All posts by Neeharika Hemrajani

From pseudonymous Federalist Papers to Trump’s tweets, identity in politics matters

Cast your mind back to 1787. A major revolution has just shocked the political climate of colonial America, and the writers of freedom are in an ideological war to amend the US Constitution. Under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay write a selection of articles and essays that are published in a variety of news publications and journals between 1787 and 1788. The Federalist Papers become an anonymous contribution to the debate on constitutional ratification, with enduring political influence.

The art of writing to express opinions has both preceded and followed the works of the Founding Fathers. Today, though, writing manifests very differently: online. Perhaps it isn’t as beautiful as the quill and parchment combination, but the politicians of our day have found solace and self-expression in ‘Send Tweet’ and ‘Share Post’ buttons. For better or for worse, audiences are no longer spatially or temporally bound.

In 1960s China, Chairman Mao Zedong depended partly on the distribution of his Little Red Book of quotations to spread his tenets. Under his rule, the Ministry of Culture aimed to distribute it to the entire population. But that was then. Who reads whole books these days? In contemporary America, President Donald Trump’s red-hatted Make America Great Again coalition depends on less than 280 characters for its leader’s wisdom. His tweets are blasted across the international stage at all hours, often ridden with spelling and grammar errors and meme-making mistakes.

In many ways, social media has opened the doors for free speech on an unprecedented scale. In fact, our culture is saturated — to the point of bursting — with opinion. But how does this influence political discourse and how everyday citizens engage with their representatives?

For one thing, social media helps to hold leaders and public figures accountable. For example, subreddit r/TrumpCriticizesTrump was created to immortalize and criticize Trump’s old tweets, and exemplifies the ability of social media to highlight hypocrisy. Another prominent example is in the case of former FBI director James Comey and the investigation on Russia, wherein Trump vehemently denied pressuring Comey to not look into Michael Flynn. However, tweets dug up from 2016 from Trump’s own archive reveal accusations against Comey for trying to block investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails during the elections. The enduring nature of social media can even help constituents testify against politicians, who are quick to go back on their word. While relying on shame isn’t always the most politically productive avenue, it’s absolutely part and parcel of our new media culture.

Each tweet, like, and share is now a political statement — and each user is accountable for their past beliefs and ideas. With over 500 million tweets posted a day, it’s safe to say that the shape of political discourse is constantly shifting and changing. Topics, ideas, and even political actors seem to exist in a constant state of flux. Who knows what the world will look like next week, never mind next year?

Social media is paradoxical in the ways in which it influences politics, however. Although it helps enable free speech in some countries, it can also cocoon discussions in siloed spheres of influence. Information may be far more accessible today, but in an era suddenly flooded with fake news, political discussions remain saturated with toxicity. With so many voices clamouring to be heard, claiming they have the one, objective truth, who are we supposed to believe?

Part of the beauty of the pseudonyms of the past is that discourse and writings could be consumed without bias or judgement. Social media is, to an extent, able to reproduce this for some people who choose to surf the web behind a different identity. But for those whose opinions really impact the future, it means that ideas are directly given and weighted with an identity. As noted in Science, “About 47 percent of Americans overall report getting news from social media often or sometimes, with Facebook as, by far, the dominant source.” The influence of social media is undeniable, but it is also nebulous and hard to regulate.

Our personal politics remain subject to the heavy influence of social media. The risk of consuming falsified information, on top of the speed at which political discourse moves on the internet, limits our ability to digest new ideas and form our own opinions. This is the toxicity that I fear will plague forthcoming discussions as leaders like Trump continue to use social media as their presidential podiums.

I have to wonder: where do we go from here?

“Are you, like, for Brexit?”

On the first day of orientation, I was chatting to a new friend in line for the barbeque on the St. Mike’s quad. After the short introductions, our conversation gently turned to the question: “So are you, like, for Brexit?” This is a question I had heard countless times since my arrival in Canada from the United Kingdom. Before answering, the first thought that ran through my head was: what will my answer reveal about me as a person?

I remember the day of the vote quite clearly. I was 16 years old and it was the day of my last General Certificate of Secondary Education exam. Quite frankly, nothing was more important to me than the Further Maths paper I was due to sit in less than two hours — not even the future of a country I’ve called home for as long as I can remember. I was in the car when the final votes had been counted and Prime Minister David Cameron was due to make his speech regarding the results. This is the one thing I remembered before walking into the exam hall that day: “The British people have made a choice. That not only needs to be respected — but those on the losing side of the argument, myself included, should help to make it work.”

Fast forward two years later. This October, over 700,000 people had taken to the streets of Central London to call for a second referendum with a “people’s vote.” To give context to this figure, this was the biggest peaceful demonstration regarding government policy since the protests against the Iraq War in 2003. In response, Nigel Farage held a pro-Brexit counterprotest in Harrogate, attended by about 1,200 people. 

With consistent unrest, a hung parliament, and a great deal of indecisiveness, life in Brexit Britain for my generation is stormy. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a study by PathMotion, a recruitment platform, found that 49 per cent of employers indicated that they would  likely to lower their graduate intake should Britain leave the European Union. Furthermore, justified by the depreciation of the pound after the vote, the British economy stands on stilts waiting to collapse. The pound’s fall in 2016 following the referendum apparently became comparable to its fall in the global financial crisis of 2008. In the face of all this, it is safe to say that I did not feel equipped to handle the political climate, let alone ‘make it work’ for the other side.

Although I understand the attention Brexit has gained globally, it was still surprising to me that my views on the matter had enough merit to be discussed in conversation with my peers here. My accent has suddenly become my ‘I just left England because of Brexit!’ sticker. But here is what stands out about my generation: there is a growing passion among us all to participate, at the very least, in what’s going on. 

A shadow of uncertainty has been cast globally by Brexit, but it also provoked a new wave of political enthusiasts eager to have a say in their future. For me, this political uncertainty reflects in my personal life as well, ingrained in my search for an identity and concern for the shape of my future. 

I find that it influences me in even the smallest decisions, such as the friends I choose or the classes I pick. I strongly feel the presence of Brexit branded on my sleeve as I walk through campus ­— an identity I never created for myself, but one that everyone seems to know me by. This is similar to the way that the political party one supports expresses more about one’s personality than you might expect.

Living through Brexit Britain has cultivated an increasingly anti-apathetic strain in me. I’m  determined to have a say and, even after having taken a step away from it all, this burning desire has only grown stronger. Through this, the intersection of activism and identity is much more important to me than it otherwise would have been.

With the pending Brexit deal looming ahead of us in the coming year, I yearn for a continued fight against apathy. In the words of Charles Dickens, it truly is the best of times and the worst of times; we have nothing before us and we have everything before us.