Death to the author and identity politics

Identity politics is an intellectually lazy game to play. It reduces discussion and contemplation as it focusses on the participants and not the debate, writes Howard Feldman.

A strange but relevant incident took place on CNN radio earlier this week.

CNN’s author and legal analyst Aleva Martin was in conversation with Fox’s David Web. It occurred whilst they were discussing if race or experience was more important when determining whether someone might be best suited to perform a particular job.

During the course of the conversation, Webb made the following statement. “I’ve chosen to cross different parts of the media world, done the work so that I’m qualified to be in each one. I never considered my colour the issue, I considered my qualifications the issue.”

“That’s a whole, [an]other long conversation about white privilege, the things that you have the privilege of doing, that people of colour don’t have the privilege of,” suggested Martin.

A confused Webb asked, “How do I have the privilege of white privilege?” To which Martin replied, “By virtue of the fact that you are white!”

Only, he isn’t. Webb explained to a now embarrassed host that he was in fact black.

The incident is a very important one because it highlights some of the many pitfalls around identity politics. Did Webb’s opinion suddenly garner greater value than moments prior when Martin assumed he was a white male? Clearly for CNN it did. Which is more than slightly problematic.

As a white heterosexual male, I have had publications refuse to publish pieces I wrote on the challenges faced by black women in the work place in South Africa. They didn’t turn down the article because the editor disagreed with my stance, but rather because readers might be sensitive to the fact that it was being written by someone with my identity. They even went so far as to say that they appreciated the approach of my article but didn’t want to offend anyone.

There is validity in the argument that it might be difficult for someone outside the gender, religion or race to fully appreciate the nuances faced by someone who had experienced it. It’s valid and reasonable discussion. Up to a point. But anything beyond that will shut down any form of dialogue before it even gets going. What that point is, is actually easier to determine than we might think.

It’s very simply to focus the argument on that which is being debated. If for example someone who is not Jewish writes an article about antisemitism and their facts are wrong or they fail to see some of the sensitivities, then that is the basis of the discussion. It revolves around the issues. Not about the person who wrote it.

There is a concept in literature called “the death of the author”. What this refers to is that the author of a body of work becomes irrelevant to the text once it is presented. In other words, the text itself needs to substantiate its argument.

So, if we find out that William Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet, it should make little difference to us because the themes and the complexity of the play has little to do with who wrote it. And if it was the bard himself, then it still should make little difference what he had for breakfast the morning that he penned the masterpiece.

Identity politics is an intellectually lazy game to play. It reduces discussion and contemplation as it focusses on the participants and not the debate. It stops discussion in its tracks, and automatically appoints the greatest victim as the winner. It’s a global game and it does no one any favours.

South Africa needs debate. We need to discuss that which we have avoided in order to resolve the many issues that we still deal with years after becoming a democracy. But we will not be able to do this unless we are prepared to focus on the argument and the discussion, and allow the identity of the author to become less relevant.

This article was first published on News24