Among the noble fights and feats of activism undertaken on our campus, few are as impassioned as the mission to engage one’s peers in debate over issues of social justice. From casual conversations about microaggressions to ferocious accusations of privilege on Facebook, the exercise of liberal discourse today revolves around promoting the visibility of marginalized voices. Many such conversations at Yale and elsewhere are settled when an individual steps forward, reveals their marginalized identity category and invalidates all other arguments with the non-negotiable assertion of their lived experience. Herein lies perhaps the most pernicious syntactical construction known to man: the appositive.
An overwhelming number of rebuttals in both online and in-person disputes open ominously with the phrase, “As an x person of y ….” This formula recurs so often in debate that it has come to represent an entire argument unto itself: “I possess the lived experience peculiar to this category, therefore my opinion trumps yours and your arguments are entirely irrelevant.” Its rhetorical use is singular and unmistakable, its political efficacy devastating. The monopolizing power of the “identity appositive” is so effective that I sometimes wonder why people even bother completing the sentence.
As a queer immigrant woman of color, I am frightened — and you should be too.
For all that our debates about social justice purport to secure, there is a real danger in allowing identity categories to take the place of arguments, for both the marginalized and the privileged. No approach could be more intellectually dishonest or uncharitable than refusing to even consider someone’s argument because they do not share a certain lived experience. We do a great disservice to campus discourse when we reject our peers’ arguments based not on flaws in their reasoning but on their inability to use the identity appositive. We leave ourselves no room for valuable critique of their logic; instead we dismiss it as inherently unworthy.
Another problem with the identity appositive is that its usefulness is contingent on a person’s deliberate decision to out themself as a member of x marginalized category. A forum in which legitimacy is determined by self-reported identity categories excludes those who are not comfortable with outing themselves. Someone might give a valid and intelligent argument, but that argument is useless unless it is prefaced by an appositive. A person who fits the image of a “straight white man” but identifies otherwise has no chance of being taken seriously unless they make the decision to publicly out themselves. This judgment is immediate and unforgiving. I am disturbed by how quickly my peers assume that I have no experience with sexual assault, queer identity or mental health issues when I end up disagreeing with them, simply because I choose not to make my “membership” in these invisible categories public. Too often, we confuse identity politics for presentation politics.
The more everyone buys into the identity appositive, the more we promote the idea that lived experience can be sufficiently packaged into a single label. Does it really help the members of a marginalized group to assume that they all have the same worldview, have experienced the same oppression and share the same politics? During Cultural Connections my freshman year, one of my friends confessed that he felt displaced from his ethnicity because he couldn’t bring himself to admit to the other black students that he had never experienced the sort of oppression they described. He felt “less black” for being unable to relate to their stories of oppression.
This sort of displacement is only encouraged by the identity appositive; minorities who do not conform to the prevailing narrative are silenced in the name of social progress, even though they of course have a valid place in conversations of race, gender and sexuality. Assuming that all people within a given category fit neatly into a monolithic narrative makes those who don’t feel like ethnic outliers.
Our conversations about privilege and oppression are unquestionably necessary and valuable. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that judging arguments on the basis of someone’s Facebook profile picture will lead anywhere productive. I should not have to earn my voice in a public debate by outing myself. Neither should anybody else.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .