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Frankly Speaking: Identity politics

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Last week, Frankly Speaking had the Stanford community weigh in on the question: Do identity politics chill campus discourse at Stanford? We received a number of thoughtful replies, and three of them published below.

Some context: discussions surrounding identity politics, and the issues they have elevated, have become increasingly prominent on college campuses, including ours. But some iterations of identity politics, in locating injustice in systems that are upheld by individual actions, argue that certain speech is itself harmful to people of certain identities, and this speech should be discouraged or even banned. This has been most salient recently in resistance to speakers on campus who hold opinions deemed harmful by certain groups. Questions of identity politics pervade our communities on campus. For many, approaching questions of justice and community from the standpoints of identities and situated knowledge is essential for systemic change. But others object that such discourse limits the acceptable range of speech and stifles deliberative discussions. With that in mind, the responses:

Leonel Lugo, University Staff:

Identity politics themselves do not stifle the ability to talk openly and honestly about certain issues; it is people that are incapable or unwilling to listen to those with differing opinions that do. In life and in politics, there are going to be topics that people identify with very strongly, on both extremes. Most people, though, lie on the gray line in the middle, which is why discussions about these issues are so important. As a minority, these social and racial issues are more personal, and I am glad they are at the forefront of discussion — but that discussion should be done so as calmly as possible. When a discussion is overtaken by emotion, it does not allow room for people to be heard. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong, and nobody wants to feel like they have to walk on eggshells around their peers. Allow people to speak, but don’t make assumptions without listening to them. These types of discussions are important and should be talked about; no matter how difficult it may be. But we won’t ever get the chance to talk about them if either side isn’t willing to listen. 

Jeeven Larson, Undergraduate Student:

In demarcating society in terms of characteristics such as race, sex, financial background and religious affiliation, identity politics foster tribalism and create animosity and suspicion between different groups. This is explained by the psychological phenomenon of ingroup and outgroup friction. More pertinently, members of certain campus groups are inculcated with the notion that conservatives are by default their adversaries. To then reactively suppress their political speech violates the first amendment and other legal precedent, which set no arbitrary metrics that deem the suppression of political speech more beneficial than its permittance. Therefore, supporters and activists of this suppression must provide logical, particular evidence — evidence such as policy, quotations or history of endorsement — that makes it clear that a said conservative individual or organization poses an imminent danger to the group’s welfare (Schenck v. U.S.).

Members of such groups have not offered a single specific testimony to edify their fellow members or to justify this censorship. In neglecting to do the former, they compel others to suppress in groupthink fashion, based on assumptions they are both unsure of and unwilling to factualize. This can be likened to a jury convicting an individual after refusing to hear the prosecution. Thus, identity politics stifle and homogenize campus discourse when certain groups imitate their historical oppressors: using heuristics to justify discrimination against another, namely in infringing their constitutional right to political speech. In fear of defamation in an institution prized for intellectual invigoration and exploration, those inclined to conservative ideas increasingly become silent.

Timnah Zimet, Graduate Student: 

“Identity politics” is a misleading phrase. When white men run for office, with policies that protect their own interests, do we say, “Goodness, I wish that man would leave identity politics out of this”? No. We only use this phrase if, say, a black politician wants to pass policies that will, for instance, stop police from murdering black people. “Identity” only ever means marginalized identity — and the more marginalized you are, the more people say that whatever you do is “identity politics.” White men are so clearly shown as the default that we don’t even think of them as having an identity that affects their politics. But it does. So in my opinion, criticisms of “identity politics” are criticisms of the identities themselves.

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Frankly Speaking is aimed at extending discourse and debate on important subjects beyond Daily staffers. We want to hear from students across disciplines and social identities about their unique takes on campus news and culture. 

If you want to have your take on campus news published in The Daily, contribute to the next edition of Frankly Speaking at tinyurl.com/franklyspeaking257.

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