in identity politics because it told me: You and your experience matter. Your identity gives you authority. Your beliefs can’t be invalidated because your identity can’t be invalidated. This logical leap was empowering to take.”

She notes that one aspect of the rise of identity politics was that “non-white people decided that their non-whiteness enabled them to speak with authority on topics of race. White people could only participate when they admitted that they were less worthy of speaking.”

Gao encountered a disappointing reality upon returning home, however: “At the dinner table, I was ready to proselytize why we Asians, as people of color, needed to fight institutionalized racism and support minority movements like Black Lives Matter. I was armed with my experiences and the rhetoric of how America was built on a history of racism and white superiority.”

It didn’t work out so well:

[It] was like I ran into a brick wall. The problem wasn’t that my parents didn’t know these things. They simply didn’t care much about them. They emphasized their own lived experiences as Asians instead—immigrating to America in the 1980s and creating new lives in a time of arguably more open racism than that of today. They didn’t have any reason to oppose whiteness and support black-led movements. White people weren’t any more racist to them than black people. The trajectories that other immigrants led proved that America was a land of opportunity, even for minorities.

Under the rules of identity politics, arguing with my parents about race became essentially impossible. I could never make progress if I kept staking my correctness on being Asian and my experiences living with that identity. My parents, who had the same marginalized identity, could do the same thing. We’d be at a standstill. Admitting that our beliefs were wrong would mean essentially yielding our identity, and nobody was willing to give that up.

I realized that I had lowered the standard of conversation by opening with appeals to our race. I was not giving reasons why we should act; I was merely arguing that external factors obligated us to act. But arguments following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” make for halfhearted allyship at best.

“The best solution,” Gao eventually decided, “was to deemphasize identity altogether. Appealing to my parents on the basis of race was unnecessary to the discussions I wanted to have.”

“[N]o identity makes the beliefs that someone derives from their lived experience automatically more correct,” Gao points out. “This is not just a logical fallacy that should be avoided on principle. In practice, it is actually a hindrance to persuading others. In a time of such polarization, identity politics makes us close ranks with the like-minded when we need to reach out.”

Read the whole op-ed here.

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