March 7, 2017

GUEST ROOM | The Wrong Way of the Left

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The other day, one of my close friends at Cornell liked an ironically-transphobic comment on Facebook. While it’s no surprise that he was immediately lambasted, the hostility of his challenger betrays a deeply worrying trend in political discussion. Indeed, my friend was challenged in a public post to “fucking explain himself” before the peanut-crunching crowd, yet his persuasive defense of irony as a way to undermine bigotry was promptly dismissed in further hostile language for being too academic. And we all know how Western, white and cis-male an institution academia is, thereby “invalidating” his argument.

Irrespective of the soundness of my friend’s self-defense, it should bother us all that the merits of an argument are now ignored while considerations of its speaker’s identity take ultimate precedence. Instead of devoting the effort into unpacking a belief, it’s easier for well-intentioned liberals, a group in which I place myself, to simply attack someone for their perceived privilege. However, if a thoughtful opinion on a sensitive issue emerges from a privileged source — in this specific case, academia, of all places — it is not enough to lazily dismiss it. This recent trend is likely a regrettable side-effect of identity politics — which, make no mistake, has mostly been an important and positive development in political discourse — but it isn’t one we should accept. An argument is not invalidated by the identity of its source. The identity of a person who believes that two plus two equals four has nothing to do with the veracity of this argument. Similarly, while social commentary on the political state of the United States is admittedly influenced by identity to a greater extent than math, the robustness of a claim is ultimately distinct from the privilege of its source. It’s uncommon, but it is possible for a gay person to hold a homophobic belief, the same way it is possible for a white, straight, cis-male to voice a sound argument on a controversial issue.

Indeed, it is likewise worrisome that some people I know seemingly voice their political beliefs not with the intent of starting a civil debate on the merits and weaknesses of their views, but to broadcast an aspect of their identity that they consider unmalleable. The fact that political beliefs can be considered “in vogue,” as if they were fashionable ornaments with which to decorate our personality, is evidence of this problem. We shouldn’t treat political expression as a means of showcasing our membership within the liberal bubbles of our respective prestigious colleges. Rather, it is crucial that we see political discussion as an opportunity to debate people on the opposite side with civility for their ideas, no matter how disagreeable they may seem. Only then can we hope to persuade people to change their minds, and to recognize the real problems confronting America today.

This is a problem that extends further than the confines of a Facebook post. Sometimes, when discussing politics with my friends, I sense the need to publicize an aspect of my identity for my argument to be even given a fair chance. I’m an LGBTQ person of color, born in a developing nation, who’s currently in the United States as a foreigner. This article is actually the first time I’ve ever publicized an aspect of my sexual orientation. It’s deeply troubling that I sense the need to broadcast my credentials as a “victim” to have my arguments taken seriously by some of my left-leaning compatriots: I literally need to sacrifice an aspect of my privacy even to be heard. I may be mistaken, but it appears the left has inadvertently created a new system of oppression out of their obsession with the identity of the speaker rather than the soundness of their argument. When legitimate defensive mechanisms are appropriated for offensive self-policing, they begin to harm the very people they intend to serve.

Indeed, this inability to engage in civil political debate with people who hold opposing views, a problem evident on all ends of the political spectrum, will likely ensure Trump’s re-election. When left-leaning Cornellians attempt to silence visitors like Michael Johns and Rick Santorum instead of listening to them and then engaging with their arguments, they only play further into the narrative being constructed by the right that free speech is under threat. After all, one could argue that the protests that cancelled Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking engagement at Berkeley only heightened his public profile. Moreover, such political tactics also rob the left of a valuable opportunity to learn from these speakers. Indeed, we can only deliver the strongest counter-argument to this contemporary bastardization of conservatism after we have heard its proponents make the best case on its behalf.

There are far greater threats to social liberalism in the United States than “oppressive, privileged” institutions like academia. By preoccupying ourselves with battles against false enemies, we distract ourselves from the actual social struggle at hand. As seen by my friend’s online exchange, the recent tactics employed by some left-leaning people alienate potential allies and only strengthen the zeal of the right. Aggressive, identity-obsessed posts like the one my friend was outed in aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. Until something changes, we will not have the necessary dialogue that would tangibly actualize a progressive vision.

Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore at Cornell University. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semesterComments can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com.

  • CU

    Thank you.

  • Tom

    Excellent piece.

  • Sarah

    Ironically, pretty much anyone living in America could be considered “privileged.”

  • anonymous

    First off, I’m not one of those vehemently political liberals that you are speaking out in this article. No, seriously. I’m a quiet introvert who doesn’t like to force myself or my opinions onto others because it was stressful and frustrating for me to always hear my parents arguing and having different views on many things. I didn’t grow up believing that everything I thought and believed is always right because I knew I wasn’t completely educated enough. I always listened to other people’s views too much: so much, (such as that since a few people laughed and wondered aloud whether I was gay or the opposite gender, I began to doubt myself and wonder they were right about me (even though in my heart, when I was younger, I didn’t feel I were these things).

    I grew up mainly living and attending schools with African-Americans because my parents only had one income; I got to know people who were different from me because I was open to learning and hearing their views. In fact, I now feel awkward and too different from white people because I grew up in a different environment than them.

    My mother, a legal immigrant who didn’t attend college and grew up being abused by her parents (then abused my brother and I), and my brother who did attend college, support Trump’s views, very strongly. My brother used to try to argue with my mother to help her see another person’s viewpoint, but, when she would shout and say that he was a young idiot…well, I guess he decided it was better for him to join her in her viewpoints in order to be loved by her and not be verbally criticized. My mother calls the former president and other illegal immigrants things like, “stupid,” “idiot,” etc. I’ve wondered for some time now, whether she is bipolar or has a mood disorder because, most of the time, she’s very angry, shouts and verbally abuses everyone, aloud.

    Has the author of this article read LGBTQ youths’ stories on HUQueerPress, how their university suppressed their stories, how they grew up listening to their conservative parents and communities tell them that they’ll go to hell for being LGBTQ?

    This is exactly how the Trump supporter are in my southern state: They don’t care about listening to others’ views; they reject LGBTQA books being talked about in high schools and universities without even reading them and trying to understand LGBTQA youth’s pain or struggles (so much so, the legislatures in my state even tried to cut funding to a public university); they just write in local newspapers, “Yankees (i.e. northerners) should leave our state and not try to change our way of life.” Out of 46 counties in my state, only 3 vote democratic. It’s not nice, feeling that I’m unwelcome and can’t make friends in the south because people won’t be open to being friends with me. I had friends who were religious in Colorado who were still open to being friends with me, even though I was brought up an atheist.

    Trump supporters in my state are always angry when they speak to another person (A middle-aged white, southern guy came up to me in the street and, because I was white, too, angrily asked me in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, “Where are all the white people? Where are the white neighborhoods?” So, according to this article, I should’ve listened to his angry tirade? I was afraid he might physically attack me, he was that angry and bitter, for some strange reason! I am open to others’ viewpoints; I don’t mind religious people’s religion or viewpoints; I was friends with them and admire the ones who don’t try to push their religion onto other people; I’m just not into hearing or being surrounded by bitter, angry people, anymore; I’ve grown up with enough physical and emotional abuse by these people, already, thanks.

    • Hi Anonymous, I’m late to respond, but I only noticed your comment now as I was referencing some of what I had said in this article in a different one.

      To address your issue, what you raise is a definitely an important question: why shouldn’t we be allowed to ignore THEM if they already ignore US?
      However, while some moral frameworks might suggest that it is justifiable to reciprocate a political opponent’s ignorance with ignorance of our own, the one that I subscribe doesn’t. If given a choice between remaining impartial and open to the arguments of a conservative person, or ignoring them before they’ve even spoken, I would choose the latter on the basis that it’s one more likely to actually lead to some progressive goal eventually being realized. If one really believes that their political views are right, then they should not be afraid to see them be contested, for, if anything, your initial views are likely to be strengthened.

      So long as speech remains speech, its only counterpoint must remain speech. (Of course, a statement like “I’m about to kill _____ within the next 24 hours” bleeds into the realm of action in a way that justifies a more sever response than merely trying to talk the guy out of it.) The speakers I refer to in my article, those who come and visit Cornell, are not only receptive to participating in civil political discussion (why else would they even come to a place like Cornell to speak?) but are either the elected, cultural or organizational leaders of the racist man who shouted anger at you. These people are distinct from the average Trump fanatic from Middle America spewing unchangeable hatred, and are also receptive to having their ideas challenged in a public forum that could indirectly affect the beliefs of the racist you encountered.

      • Man with the Axe

        Did you say “latter” when you meant “former?”

  • Dr. Necessitor

    I voted for Hilary. My two gay brothers and their beaus all voted for Trump. Choosing a candidate is much more complex than you make it.

  • Man with the Axe

    I thought this was an excellent description of the problem, and it was very well-written.

    However, I do have a question. You wrote: “This recent trend is likely a regrettable side-effect of identity politics — which, make no mistake, has mostly been an important and positive development in political discourse — but it isn’t one we should accept.” My question is: What are the positive aspects, if any, of identity politics? So far as I can tell, identity politics is a force for harm in the world. What am I missing?

    • August Strauss

      Identity politics is a double-edged sword. On one hand, uniting people who share a common background allows them, especially if they have been historically oppressed, to push for social change and upend constructs created to keep them divided and weak. When Civil Rights activists rallied African-Americans to stand up and fight harder for their civil rights, it had an effect on the current political climate at the time; of course, no identity-based group should exclude members who don’t belong to that identity, but to deny the legitimacy of identity in politics is to suggest that all individuals are capable of rational, politically detached debate. From my experience on campus, people tie their identities to their ideas because they view one as a manifestation of the other; to question the ideas is to question their identity. Identity politics has allowed minorities to advance their civic rights as equal citizens of the United States of America; we should merely be careful of the excesses of this trend.

      • Sorry for jumping into the comment section this late, but I just wanted to say that I wholeheartedly agree with everything you eloquently explain, August.

      • Man with the Axe

        You wrote: “From my experience on campus, people tie their identities to their ideas because they view one as a manifestation of the other; to question the ideas is to question their identity.”

        People who adopt identity politics probably do think this way, but in my opinion they are wrong. Just to take obvious examples: there are black people who believe that all whites are racists. There are blacks who believe that some whites are racist but both are not. There are black people who believe that blacks cannot be racist because they don’t have power, while others believe that blacks are at least as racist as anyone else, if not more.

        So, if I simply want to consider these ideas and choose which ones I want to believe, I have to challenge the opposing ideas. But in doing so, in your terms, I am both challenging the identity of one group of blacks while defending the identity of others. This makes no sense to me. So far as I can tell, I’m challenging the ideas no matter who came up with them, of whatever race they may be.

        Identity politics also carries within it the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If a black person doesn’t toe the BLM line, is he still black? No, he is an Uncle Tom, or an Oreo. An authentic black person votes Democratic, sits with other blacks in the cafeteria, refuses to date a white person, and refuses to acknowledge that Michael Brown may have been a thug whose hands were not up.

  • Sophia

    Well-written piece! I’m curious, though, about the “false enemies” you mentioned. Couldn’t the arguably overprotective stance of many on the left regarding perceived threats from conservative opinions result from a legitimate place of concern for the effects of hate speech on the people who many conservatives condemn with their words? Certainly, there are overreactions, and perhaps your friend experienced such an overreaction. And if that overreaction was based solely on his privileged identifiers, then it was certainly a misdirected attack. Privilege does not invalidate sound arguments, as you explained (much more eloquently) above. But isn’t it possible that, outside of that issue of privileged opinions being invalidated, some leftists who speak up against conservatives voicing certain opinions in certain ways may be making real efforts to prevent pain being inflicted on vulnerable groups through the careless wording of people whose opinions are based on ignorant or willfully hateful assumptions about the members of those groups? Civil, political debate, in my opinion, is only possible up to the point where people’s identities and very humanity are being called into question by their conversational partner. At this point, how can one be expected to remain civil and argue logically if certain, basic assumptions such as their right to exist in a space or to love the person they love are not being allowed them in the context of the conversation? I don’t know that there is a way to argue one’s way towards being accepted as a human being with basic rights by someone who does not view them as such already. And I don’t know that anyone should have to experience such an attack on their identity. In that vein, an overreaction by a bystander may be more valuable than an under reaction in stopping the effects of hate speech on the bodies and minds of members of groups that are often the subjects of this speech. Who are we more worried about protecting: the potential victims of hate speech, or the accidental participant in harmful actions? Or even less, the willful participant in harmful actions?

    • Hi Sophia, thank you for your response. I’m only going through this comment section now, but I figured that a late response is better than none at all. I understand where you’re coming from: one of my friends correctly challenged my defense of Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement at Berkeley by pointing out just how dangerous to actual trans people some of his views are. And indeed, I relent: when the contents of speech transcend the limits of speech as a direct call to violence, then that value of that speech is evidently diminished by the significance of its harm. However, in reference to speakers like Santorum, Johns, and other influential conservatives, I still maintain what I had said in defense of their speaking engagements still holds.

      To conclude, there’s a documentary that’s been recently making the rounds as a profound reminder of transformative potential of non-violent resistance to racism, bigotry and the like — especially that of rational, sympathetic (“sympathetic” referring to one’s desire to take an opponent’s argument at its strongest) dialogue. It’s titled “Accidental Courtesy” and is available here: http://accidentalcourtesy.com/

      • Man with the Axe

        I would agree with you if the speech in question was actually “dangerous to actual trans people…” But what does that mean? What danger was Milo posing to trans people?

        Would a speaker be subject to being shut down if he were to argue, for example, that trans people are people of one sex who are pretending to be the opposite sex? Is that the sort of thing that you find unable to defend? Or is this simply an idea that certain trans people and their supporters don’t like?

  • Man with the Axe

    Sophia, You identify the real dispute: When can speech that you believe is hateful be met with force instead of more speech?

    The answer should be (virtually) never. If your speech challenges my identity or humanity, well, that’s too bad for me. My only recourse must be to argue otherwise. If I am allowed to stop you from speaking then we are going to go to (literal) war to decide who is right, and who has the right to speak. If you express an opinion that I don’t have the right to love (i.e., have sex with or marry) some person I love, such as my 9-year old cousin, I’m just going to have to argue with you, not try to shut you down. Otherwise, we will be going to war to resolve our differences.

    I honestly don’t understand why leftists don’t get this. They are anxious to assume the power to decide what is hateful (even if true) and what is not, and then exerting that power against those who disagree with them. This is not how a civilization deals with disputes. When your speakers are shouted down and attacked I guarantee you will be writing a different sort of comment.