A tenant of identity politics is that one group has no right to weigh in on another group’s central issues because they haven’t had the same life experiences. Black Lives Matter, for example, says white people can’t discuss black people’s problems because they aren’t black. They have no right to cite statistics or opinions on the matter. Yet, they must listen and be open to having “the conversation.”
In fiction, this means that a writer cannot write characters outside of their own identity, lest they “appropriate culture.”
On college campuses, “experiential exclusion” politics is rabidly divisive. Students have shown innovation in their efforts to find new ways to classify people by race, sexual orientation, and gender. Coverage of the Evergreen State College Incident is a microcosm of what’s taking place at our institutions of higher learning these days.
Why should you care as a fiction writer? Because before you know it, these children will replace the old guard of literature’s faithful Gatekeepers. They will control who’s allowed to express themselves and who squanders away in obscurity. The identity politics mindset may stop the next great American novelist from getting the early publishing credits they’ll need to get an agent.
We are already seeing these attitudes in the literary scene. Many journals have themed issues where they only seek writing from certain sexes, gender identities, nationalities, classes of immigrants. Some journals exclusively publish them in all issues. The key component missing from this noble idea is that we are not being inclusive, really, but we are excluding portions of the populations that are perceived as having been in power long enough. Diversity, in this form, uses exclusion in the guise of inclusion.
The detractors will argue, “Junior, you’re just a straight, white man, with sour grapes over the fact that subjugated voices are now finding their platform.”
Couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I think the altruistic aim of diversity used to be to foster empathy and understanding between different peoples. In effect, to be the stove’s heat simmering beneath the Melting Pot. What is diversity now though, after the rise of identity politics? If you want true inclusion you can’t have any exclusion, can you?
The idea of elevating a perceived minority by silencing a majority is horrible logic. I’d argue that there is this widely held notion that Progressive Thought is automatically Intelligent Thought. I don’t know why that notion is in vogue, because I believe it’s the falsest of false equivalencies floating around in the ether. In art we need a diversity of voices and thought. American fiction writing should’t be all about challenging and destroying American values and what they stand for — critical theory stuffed into thin sausage skins of entertainment. Just as conservatism should never just be about challenging and destroying any social liberalism only for the sake of the act.
We need to be honest with our perceptions and thoughts. A liberal who’s pretending because it’s fashionable is not being Truthful; nor is a conservative who’s pretending because it’s now counter-culture. The last people who should succumb to the social or media-driven pressures for gratuitous divisiveness are our country’s intellectuals, our writers. The American writer’s job is to chronicle American Life in all of its nuanced shades of grey, to break their backs to achieve honesty and Truth; it is their job to pose questions, not to provide answers. The writer has the difficult task of making their reader think with their hearts, not to shove agendas into their already plaque-clogged arteries.
The notion that writers outside a certain classification of identity cannot tackle issues within that community is foul horseshit. Writing’s all about empathy. No, writing is empathy by practical definition. We must feel that we have the right to walk in the shoes of others, to spend time in their heads, and whether they end up the hero or the villain, to tell their stories. Why? Because assuming the intentions are good, this is how to start conversations and create cultural understanding.
Where is it going to get us moving forward if people only empathize within their own small groups? I think we’d see even more exclusion. I think writers and readers would delve deeper into the vertical expressions of that identity’s sub-genre. In essence, sequestering themselves.
Reading calls for a balance between self-discovery and exposure to the Other, not exclusively either. As fiction writers, we wield our pens to provide this balance, a tectonic responsibility.