I sit in the middle of a coffee shop, alone, eavesdropping on conversations. It’s what I do on occasion, and sometimes it helps me realize simultaneously the hope and the despair for this world and our nation. The practice may be considered rude, but when you open your mouth, you intend to be heard. Who hears you is out of your control.
Nonetheless, I was sitting in a coffee shop, letting the caffeine in my cortado rouse me from the morning haze, when I overheard something rather peculiar.
“…Wait, so she’s voting for Trump? Is it because she’s religious or something?”
“No, she’s not religious. I just can’t believe it because she’s voting for such a misogynist.”
This sort of exchange might not be considered strange to some. It might even be very commonplace. However, this time I picked up on something that I previously had not thought about. In this exchange, the two women were more concerned with the labels and roles ascribed to their friend than the reasoning behind her choice of candidate.
This is a classic example of a detestable practice known as identity politics. It is something we all occasionally fall prey to—the reduction of a person to an individual aspect in order to accomplish some form of political end.
Now belittling others conversationally is one thing. However, it was assumed that because the woman’s friend was a woman she would not support the GOP candidate. Also, the conversing women acted as many others and decided to generalize anyone voting for Trump as a part of religious right. The women, not seeing their friend’s actions as matching her labels, subsequently discounted her.
Regardless of your political affiliations, defaming others when they are unaware is simply rude. Justify these actions however you wish; it is rude. Identity politics does this unceasingly.
The modern identity politic dogma is as follows: you are your thoughts, actions, race, roles, sexuality, and gender; you will act in accordance with what those groups practice as a collective; and straying from these will result in devaluation from any or all of these groups.
These precepts consequently reduce an individual to their parts. When we respond to others seeking to affirm the in-group and out-group, we open ourselves up for exploitation and play into identity politics. Identity politics have a more frequent usage that is, however, heralded as the bastion of human rights. In a perfect world, it would not be necessary, but we do not live in a utopia.
When groups form on the foundation of a collective identity, such as the aforementioned categories of thoughts, actions, race, etc., this is also considered identity politics. Seldom will someone call it that, but an example of this would include the Civil Rights Movement.
By no means am I saying that the Civil Rights Movement was unnecessary or negative. What I am saying is the methods used in creating a collective identity is not to be used everywhere. It especially should not be brought into the mainstream of political discussion. Any observation of the current political climate of the United States will demonstrate that this is not the case.
Everything is a battle between two diametrically opposed identities, the conceding of any common ground between the two would be to admit total defeat. Moreover, when identity groups form and seek political action, they will pit themselves against another. It is inherently divisive when it does not have to be.
For example, the LGBTQ+ community poises itself as being diametrically opposed to the religious right. Therefore, to be gay is to be against conservatives and against religion, when these varying aspects never have to be separate. It is entirely capable for someone to be gay, conservative, and religious. Once again, the usage of identity politics puts an undue emphasis on one aspect of a person and restricts them to a mold.
The even darker side of identity politics comes into play when these varying groups try to vie for an undue portion of a person’s identity. As with the case of the LGBTQ+ example, this specific community places the primary emphasis on who someone is on their sexuality when they are more than that. This emphasis on a single identifier can be damaging when one’s sexuality is only a small portion of that individual.
Identity politics is a tricky thing. While not entirely immoral, it seems that most contemporary applications would fall under that category. There is a time and a place for the ideology behind these understandings of an individual, but their overuse has had a damaging impact on reasonable discourse when there are actual problems on the table.
Looking back to my early morning eavesdropping, perhaps I should have said something about the damaging rhetoric being used in the coffee shop by letting those women know that their friend’s identity is not the product of the labels they are trying to put on her.