Columns, Opinions

Mulligan ’19: There’s more to identity than politics

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On Feb. 13, 2018, the Brown Republicans and the Watson Center for International Affairs hosted Guy Benson, who was described as “a political editor at Townhall, frequent Fox News contributor and prominent young voice in the conservative movement.” Their description left out the reason why Benson has been making headlines recently: He partnered with PragerU, a conservative video production platform, to create a video called “I’m Gay … Conservative … So What?” The title succinctly sums up the video’s contents: Benson spends five minutes telling viewers how being gay is not an important part of his political identity, and rallies for more people with marginalized identities to step up and be their true, conservative selves.

I had never heard of Benson before he spoke on campus, I didn’t go to his talk and frankly, I don’t care that much about him in particular. What I care about more is the problem underscored by his headline-making video. Figures like Benson become sensationalized, as shown by the over 770,000  views on his video, because they contradict popular ideas about how personal identities should intersect with political identities. Yet there are always going to be people who believe their politics are separate from other aspects of their identity. Assuming that identity validates a belief more than developing critically thought-out arguments is incorrect, demonstrated in part by the ever-present so-called dissenting voices from people who hold the same identity. It’s time to focus on politicians’ actions, not on the demographics of their supporters.

I’m not arguing that a person’s background is irrelevant to their political beliefs. Understanding how someone has been impacted by different issues illuminates the sources of their perspectives: If a multibillionaire doesn’t care about SNAP benefits but an unemployed single mother does, then it’s understandable why a commentator would contextualize their background when presenting their views. The latter person is far more likely to be directly affected by policy changes. We are all shaped by our identities and our experiences, and those shouldn’t be treated as irrelevant when assessing the validity of a claim.

But a person’s background shouldn’t be the main factor used in evaluating their political beliefs. In his video, Benson asserts that many other gay people think he must be “self-hating” to support a party whose platform has largely been unsupportive of LGBTQ+ rights. He calls this claim “intellectually lazy.” And although I don’t think I’d agree with Benson on anything else, he is right. Dismissing Benson’s conservative politics as a form of internalized homophobia is a form of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: Critics are saying that no true self-actualized gay person would support the Republican Party. This claim is completely unsubstantiated, and its adherence to a common rhetorical flaw makes it easy to tear down. There’s just no evidence that Benson, or any other LGBTQ+ Republicans, are conservative because of internalized homophobia. To say otherwise moves political discourse away from how public policy harms certain groups, and focuses instead on the notion that if we could just teach people to love themselves, then they would support different politicians.

Not only is that argument logically unsupportable, it’s also easy to offer evidence to the contrary. When people act as though no one who holds a marginalized identity would ever support conservative stances, then conservatives can just point to the many people with diverse backgrounds who do, in fact, support them. In terms of sexuality, it’s easy to name Benson, his contemporary young gay conservative, Milo Yiannopoulos, or organizations like the Log Cabin Republicans as foils. Suggesting that only the rich support Republicans ignores the rural poor who were so key in electing Trump. Bring in racial minorities, and you get stories like the man who held the “Blacks for Trump” sign behind Trump’s podium during a rally in Phoenix in August 2017. People whose political beliefs appear to contradict the interests of an identity group of which they are a part have always existed, and will always exist.

Easily-contradicted claims that link political positions to people’s identities do little besides distract from the actual issues at hand. Trump isn’t unsupportive of the LGBTQ+ community because a lot of LGBTQ+ people believe that he is. He’s unsupportive because he’s made policy decisions that go against the best interests of LGBTQ+ people, such as erasing Obama-era guidelines to protect transgender students and taking steps to allow federal workers to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Accusing LGBTQ+ people who do support Trump of self-hatred does nothing to change his actions. It just provides conservatives with a valid talking point to distract from his political record.

Identity isn’t irrelevant. But it also, on its own, does not make an argument for why a politician should or shouldn’t be supported, and insisting that it does is a weak and easily dispelled argument. Benson’s video shouldn’t be sensationalized. We need to stop focusing on who politicians are supported by and instead channel our energy into criticizing the politicians themselves.

Caroline Mulligan ’19 does not, for the record, agree with Benson about anything else at all, and can be reached at  caroline_mulligan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.