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MALIK: Why comedian Hasan Minhaj's fabricated 'emotional truths' are still worth listening to

Column: On the Good Life

Comedian Hasan Minhaj receives backlash over performing show bits that are almost entirely made up, but is it that big of a deal? – Photo by @hasanminhaj / Instagram

Identity politics is arguably more confusing than clear. Vox emphasizes the vague nature of the phrase but states that the concept "generally refers to the discussion of and politicking around issues pertaining to one's, well, identity." Identity can refer to many different groups, whether it be in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status.

Typically, Americans focus on minorities that resonate with identity politics because they confront certain barriers in American society, compelling them to take a specific stance politically. Think of the different stances on police brutality and how policies against the police force tend to be more important to people of color than white people. 

A good way to sum up identity politics and understand why it is hated by many and loved by many others is through this definition explained in National Affairs: "Identity politics silences the transgressors, listens to the innocents and encourages episodic 'activism' on behalf of those innocents against the transgressors." 

While this should not be taken entirely literally, it is important to keep in mind that historically, there have been many laws against minorities to set them back. But today, there have been efforts to reverse this and to remind "those who caused it." In the U.S., the blame goes on white people.

But what does this have to do with beloved comedian, especially in the Desi community, and former host of Netflix's "Patriot Act," Hasan Minhaj?

Minhaj came under fire recently for his comedic half-truths that are actually more like full-on-lies in a recent New Yorker article. I would definitely recommend giving it a read as it thoughtfully raises multiple questions, but I will briefly explain the article's main points.

In the article, Clare Malone explains that her goal was to facilitate a deep dive into many of the situations Minhaj discusses, specifically in his two specials, "The King's Jester" and "Homecoming King," but found that many of them had no true records.

Upon asking Minhaj whether there was actually anthrax found on his child or if the FBI had almost arrested him based on the Patriot Act, Minhaj responds by asserting that they are emotional truths based both on similar, but much less dangerous, events in his own life or experiences faced by Muslim Americans in general.

The idea is that his stories are not fully made by a whimsical imagination but are instead based in truth, though sometimes very little, and exaggerated. Malone sought to understand whether this was morally right regarding Minhaj's audience, accepting that small lies are to be expected on a comedy stage, but the comedian uses his stage to throw in his own political stance.

Malone, in my opinion, is a little too worried about the audience feeling cheated by Minhaj, blurring the lines between comedic truth and storytelling in a way that does not give him credit for what he keeps clarifying: emotional truth. She believes he is deceiving the audience and taking on an annoying "moralizing posture."

Now, to be fully clear about my bias, I am South Asian and Muslim, just like Minhaj, so I clearly have my reasons for supporting Minhaj and his credibility over someone like Malone, which some would say is my part in identity politics. But the way I see it, Minhaj's storytelling is more important than the exaggerated lies Malone focuses on.

Minhaj is clearly revered by the South Asian community for bringing light to our problems, whether it be comical, personal situations, like things our family members tend to do, or systemic, disturbing aspects of society, like the Patriot Act. He has taken on the role of "representation" in the media, not to simply exist as a brown person but to highlight problems we deal with. The reality is he plays an important role in identity politics for Muslim Americans.

In my opinion, Muslim Americans are predominantly silent about the discrimination they face and the laws stacked against them, especially post-9/11. In a way, we are hesitant to ask anything from a country that has consistently shown us that we are unwelcome and unwanted. 

What we suffer from is a chronic lack of empathy from the outside world toward our issues concerning discrimination because 9/11 and terrorism are held against us like a giant cloud over our heads, denying our humanity and forcing us to prove it consistently.

Minhaj evokes the image of an American boy: a lover of basketball shoes and American sports, with a comedic charisma that screams American entitlement. He shows his audience that he is American in order to gain their loyalty and redirect their attention to issues faced by other Muslim Americans.

In terms of identity politics, starting with the Patriot Act, he is making known the debt America owes to Muslims. Now, that may be deceitful to Malone, but I think it is worth applause. 

Honestly, I believe that if anyone else tried reinventing comedy in a similar way, they would be applauded. But that might just be me, I guess. 

Sehar Malik is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences, majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry and minoring in French. Her column, "On the Good Life," runs on alternate Sundays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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