Is Representation Ideological?

To my mind, the importance of representation is indisputable. But is it inherently ideological?

As with so many issues: It depends. It is nuanced. There are cases where representation can be ideological, certainly — but for the purposes of this scale, it is not inherently ideological. Why is that?

First off: This is not the place to bring your anti-identity politics bullshit. I want to say that up front. If everything is political, and I believe firmly that it is, then by necessity, identity is political. This only becomes more true as things like ethnic nationalism becomes more mainstream, not less. Because while a pandemic may be equally contagious across racial, gender, and class barriers, it is not equally dangerous.

But if identity is political, why isn’t it necessarily ideological? Well, I promised at the outset of this project that I would be open about my thought process and accept good-natured judgment and disagreement, so let’s dive in.

First, let’s start with the simplest form of representation: Acknowledgment. One of the early things that frustrated me about the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart was the claim that the Weather Channel was liberal because it acknowledged climate change. (Really.) So, is acknowledging an issue an inherently ideological stance?

Jesse Singal is a journalist who has acknowledged trans folks for years. I think it’s reasonable to say that Singal has made trans issues his signature ‘beat’. He became a prominent enough voice on trans issues that he was given a cover story for The Atlantic, which you might recognize as a Big Fucking Deal. I think it’s fair to say that Singal has helped raise the profile of trans issues quite a bit in the mainstream media world.

And yet there remain a lot of criticisms of his work. From critiques claiming that he tends to focus on fringe anti-trans organizations and misread studies to his belief that trans people aren’t as qualified to speak on their issues to his defenses of noted transphobe JK Rowling, it’s fair to say that many in the trans community feel like the profile of trans issues that he’s raised is a negative one.

It should be immediately obvious, then, that merely acknowledging an issue or identity does not in-and-of-itself put an article anywhere on the bias map. Singal’s discussion of trans issues is going to be somewhere radically different on the map than, say, Natalie Wynne’s discussion of those same issues. Coverage alone is not enough.

How about a step up from acknowledgment? Representation is here defined as people using their own voice and telling the stories of their community. Is that ideological? For instance, would having a woman become President be inherently feminist or progressive?

I’m going to let Eric Andre speak for a moment.

When I mentioned that I want to focus on material policies and material outcomes, this is a good example of what I was talking about. Margaret Thatcher was a strong woman leader — who immiserated the lives of millions of working class people, many of them women, across the world. Representational politics would claim that Thatcher was a step forward for women; material politics would show that she made the world a considerably worse place for a great many women to live in.

I hope this post explains why, for the purposes of my Bias Map, acknowledging issues – or even allowing people from disadvantaged communities speak for themselves on those issues – does not inherently place it somewhere on the ideological spectrum. Not because identity doesn’t matter, but because it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

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