Election season presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on the issue of self-representation, not only because we are literally electing our representatives, but also because we have been asked over the last many months to label ourselves in no uncertain terms. Republican or Democrat? Pro-life or pro-choice? Diplomacy with or without preconditions?

Most of us realize that our choices are never so clear-cut—that even a lifelong Republican may have quibbles with the party line, that pro-choice does notmean pro-abortion, that it’s possible to be against the war in Iraq and still support the U.S. armed forces. But we can’t cast gray votes, and sometimes the exercise of choosing sides has more to do with the need to articulate a particular position than the desire to adopt an unwavering commitment to x or y.

So how do we choose sides? Are we drawn to candidates whose personalities, appearances, interests, and backgrounds mirror our own, or do we relish the unfamiliar? Are some kinds of difference more palatable than others? How do we choose which labels to adopt and which to reject? What categories do we invest with meaning?

We might ask the same questions of the friends we keep, the individuals we date, the intimate relationships we cultivate, even the matches we look for on Match.com. We might ask the same questions about the labels we assign ourselves in our online profiles and circulate as “biodata.”

I, for one, am skittish about brands, categories, and groups. I consider myself, to borrow U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan’s coinage, “unclubbable.” I’m a registered Democrat, but I don’t claim the label; I’m Indian-American, but I don’t try to perform my Indianness. On the other hand, I have few qualms about expressing what I am not. I’m not conservative; I’m not a football fan. Is rejection of terms the same as claiming a point of identification?

Whatever position we’re articulating, we are motivated by twin desires: to claim (or reject) the object in question, and to identify with (or against) other people. The thought processes that move us to declare that we would “never sleep with a McCain voter,” as actress Maggie Gyllenhaal said on The View, are the same that condition our responses to those social media profile questions. How do we wish to be seen? And by whom do we wish to be recognized? Favorite TV shows, political views, relationship status, music of choice—and on we go, painting ourselves into boxes by design.

Opposites may attract, but self-representation is about flocking with familiar birds. The old adage holds true. But I worry that our desire for the “right kind” of recognition may impoverish the choices we make about how to represent ourselves and whom to allow into our lives.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009. 
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