Progressives “” people who care about social justice “” have a public relations problem of our own making. After more than 20 years practicing and studying public relations, I know a crisis when I see one. We have forgotten our goals concerning human rights, and instead we’re hyper-policing language and identity. We are busy filling up our metaphorical prisons, sealing our mouths shut lest we say the wrong words, while the actual imprisonment of the “˜have nots’ “” immigrants and black men spring to mind “” continues unabated.
It is easy to expose the absurdities of turning clumsily worded questions about where a person is from into racist remarks or playing cultural judge and jury. I’m thinking of the white owners of a taco truck in Portland, Oregon who were recently drummed out of business for cultural appropriation. So-called “˜liberal’ frenzies miss the structural elements of racism or ethnocentrism. While we “” the 99 percent who do not hold this country’s wealth “” are busy fighting amongst ourselves over the provenance of a taco, we are missing the systematic ways that our government and multinational corporations work in concert to maintain the status quo.
Meanwhile, those in power capitalize on the language fatigue that people feel on both sides of the political spectrum. Having established common ground and swayed public opinion, they further inflame divisions by suggesting that identity “” race, class, gender and more “” has no place in politics. Even prominent academics on the left have suggested that women’s issues, for example, should be pushed to the background.
Just because we have a problem with censorship in left-leaning circles, does not mean that so-called identity politics are the problem. We need unity around difference “” a paradoxical path, but a wise choice. One’s identity opens the door to empathy, an absolutely necessary quality for healing divisions and for creating functional government at any level. This does not mean that a wealthy, straight, white male cannot understand the plight of a poor, lesbian, black woman. On the contrary, ending identity politics would mean an erasure of difference, rather than an acknowledgement and a struggle for understanding. Not talking about intersectionality will only make our divisions wider, as will any hyper-policing of the language used for discussion. Context and empathy are critical for social harmony and excellent public relations.
In short, there is a trend among liberals to take what amounts to poorly expressed questions or assumptions about a person’s identity, and turn them into trigger-warning minefields. I find this trend completely frightening because I recognize it as one of the keys to fascism, American style. Our collective and symbolic imprisonment will not come from an orange-topped despot, but rather from neighbor policing neighbor. In other words, censorship at the grassroots level effectively kills freedom of speech “” no Big Brother required.
And it is possible, despite what some on the left claim, to talk about structural inequalities through the lens of identity. Feminists in the late 1960s coined a great phrase: the personal is political, meaning that to separate private from public or political is a false dichotomy, one that leads to great harm. The trick, again, is to talk about difference in a way that builds empathy rather than isolation. This means talking about the big picture issue “” whether it’s the education system or campus politics “” in a way that does not erase difference, but rather seeks to understand the larger problem through difference. It means keeping the conversation going and not playing whack-a-mole with the “˜wrong’ words.