As a thought experiment, allow me to introduce two hypothetical individuals: the first, a straight, white, church-going cis man from an upper-class background, and the second, a queer secularist of color from a middle-class family. Before you have even had a chance to converse with either of them, you have likely made an educated guess about not only who votes Republican (or Democrat), but also what each person’s stance is on issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy. Rather than rail against this sort of “ignorant” stereotyping, I will instead admit that I would likely make many of the same assumptions.
I say this, however, as somebody with a relatively unorthodox identity-politics configuration. I have received more than a couple puzzled looks from friends when telling them that I am a small “l” libertarian who has supported more than a couple Republican political campaigns in recent years. Reactions have ranged from pleasant surprise to suspicious incredulity. A few of my peers have wondered out loud how I could possibly support members of a party whose base is anti-marriage equality and hostile to the children of illegal immigrants. To them, my identity and my politics were not only incompatible, they were downright contradictory. As an openly gay Chinese-American with immigrant parents and no religious affiliation, I simply could not be as “right wing” as I apparently was.
I usually respond by explaining that I routinely clash with my peers on the right over my stances on issues like drug policy, evolution, and sex-worker rights. I then go on to stress the vital role of critics and reformers from within the political right, citing the growing diversity and inclusivity of the Republican Party. Recently, I have even been able to hold up two Republican candidates from my home state of California as examples. One, Neel Kashkari, is a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, Hindu who has won the gubernatorial Republican nomination, and the other, Carl DeMaio, is poised to be the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress. However, at the core of all these justifications for my political heresies is the idea that people ought to be judged not as communities or groups, but as individuals.
In the U.S., individualism is an exalted ideal. Few things are considered to be as sacred as a person’s dominion over his or her choices, beliefs, and identity. Why is it then that so many people are suspicious of individuals whose politics differ from those of the majority within their racial, religious, or even sexual community? Why is it that so many people react more strongly still when the political deviant in question is a member of their own community? Unfortunately, we are driven by our tribal instincts to take refuge in our various communities and identities, only to find that those very communities tend to smother the more unique aspects of ourselves by demanding purity and loyalty. A gay Christian is living in sin and therefore no “true” follower of God, while a woman who eschews the feminist label suffers from “internalized misogyny.” A pro-Israel Muslim is a Zionist sympathizer and a pro-Palestine Jew is a self-loathing anti-Semite. The accusations against those who dare to be unapologetic individuals, especially with respect to politics, are biting and numerous. It is often easier to linger comfortably in the pigeonholes and echo chambers conveniently carved out for us by our various identity-centric factions.
Still, if I could impart just one piece of advice to anyone as they begin their education at the Claremont Colleges, it would be to sever for themselves the insidious ties between identity and politics that our society has forged. Learning about the world and drawing your own independent conclusions is one of the most satisfying things one can do, even if it sometimes feels like a lonely endeavor. Never take false comfort in agreeing with the majority opinions held by your racial, religious, sexual, or political groups. Never hesitate to be a pro-life feminist, pro-choice Catholic, Atheist Republican, Mormon Democrat, pro-nuclear environmentalist, or any other person that the consensus of your mind and conscience leads you to be. In a world where our race, sex, gender, sexuality, and so many other aspects of our identity are predetermined, we can all at least choose to be heretics, deviants, and above all else, individuals.