Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Identity Politics

A while ago, I was accused (or, more accurately, diagnosed) by one of my friends of subscribing to identity politics because I like Hillary Clinton. My indignation of such an accusation has not yet entirely dissipated, and that is partially because I like Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons wholly separate from her gender and partially because claiming someone has engaged or is engaging in identity politics is a way of diminishing their opinion. Claiming that I engage in identity politics is a way of silencing me, and my experience. It is a way of dismissing my view and my concerns and my point, because if all of those things are intrinsically linked to my being a woman and my politician being a woman, obviously I have very little of substance. That angers me, as a feminist, as a political junkie, as a voter, and as a citizen of the United States. I know why I like Hillary; I know why I like Barack Obama. And to claim that someone knows better than I strikes deeply of paternalism and signifies a deep lack of respect for me as not only a woman but as an informed individual. Why do I bring this up now? Well, because Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama has opened up a shitstorm of controversy, much of it aimed at the idea that of course Powell endorsed Obama. After all, they are both black. Colin Powell has been hit with the same diminishing stick I have been hit with previously. And what offends me more than being treated as something of a brainless wonder who merely follows her ovaries to a woman politician is how the people who dare label others with the identity politics stick never seem to check their own privilege.

White men have the luxury of rarely having their reason for voting one way or the other be determined by the fact that they share testicles and skin color with the politician of their choice, both because white male politicians are ubiquitous in politics but also because being a white male is the default. It is a position of power whose biases have gained a certain amount of invisibility. If a white man is voting for John McCain, there is not a media-wide *wink-wink, nudge-nudge* about it. We do not quibble over whether or not Joe Lieberman endorsed John McCain out of racial solidarity, even though Lieberman has a liberal domestic policy record, even though he supports abortion rights and the rights of homosexuals to adopt and to be protected from hate crimes. We accept that Joe Lieberman and John McCain are friends; we accept that Joe Lieberman has chosen to support McCain because he honestly and genuinely believes a McCain presidency would be the best thing for our nation. That is a privilege Colin Powell, another isle crosser, has not been afforded. That is something women for Hillary were not afforded. That is something African-Americans supporting Obama have not been afforded. It has seemingly been forgotten that African-Americans have long been a solid base for Democrats; it has also seemingly been forgotten, what with all the accusations flying around about PUMAs, that if Barack Obama loses this election (though that is becoming more and more a faint possibility), it won't be the women voters' fault but the white men who support Barack Obama to the tune of 33-37%. Obama is roughly splitting white women's votes, like Al Gore before him. But it will not be the white men who are blamed. The meme has been set for white women to take the fall; white men's negative impact very rarely enters into the media's consciousness, let alone the general public's consciousness, when it comes time to discuss the polling. White men are afforded that; white men are deemed to concentrate on more important things than gender or race. They have a leg up on women and African-Americans in that for every election until this one, both of the major parties have had white men at the top of the ticket. White men do not have to question whether or not they are playing identity politics, because even if they are it is indistinguishable due to that fact.

I often wonder if men may play the identity politics game more often than not; it seems that women and African-Americans would be more used to looking beyond who we look like, or who we share procreative organs with. We often have to find some other reason to vote for the candidate, even if it is as simple as figuring out which of the two white men we would most want to have a beer with. When Pat Robertson accuses Colin Powell of engaging in identity politics and only endorsing Obama because of the shared color of their skin, I wonder if Robertson will vote for McCain in this election because of the shared color of their skin. I wonder if the reason some white men are so quick to cry identity politics is because they suspect they see something reflecting in others they recognize in themselves. That is actually the same question I have with some conservatives, who talk about the Democrats being corrupt while they shove military contracts toward Haliburton. I have the same question about Democrats and gun restrictions, and whether they want to keep guns out of people's hands because they recognize what they could potentially do if they owned one.

Mostly, though, my view of the identity politics cry is that it is a simple and easy way to discredit someone else's argument, opinion, and experience. It is like a weird game of chicken; whoever cries "identity politics" first wins. A professor I had used to comment that once something became a moral argument, there was no use arguing it any more, because a line had been irreparably drawn in the sand; once someone says something is morally right - or morally wrong - the argument is stymied. Same too in this way. The clarion cry of identity politics is often not a genuine and analytical assessment, no matter what those trumpeting it will claim. It reveals an inherent bias, and a will to shut down discussion; it undermines the conversation, and allows the crier to reign on top, his credentials unquestioned and his motives found pure from such dastardly motive.


John said...

Silly girl. Everybody you'll vote for Hillary because she's got ovaries, and for Obama because you've got white guilt. Or just that you'll vote democrat because that's part of your identity as well. Come to think of it, isn't someone who always votes along party lines also guilty of identity politics?

I think it's true what your professor said about arguments. Once your opponent's argument becomes "it's morally wrong," you stop being able to fight it it (other than to expose some personal moral hypocrisy, and even then self-deceiving rationalization usually swoops in to save the day.)

Didn't Colin Powell address the whole "he's black, I'm black" thing on the day he announced his endorsement? I seem to recall reading that he said something along the lines of, "If I was going to vote for him solely based on race, it wouldn't have taken me this long to decide." Unless he planned this announcement to be some sort of secret weapon. You know how crafty those military-types can be.

John said...

*everybody knows.

mikhailbakunin said...

First of all, we've heard OVER and OVER again that white voters -especially Southern and Midwestern males - will not vote for a black candidate. We've seen books and articles exploring the 'angry white man' syndrome. And we've watched daily as pundits debate the Bradley Effect. How is this any different from what you're decrying?

Obama's supporters often point to his race as a potential strength; Clinton supporters point to her gender. But if I suggest that there are hints of identity politics at play here, I'm "silencing" people and "diminishing" their opinions? You can't have it both ways.

Here's how Wikipedia defines identity politics:

"Identity politics is political action to advance the interests of members of a group whose members are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological wiring)."

Saying that you support a candidate because of his or her racial identity IS identity politics. Even if that's only one factor among many. When my white, privileged brother argues that one of the reaons he supports Obama is Obama's racial heritage, he's engaging in identity politics.

I agree with your professor (Tom Heed?). And I think that expressing such moral outrage at the notion that identity politics exists and, yes, you and I are both susceptible is absolutely a way to stymie legitimate discussion.

MediaMaven said...

I was thinking Cassidy.

petpluto said...

It was Tom Heed.

And excuse me, Jeremy, but I have never said that I would vote for Hillary because she had ovaries. That was something YOU said ABOUT my support of Hillary Clinton.

And I stand by the fact that I have heard very little about angry white male voters; I've heard that whites (men and women) wouldn't vote for a black man. I've heard that Obama has a problem with "white women", that if Obama loses, it will be because he did not get enough of the "white woman" vote. And I've heard people like Powell having his rationale for supporting Obama questioned in a knee-jerk way and have not seen that same question put to people like Joe Lieberman who are supporting John McCain. And it is a problem.

More than that, I am not trying to have it both ways. I am speaking about my own experience. I am not speaking for the women who claimed Clinton's gender was a strength and a reason for voting for her; I'm not talking about Obama's supporters who volunteer the information that one of the reasons they are voting for him is based on his race. What I am talking about is those of us who have not said that; I am talking about the fact that I have been accused of something I do not subscribe to. I am talking about the fact that Powell went out of his way to explicitly say it was not a question of race. I'm talking about the fact that the question was not even floated when people support white male candidates in many, many situations.

And yes, unless someone says, "I'm voting for so-and-so because of gender/race/beer choice", it is inappropriate and silencing to claim the other person is voting from a position of identity politics. I am not denying that identity politics exists. What I am frustrated with is the way it pops up in discussion and the way it is used to undermine another's position, whether or not they are actually engaging in identity politics. And whether that person is or not, unless they actually say something to that affect, the way they vote is between them and their voting god, and so diagnosing them is at the very least rude.

mikhailbakunin said...

Can we recall the comment that precipitated this whole back-and-forth? I directed you to an article by Andrew Sullivan that was critical of Clinton and, after reading it, you responded, "I take what Andrew Sullivan says about Hillary Clinton with a grain of salt, since during the primary season he was one of the people who most offended my own personal feminist sensibilities in his commentary on her."

I asked - and genuinely wondered - "Really? You didn't think his arguments were at all compelling? Did he [Sullivan] offended your ‘feminist sensibilities’ simply because he attacked a female leader? Sure, he said nasty things about her, but he's said far nastier things about her husband."

Now, I can see how that inquiry may be perceived as subtly offensive (and, if you remember, I quickly apologized for it), but I don't see how a question - asked in earnest - could be interpreted as an attempt to "silence" you. I simply didn’t know what you meant by “feminist sensibilities,” and I didn’t see how Sullivan’s comment was in any way sexist. To claim that I was suggesting you only support Clinton because of her gender would be a total distortion. But you continue to make that claim.

You went on to write another post entitled “Bite Me So Hard For That,” simply because I had asked what I thought was an innocuous follow-up question.

In that post, you explained, “I didn't start off liking Hillary Clinton because she was a woman, but after a while her being a woman and being subject to what was basically highly televised and publicized street harassment made me want her to win more. Because what was hurled at Hillary Clinton, the belittling she faced, is the belittlement women in general face.”

You went on to cite a number of legitimate and compelling reasons why you disagreed with Sullivan (and me). But you also explained that your top two reasons for supporting Clinton were based on gender - or, more accurately, on your visceral response to what you perceived as a sexist onslaught against Clinton (and, by extension, all women).

That is identity politics, plain and simply. That doesn’t mean that it’s not understandable. When I hear critiques against “angry, white men,” I absolutely have a knee-jerk reaction. It makes sense.

To charge that I was somehow “silencing” or “diminishing” you by calling your comments a form of “identity politics” is totally ridiculous. You explicitly said that gender identity was one of the primary reasons why you began to like Clinton. As far as I know, Colin Powell insisted that race didn’t play a factor in his decision at all.

(By the way, according to Wikipedia, Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men spent 50 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.)

petpluto said...

"But you also explained that your top two reasons for supporting Clinton were based on gender - or, more accurately, on your visceral response to what you perceived as a sexist onslaught against Clinton (and, by extension, all women).

That is identity politics, plain and simply."

Sorry, but bull-freakin' shit. I have never claimed that my top two reasons for supporting Clinton were based in gender. I said that, after I had already granted Clinton my allegiance, the disturbing level of misogyny directed toward Clinton made me want her to win all the more.

Saying "but you feel that way because you're a female and you can identify with Clinton" is a way of diminishing my experience. Although you may feel asking me "Did he [Sullivan] offended your ‘feminist sensibilities’ simply because he attacked a female leader?" was innocuous, it was in fact far from it. Feminism is not based on gender, simply and purely. And to say that I would only feel this way because Clinton was a woman did make me feel attacked and did make me feel like my experience and my opinion was being discounted based my on my gender. Hence, "bite me so hard for that".

And more than that, if identity politics is such a big thing, not attached to gender or race but something that actually affects every voter, why bother claiming that someone is suffering from identity politics and attributing that to their gender or race, and implicitly claim the higher ground? Because that's what happens there. It is kind of like, "Did you stop beating your wife?" Whether or not you did, whether or not the person asking the question does, you still come to the conversation at a disadvantage.

petpluto said...

I also think it is important to note - hours later- that this really isn't about you. What you said annoyed me, but I do think you were falling into the "everybody does it" category. It did bother me, and its affect was far from innocuous, but this is more about the fact that there are people out there who will use identity politics to shut down Colin Powell and people like him, without checking their own privilege.

mikhailbakunin said...

Ok, again, this is totally ridiculous. You said, “And I believe I would have reacted as strongly to every 'bitch', every 'cross my legs', every man imitating a woman's apparently horrible voice with 'take out the garbage', and single reference to how her outfit isn't getting the job done, how her hair isn't quite right, how her face is wrinkly, how the American public doesn't want to see a woman age in the White House . . . .”

I did say, “I understand how you can feel that way, but you feel that way because you're a female and you can identify with Clinton.” I said that because YOU had explained earlier, “I felt myself as someone who had ovaries as being subject by proxy to those same, baseless, sexist, useless attacks, I grew closer to Hillary Clinton's campaign.”

That is identity politics. I'm not the one who first said that you empathized with Clinton because you’re a woman – you were! Again, I never suggested that Clintons’ gender is the only reason you supported her. You jumped to that unfounded conclusion.

This whole conversation was sparked by one silly follow-up question that you found offensive. Maybe it was an ignorant question - that’s why I apologized. But rather than give me the benefit of the doubt, you insisted that I was trying to "silence" you, dehumanize you, and gain the moral high ground.

There’s a real irony here. As I’ve said before, I don’t think that identity politics is necessarily a bad thing. (You’ve also said, “. . . I fail to see exactly what is wrong with some of identity politics. It makes sense to say, ‘This is a person who cares about what I care about’ as long as that thought has voting records and a history to back it up.”) My problem is that while identity politics can often emerge in response to genuine prejudice and it can produce positive results, it can also lead to baseless charges of “racism” and “sexism.” Calling someone a racist or a sexist is the ultimate attempt to steal the moral high ground. And I can’t think of a better way to stifle legitimate discussion.

(I agree with you totally about Colin Powell, by the way.)

petpluto said...

"But rather than give me the benefit of the doubt, you insisted that I was trying to "silence" you, dehumanize you, and gain the moral high ground. "

No, I said that is what it does, not what you were trying to do.

I also have to say that you are incredibly strident in tone many times when you are commenting, and so I respond in kind. So part of the problem may be that we are both responding to each other in harsher tones than we ourselves recognize or acknowledge, so both of us are more apt to feel attacked and/or belittled and/or insulted. Just throwing it out there.

And I used that example as a jumping off point for when people are actually trying to do that, and use the idea of identity politics to discredit someone else's opinion, especially when that person goes out of their way to distance themselves from identity politics. And also, how one-sided the claim of identity politics is. Lieberman isn't hit with the stick. You aren't hit with the stick. Powell is; other women are.

I probably should have made that clearer in the original post, but I don't think you were trying to silence me or diminish me. Nevertheless, that is what happens. Because your words do not exist in a vacuum. Because you may have meant to be innocuous, but due to the underlying issues in greater society, it carries a weight that you may not have recognized.

“And I believe I would have reacted as strongly to every 'bitch', every 'cross my legs', every man imitating a woman's apparently horrible voice with 'take out the garbage', and single reference to how her outfit isn't getting the job done, how her hair isn't quite right, how her face is wrinkly, how the American public doesn't want to see a woman age in the White House . . . .”

I did say that; but that doesn't mean I would have VOTED for the woman, or that I would have felt connected to a woman because of it. It means that I recognize how, regardless of political party, what visceral misogynistic language toward one woman means about the place of ALL women in society. I hate what people have been saying about Sarah Palin when it is based solely on her gender, because it is the same thing. I would have -and I do- react strongly because it demonstrates how far from kosher women still are in American society. It has less to do with Hillary Clinton than it does with society at large. Which is what you seem to not get.

"I'm not the one who first said that you empathized with Clinton because you’re a woman – you were!"

I said that I felt as if I were being attacked as well, because what was being said about her is by proxy being said about all women; again, like Sarah Palin. I wanted her to win more because I wanted her to prove those critics wrong, but I had wanted her to win from the very start. Which is where I think labeling me is wrong, because I didn't come to the Clinton campaign thinking "She's a woman, I'm a woman, it's totally meant to be". And I grew closer to the camp not just based on what was being said about her, but also based on how she reacted. I thought she continually, in that aspect of the campaign, demonstrated a lot of class and I admired that as well.

My contention is that your actions do not exist in a bubble. And if I don't think identity politics played much of a part in my gravitating toward Hillary Clinton's campaign and why I wanted her to be president, then you should respect that instead of assuming that you know more about my thought process than I myself do. I know why I like who I like; I may not always explain it well or in the most unambiguous terms, but I do. And to continue to argue with me and try to make me "see the light", as it were, over it when I have clearly denounced that as a major (and that is the other thing; you are claiming that it is a major part of my decision making, which I also take issue with) part of my thought process is hurtful and does take on a "I know better than you" aspect. You may see identity politics. You may not feel like identity politics is a bad thing; and that is all well and good. But that does not mean that my own opinion is less or that it is null and void because of your own conclusion.

And I have to say again, this post wasn't really about you. I used that as my starting off point, and I wrote how it made me feel and what it did, and then segued into Colin Powell. Because like it or not, that is what the claim of identity politics generally does. It silences people, even if you have the best intentions at the starting gate.

And the problem that I have with the constant cry of identity politics is the way women=women, and minorities=minorities, and that is as far as the thought process goes. The greater implications and the greater nuances of one's political alignment are not examined, because its presence has already been explained by virtue of the lowest common denominator.

mikhailbakunin said...

That's fair.

I certainly wasn't trying to claim that I know you better than you know yourself. I was just trying to defend myself because you kept writing new posts about this.

And I really don't intend to sound strident, but I'm sure that my writing comes off that way sometimes.