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  • Writer's pictureMaia Harrison

On Identity Politics

Updated: Feb 7, 2019

As I continue to read about the effects of identity politics on global affairs, I’ve been filled with an increasing sense of worry. This has primarily been because pinning down a concrete and defining "identity" is a difficult process that is full of nuance for much of the public. For me, my identity is shaped by my American, Indian, Norwegian, and Singaporean heritage, as well as that of being a young woman, and an immigrant.

Although identity has the power to shape our perceptions of the world and the people around us (as a young woman I therefore perhaps feel more kinship to issues such as sexual harassment and reproductive rights) it seems lazy to stereotype these things as “women’s issues”, as it alienates the rest of the population and absolves them from responsibility. Personal identity continues to hold a key place in our society due to this power, but I believe that it is important to not conflate personal and lived experience with sound and robust political analysis.

When I debate in competitions, I have often been warned against using the “ad hominem” argument – attacking the unchangeable personal characteristics and attributes of my peers in order to win. Instead, I’ve been told to drill down to the issue we discuss – and take the opposition’s argument in its best and most convincing form. Shouldn’t this be the case for politics and the media as well?

Political discourse should be whittled down to the causation and repercussions of issues, and the specific policy meant to combat them. Whether an candidate for political office is Conservative, a Democrat, or a member of ‘The Official Monster Raving Loony Party’ (yes, it really does exist!), it should not be the color of their skin, religious beliefs, or their gender identity that defines their role as a leader but instead how robust their proposed solutions are.

It is truly important that we begin to understand “identity politics”: its causes, and the importance it holds in today’s political landscape. Ideally, it should call on us to reflect on what it is about what we do that angers others so much, and how we can reconcile the different aspects of our identities in a way that produces mutually beneficial settlements. It should be a means to see a vital aspect of all politics, and how it plays a key role in shaping how people respond to us.

Although the idea of "identity politics" is not a new one, with its beginnings dating back to the Enlightenment movement of the 17th century, the advent of online media sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow for an arena where conflicts focused on identity can play out. It has become commonplace for people to be stereotyped to either vote Democrat or Republican, to be Pro Life or Pro Choice entirely dependent on their race, age, socioeconomic background, or religious denomination. Frankly, this seems patronising -- decisions should be made on broad-based political knowledge, instead of a single category that cannot possibly encapsulate an entire lived experience or education.

It is only through increased education and civic literacy that we can begin to understand the policy behind an individual, and thus make educated decisions based on our own values. This education could lead to more enthused debate, where ideas are posited and strategies are discussed with civility. Although one’s identity is an indisputably influential factor in their life, it should not be a determining factor in the opinions they espouse, or undermine the validity of the ideas they put forward.

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