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 [email protected].