Personal experiences and thoughts on identity politics, cancel culture and free speech
June 2, 2023

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Panelists: Amna Khalid, Jeff Snyder
Moderator: Tara Henley

Description: Tara Henley leads a discussion with Professors Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder on their personal thoughts and experiences with identify politics, cancel culture and free speech.

Tara Henley is a Canadian writer and podcaster, and the author of the national bestseller Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared on CBC Radio and TV, and in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country and around the world.

Amna Khalid is a history professor at Carleton College and writer on her substack Banished.

Jeff Snyder is a history professor at Carleton College with a strong interest in the issues of academic freedom and free speech.

*Note: Participation by any panelist does not indicate their agreement with or endorsement of the opinions of any other conference participant. The presence of any panelist does not mean Plebity endorses or shares their opinions.

Tara: Amna and Jeff, it’s so great to be with you both again. We’ve had some really fruitful conversations in the past. I’m really pleased that we get to talk through sort of the big issues of our day again, and just delighted to take part in this conference, which is just really an important conversation about free speech on the left. So welcome to you both.
Amna: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Jeff: Yeah, thank you.
Tara: And I thought today we could start, this is, the topic of the panel today is personal experiences and thoughts on identity politics, cancel culture, and free speech. That’s a big umbrella for us to start with. Let’s maybe start by setting terms. I mean, what do we mean when we say we’re talking about identity politics?
Jeff: You want to start with this one?
Amna: No, I think you’ll take it.
Jeff : Okay. Well, I think this is important to clarify because I think there are various meanings of dentity politics, right? There’s an identity politics that has been central to the long civil rights movement in the United States, where African-Americans have constructed and advanced an idea of being a community, of being a people who share certain interests, who share certain features of oppression.
And so a kind of identity politics in the interests of solidarity and organizing power. So in some ways, you know, the classic civil rights movement of the 1960s, although it was expansive and involved in interracial coalition, at its heart, it was very grounded in identity politics. That is, it came out of the black experience or black experiences, plural. One can also say that identity politics has been foundational to all of us history in terms of taking the broad view and thinking about the role that whiteness, white people have played in advancing racially coded ideas about citizenship.
So for those people who think that identity politics is only for people of color, I would strongly reject that notion. You’ve seen very strong and powerful coalitions of white people across history who have organized to defend their interests, whether that’s property rights or voting rights. In terms of how it’s understood today, the way that I would think about it in the context of a conversation about academic freedom, free speech, cancel culture, and so on, is that identity politics of this vein has been narrowed to a very fine point.
And so I would say that today’s identity politics to my mind in certain areas is about a kind of standpoint epistemology. So the idea is that you can only represent, you can only speak according to the community that you are a part of or the communities that you are a part of. And that constructs a very narrow idea of identity. That’s the, you know, Asian people shouldn’t write about the black experience because they haven’t had that direct lived experience, right? So you see that idea of lived experience. And of course, lived experience is essential for understanding the world, but if lived experience becomes a way of erecting boundaries, a way of telling other people, you can’t speak for me. And in addition to that, you can’t even understand me because you haven’t lived in my shoes.
I’ll let Amna add in here.
Amna: Yeah, just to clarify a couple of things. I mean, the first thing I’d say is I, of course, agree with things that Jeff has laid out, but I think identity politics emerged also out of, you know, has deep connections with feminism and with the idea that your identity is critical to how you are in the world and how you present in the world. So I want you to recognize that. And I think what we’re seeing today is a very different kind of identity politics. I would call it the bureaucratization of identity politics, where it’s turned into a box checking exercise and where it’s very much about your monolithic identity as a community member. And then you were seen as representing that community, which is why the identity politics of today is coming into conflict with freedom of ideas, because there is no room for you to espouse ideas that might go against what your community is supposedly espousing, right? So if you’re kind of a dissenter within the community, then somehow your voice counts for less, and that’s getting in the way of your individual expression.
And the point that Jeff made about standpoint epistemology, again, you know, by way of clarification, standpoint epistemology, when it originated, actually had a lot to contribute to the ways in which we think about knowledge production. And I think those are valuable contributions that your lived experience and your particular position in the world informs your worldview. And that needs to be taken into consideration.
You have to remember that this was coming at a time when the idea was that there’s objective knowledge, you know, that somehow everything can be objective. And it was questioning that idea. So it allowed a lot of minorities in many interesting ways to bring their experiences to bear upon knowledge construction. And I think that is vital. But reducing it to purely lived experience is how we’re experiencing it today. So, for instance, in my classrooms, you know, I’ll ask a question and then about, you know, why are Indians X, Y, and Z, and then some white student will reluctantly raise their hand and say, well, I don’t know, I’m not an Indian. As a white person, I can’t really know their experience.
And I’m like, well, this isn’t about experience. This is really just trying to understand behavior or a social strategy, whatever we’re discussing. So I think there are ways in which both identity politics and standpoint epistemology have been reduced to things that they weren’t initially intended to be. But let’s throw in some additional jargon here, right?
So related to all of this is the idea of intersectionality, right? And so as a social scientist and who straddles also the humanities historian, also in the field of ed studies, intersectionality, the idea that each of us of individuals are made up of multiple overlapping intersecting identities.

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