Authenticity as a Weapon

The far right discovers an identity politics weapon.

By Nathan Pippenger

The recent ugliness visited upon Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King—who was compelled to reveal private family history when he was accused, by right-wing websites, of lying about being black—leads Matt Bruenig to point out one possible risk associated with identity politics. Some politically salient forms of identity may be clear enough on observation, but others may not be. Shaun King’s light skin invited suspicion by his critics that he was not black, and when they tracked down his birth certificate, he felt it necessary to make public previously-untold facts about his biological parents. This was a consequence, Bruenig notes, of the fact that King’s racial identity wasn’t obvious to other people. In cases like this, he writes, “there simply is no other way” to make an identity-based political claim than “to confess about your life.”

It’s not hard to imagine situations in which this “confession requirement” carries high costs. The revelation of sexual orientation or gender identity, to take two obvious examples, can subject the revealer to ostracization or even violence. And that’s to say nothing of people who simply place high value on their privacy and wish to be treated equally without having to share personal details. At the same time, the power of confession shouldn’t be underestimated: the decisions of innumerable gay and lesbian people to come out has helped create a society where such confessions are less and less necessary in order to command fair treatment. Public prejudices and institutional biases are unlikely to change without a push, and so “confessing,” despite its risks and occasional costs, is likely to remain a key liberation strategy for social movements.

For that reason, it’s worth noting and discussing one other risk associated with the role of personal testimony in identity-based social movements. The far right’s approach to identity politics is shamelessly opportunistic: the common insistence that a person can’t “see race,” or that the law should be “colorblind,” is often paired with—in King’s case—an obsessive interrogation of racial identity. On one level, the suspicion that King was fraudulently claiming to be black—and the assumption that such a deception would undermine his activism—reflects a broadly-shared assumption within identity politics: it’s not possible to claim special knowledge about life as a transgender person, or as an African-American, or anything else, unless you’ve actually lived that experience. (This is the privileged knowledge which affords what Bruenig calls “identity deference”.)

In itself, this is a sensible guideline—any political movement that’s based on the testimony of lived experience has an interest in making sure that people aren’t lying about their experiences. But popular discourse around identity issues often assumes a pernicious correlate principle: that just as someone who lacks the requisite background cannot speak authoritatively about an identity issue, someone who does have that background can give a definitive account of it. This is an unjustifiably strong rendering of the far-more-reasonable idea that experience lends authority to personal testimony. But the interest in authenticity—the interest driving Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and other right-wing sites—too easily slides into the notion that one person can give an authentic account of a huge, collectively-lived, fluid experience.

Of course, any political movement may be vulnerable to thinking that one individual’s experience can give the sole definitive account of a broader social phenomenon. Perhaps even more tempting is the idea that all individuals who hold a certain identity relate to their identity in the same way and represent its essential nature. There are risks here: as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has noted, the identification of “scripts” to particular identities—like blackness, or gayness—threatens to undermine the autonomy of black people who don’t identify with the popular notions of blackness, or gay people who don’t identify with popular notions of gayness. And that’s true whether the popular notion is positive or negative.

When it comes to Breitbart-style agitation in American politics, the risk is a good deal cruder. The attempt to delegitimize voices like King’s is only one step towards the promotion—common on the right—of some palatable alternative as the sole authentic voice of an identity gruup. Townhall, The Blaze, and Breitbart were all too happy to give gleeful coverage to Ben Carson’s criticism of Black Lives Matter. Townhall’s account, in particular, drips with condescension: “Before any ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists have the chance to condemn Carson for his critique of their movement, they should continue reading, for the surgeon continues to explain he knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a dangerous culture. The difference, he said, was that his mother influenced him and his brother to rise above the violence that claimed some of their family members and put their education first.” Citing Carson and another African-American critic of the movement, the article concludes: “Instead of encouraging a culture of hate, ‘Black Lives Matter’ would be wise to follow their advice.”

The point is not that these opinions don’t count—although it’s certainly fair to note that they’re very much an outlier (to say nothing of how they fit with what we know about police brutality and racial injustice). Rather, it’s to show that authenticity is a far more complicated notion—one that shouldn’t be used as a crude weapon, as it was against Shaun King. If identity-based claims are to remain a key part of social movements, and such claims are going to rest on some notion of authenticity, we’ll have to do better than “my spokesperson is better than yours.”

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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