I am compelled by stories. I can’t remember a time when I was not a voracious and unrelenting reader. I read literature in far greater quantities than political theory or philosophy. I do this because I find it enjoyable, but also because I believe that stories — whether they are expressed in books, at the kitchen table or on the Senate floor — are fundamental components of who we are. We can never separate our own personal stories from our political beliefs.
In literary theory, we often use the following term: literary lens. Essentially, a literary lens is the perspective through which you interpret a piece of text. A lens can be a specific literary theory, but it can also be something more fundamental: feminist, historical, Marxist. These lenses are easily repurposed for politics. However, the problem with interpreting politics through “lenses” and “perspectives” is the assumption that we can try on perspectives like trying on hats, or perhaps more dangerously: the notion that we can strip away parts of ourselves until only a “normal” perspective exists, a perspective that aligns with a white, cisgender and heterosexual male point of view.
Stripping our identities is not so easy. This is because, as a result of the current polarized political climate — in which one party clearly favors rights for minorities and another does not — we have effectively reduced “identity politics” to a phrase without meaning, a statement of contempt for conservatives and a vehicle for #resistance liberals to defend. Neither side of the political spectrum has articulated a clear vision for identity politics. Often, both sides’ visions presume that identity politics are at play when we discuss misogyny, racism or homophobia, but absent when we discuss education, infrastructure and economic growth.
The issue with this view is that identities, like literary lenses, cannot be stripped away. We all have identities that inform our politics; thus, all politics are identity politics. The difference is that identity politics not subject to skepticism are the politics of the privileged — the white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and wealthy. These individuals are seen as the voice of rationality; theirs is the identity that reigns supreme. The reason why identity politics are so detested is because the identities under discussion are ones that the privileged class actively seeks to suppress.
This misunderstanding, that identity politics only belong to vulnerable groups, matters. First, it presumes that specific identities are not based on an intersectional framework. It presumes that women’s issues are not linked to disparities in income level and that Black issues are not implicit in conversations about access to a fair, equal education. But this assumption is also dangerous. When liberals presume that seemingly conflicting identities cannot exist within a single person and conservatives presume that issues can exist outside the bounds of identity and personhood, individuals with these identities are ultimately left unsupported interpersonally and institutionally.
These assumptions are also scary because they presume our identities and claims to personhood are contingent upon our politics. Rather, our politics and identities are deeply and irrevocably intertwined. This fact is leveraged by the left and right alike to exclude people from communities they would otherwise embrace. For instance, so-called progressives say they are committed to “supporting women of color” — except when it is politically inconvenient. Diversity and pluralism are cool, except when they challenge #StillWithHer Democrats. People love to support identities until folks within those identities threaten the mainstream order.
Friends at Yale often joke that I shouldn’t be on the left. I’m from the rural Midwest. I’m white. I spent much of my life as an evangelical Christian. My story isn’t unique or even interesting. But my identity informs my politics and my politics inform my identity — both collectively influence my priorities and choices. We all have priorities in how we choose our politics, and I choose the path I feel uplifts the most people and elevates the most stories.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you should carefully consider how you choose your priorities. Here’s the thing: if you’re conservative, I still want you to have healthcare, civil rights and a living wage. I believe you deserve a good education and a planet you can live on. I still want you to engage in communities you value. If you vote for Republicans despite the fact that they oppose civil rights for a group you belong to, consider what privileges allow you to make that decision. Consider the people who share your identities who are a bit less financially stable, a bit more likely to be imprisoned, a bit more likely to be assaulted. Are you protecting yourself at their expense?
And if you’re not conservative: consider how you allow buzzwords like “diversity” to infiltrate your politics. Question your commitment to solidarity, if you have one at all. Are you willing to fight for others as hard as you fight for yourself, even if they aren’t willing to fight for you?
At Yale, we are awash with lenses. There are so many different ways to interpret rhetoric, politics and theory that it feels overwhelming. But good politics require self-reflection, transparency and openness. Good politics require understanding the impact of your own unique lens on your values. In order to have authentic conversations about politics, we must also be able to discuss authentically the lenses through which we see the world. We must be willing to tell our stories honestly.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .