Wed Dec 15, 2004

Identity Politics for All

Two posts sit side-by-side at the Volokh conspiracy at the moment. In one, Eugene Volokh updates a post making fun of some women protesting about not being picked for parts in a production of The Vagina Monologues:

Auditions Are So Patriarchal: Early this year, I blogged about a controversy related to The Vagina Monologues, in a post titled “Life Imitates The Onion.” An excerpt:

… In flyers handed out to audience members at the show, University graduate Nicole Sangsuree Barrett wrote that while there was “diversity” in the show, it was minimal. Women of “a variety of skin colors, body sizes, abilities and gender expressions” were not adequately represented, she said. …

… It turns out that variety of abilities really did mean variety of abilities …:

… Pete said the committee will select people who are “not necessarily drama-oriented” in favor of “people who work (toward) ‘The Vagina Monologues’ mission of ending violence against women.” … “The fact that they had auditions means that some people are automatically excluded,” [Women’s Center spokeswoman Stefanie Loh] said.

Not just some people — some vaginas! “Not all vaginas are skinny, white + straight,” or, apparently, have acting ability.

But just to show that identity politics is a game anyone can play, Orin Kerr raises an eyebrow at the sad tale of an oppressed conservative assistant professor. Forced to sit through the odd joke about Michael Moore, park his Honda alongside Volvos and Subarus, and endure a “semiotics of exclusion” (i.e., Kerry-Edwards and anti-war bumper stickers on the Volvos) he suffered grave emotional pain when “anti-Republican tenor” at the lunch table “ached its zenith with this vehement comment from one colleague, ‘I’m not even going to watch [the convention]. I can’t stand it’.”

Ain’t University life grand? Bliss it was on these campuses to be excluded, but to feel oppressed when your crew controlled all three branches of government was very Heaven. The social organization of opinion on university campuses ensures that all available identity niches will be occupied eventually. It might have to do with the way that student groups get funded. People are encouraged to create organizations that, in turn, help generate social identities, appropriate resources, and provide a toolkit of protest strategies. This isn’t anything new. When I was an undergraduate the Gay and Lesbian society on campus got attacked by the (notional) bisexual community for not being inclusive enough. So it became the GLB Soc. But then they worried about Transgendered people. So it became the GLBT Soc. It was then suggested (though not by society members) that they should just include heterosexual people as well and be done with it. While organizations founded on inclusionary rather than exclusionary principles are more prone to this problem, the proliferation of identities and the organizational technologies that foster them is quite general. This is why well-funded College Republicans began adopting the language of oppression some time ago.

Discrimination and oppression are quite real, of course, though the most compelling examples tend not to be found on college campuses. If our conservative professor was denied tenure on the basis of his voting record, we should be worried. And Eugene Volokh’s horse-laugh notwithstanding, it’s pretty well-established that auditions can be very patriarchal indeed. A well-known study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse found that blind auditions for orchestral positions increased women’s chances of making it past the first round by 50%, and of getting the job by 300%. (Though the number of jobs is so small that there was more uncertainty attached to this figure than the 50% one.)