Friday, February 16, 2018

The Problem with Identity Politics

When reading Steven Pinker’s interview at the Weekly Standard I was struck by this passage:

Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow.

It recalled a remark Andrew Sullivan made last week in New York Magazine:

If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. 

Both authors are leading the fight against identity politics, so I do not wish to make too much of what is going to appear to you to be a pedantic triviality. 

Perhaps you have guessed what struck me in these passages. Perhaps you have not. My epiphany was quite simple: most of the “groups” in question are not really groups, in the strict sense of the word. To believe that the world is divided between those who support individual freedom and those who support group identities is simply wrong. It is a false dichotomy.

Yes, I know that these terms are used very loosely and a group can easily be taken to be a grouping. Of course, there are also arithmetic groups that have nothing to do with social organizations or communities.

If we are talking about race, gender, sexual orientation and the like, we are talking about collections of individuals who have a specific trait in common. In some philosophies, they would have been considered to be classes, like the class of four-legged carnivores or the class of wingless bipeds. 

Most importantly, these so-called groups do not involve a social organization. The class of all females does not and never has constituted a community. It does not have a social organization. It does not require people to get along with each other, to work together, to cooperate and collaborate. It does not reproduce itself. You belong to the class of females or Caucasians by your biological nature, not because you participate in a social organization.

Groups are human communities, whether religious or secular. They run the gamut from religious congregations to nation states to armies to corporations and even to communities. In some nations you are required to be of the same race—like Japan—but being of the Japanese race does not automatically make you a citizen of Japan.

When we arrive at the class of beings known as wingless bipeds, that is members of the human species-- or, as the bien pensant left would have it—Humanity, we discover that, since this is nothing more than a class of beings sharing a common characteristic. It is not a social organization,. Defining yourself as a member of the species of wingless bipeds shares with the practitioners of identity polities one simple fact: it does not matter what you do or do not do, it does not matter how you function within a group. Your membership cannot be enhanced or revoked as you behave or misbehave. So, identity politics is a subspecies of humanism.

The issue is not the conflict between the individual and the group. The issue involves your loyalty to the nation or your loyalty to a class of individuals that is held together only by the fact that they share certain specific characteristics, like XX chromosomes, certain racial traits, or a yearning for members of the same sex.

It’s about patriotism or not, ethical behavior or not. It's not about the conflict between individual identity and group identity. 


Jack Fisher said...

Schools of bait fish like anchovies and skools of kollege kids practice a form of identity politics because they are helpless against real or imagined predators and find safety in large numbers. Among the fish, this is a permanent and successful strategy, as attackers usually do not take down all of them. With 20 years olds, who have accomplished nothing, have no real identify of their own and have nothing except the group, this may be be a good temporary strategy, but post-kollege, when they discover that they are not starring in a Drama, and that no one really cares what they think or want, identity politics becomes a poor choice.

NB. "wingless bipeds" is a non-monophyletic clade as it includes some but not all nonavian dinosaurs, and is thus invalid.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree identity politics seems a different sort of "group" than physical proximity.

Family of our birth might be the only solid group people will feel a belonging, and a family can be said to have a shared "culture" of memories, direct, and stories passed down. And perhaps this comparison also shows how "identity politics" fails, since we often don't much like our family, and individually they can be very different from us, but it is our first chance to make peace with people who see things differently than us, and still find common ground. So when we add strangers as our friends based on common traits, we're probably not looking very deep in who else they are.

So the lie of identity groups of course is that they all experience things the same way, and have the same enemies or rivals to fight against. And political parties tell the same lies - so when you become a Democrat, you are prochoice and when you become a republican, you are prolife. And no one asks why they can't sometimes agree with the other party more than their own.

Like Mike Pence said "I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order." Offering a hierarchy of loyalties might be helpful to avoid letting a lower identity trump a higher one. But of course Pence doesn't mean all Evangelical Christians agree on any specific issue, or all conservatives agree, or all republicans agree. But for the sake of power and affluence in the world, reducing ourselves to various collective identity can seem like a fair compromise.

Sam L. said...

"White Privilege" is quite all right for liberals/progressives ("progressive" always reminds me of cancer), but not anyone else. And not all whites are "privileged".

Jack Fisher said...

Apart from my membership in the community of Christians which is strong and primary, I have informal or casual membership in a lot of different groups, none of which speak for me. Those groups range from the NRA to professional associations to Vegas Golden Knight fans to avian dinosaur observers.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, you raise an important distinction that is never discussed. Thank you.

To my mind, identity politics is an intentional effort to divide people -- to sort people based on immutable characteristics or biological preferences. It's definitionally skin-deep. It has nothing to do with the content of someone's character. It empowers hateful people and gives them an exclusive "right" to bitch, moan and complain about... everything.

"White privilege" is a linguistic construct designed to create an exclusive class consciousness among people who are not white, and implies that being Caucasian is itself a privilege. Yet there are many Caucasians who suffer stereotyping, poverty and violence because of their whiteness. Therefore, it is a canard. But with so little skepticism and challenge in American higher education, it is an accepted truth. And university leadership either believes it or will not address it for fear of a mob revolt, direct action, or bad public relations. And our media culture salivates over conflict, and amplifies the discord into an urgent crisis that must be resolved, lest people have hurt feelings. "White privilege" is an idea that cannot be examined. If you question it, you're a denier. If you believe it, you're correct. Those claiming to be "inclusive" are actually the most exclusive. There are consequences for this kind of blind faith. Kind of like "Climate Change."

Identity politics is a crude way to raise a consciousness about superficial commonalities, and use them to create a self-propelled litany of artificial divisions. As those divisions grow and become associated with political consciousness, we lose track of our individuality and individual contribution. We're effectively "branded" by characteristics we cannot control. Then it becomes groupthink, enforced by peer pressure or threats of retaliation, through means of social isolation or sometimes violence. I don't know of many people engaged in identity politics who are happy. It is simply a vehicle for them to express their anger and shut up those they disagree with.

People don't grow up with this stuff. They instead belong to a community of people. Then they get to college, and find themselves socially adrift in a new environment, just like everyone else. And then there are the identity politicians, who sort these individual based on a supposed larger identity, wrap it up in victimization and a medley of grievances, and then -- voila! -- people who were not suspicious before are now a threat, without saying or doing a thing. You are programmed to believe they have it out for you, and are not to be trusted. But if this distrust is followed and ingrained, you will segregate yourself and never encounter the truth about those whom you now despise. So it's self-enforcing, based on and fueled by ignorance. I thought education was meant to break down ignorance, but not when it's indoctrination based on unquestionable social dogma. Diversity is not a strength if it instead becomes a sorting-out process for social programming based on class-consciousness and discord.


Anonymous said...

I found this exchange interesting and relevant:

Host Laura Ingraham asked [USSC Justice Clarence] Thomas, “Are you surprised that—how things are still so rancorous in the United States today about foundational issues? Not about—just foundational issues, the anthem and so forth?”

He answered, “No, I’m not surprised. I mean, what binds us? What do we all have in common anymore? I think we have to think about that. I think this is—when I was a kid, even as we had laws that held us apart, there were things that we held dear and that we all had in common. And I think we have to—we always talk about E pluribus unum. What’s our unum now? We have the pluribus. What’s the unum? And I think it’s a great country. I think we, for whatever reasons, have made it our—some people have decided that the Constitution isn’t worth defending, that history isn’t worth defending, that the culture and principles aren’t worth defending. And, certainly, if you are in my position, they have to be worth defending. That’s what keeps you going. That’s what energizes you. . . . I don’t know what it is that we have, we can say instinctively, we have as a country in common.”