Identity Politics

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Context

This entry is not about the older movements such as the women's movement, civil rights for African-Americans in the USA, gay rights, etc... but more specifically about the practices and ideas associated with Group Identity Theory, and the 'fixation' of politics and subjectivities on external biological characteristics.

Contextual Citation

1.

"It is not, then, that all politics is identity politics. It is that it has come to seem as if all politics can only be identity politics because the alternative, which formed the heart of the great, progressive social transformations over the past 200 years, has so badly eroded. As the universalist viewpoint has faded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated, so the social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics."

- Kenan Malik [1]


2.

"Any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. That it requires us to work towards a more universalist vision of society. And that only free speech makes this possible. Free speech – proper, full-blooded free speech – is the lifeblood of any progressive politics and of any progressive transformation of society. If we treasure the one, we must treasure the other."

- Kenan Malik [2]

Description

(the Vampires' Castle is Mark Fisher's pejorative concept to characterize identity politics)

Mark Fisher:

"The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

I’ve noticed a fascinating magical inversion projection-disavowal mechanism whereby the sheer mention of class is now automatically treated as if that means one is trying to downgrade the importance of race and gender. In fact, the exact opposite is the case, as the Vampires’ Castle uses an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class. In all of the absurd and traumatic twitterstorms about privilege earlier this year it was noticeable that the discussion of class privilege was entirely absent. The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race – but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.

The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …

The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups – the more ‘marginal’ the better – into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering – those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/)

Characteristics of Identitarian Politics (1): Mark Fisher

The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything.

"While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour. Some of these working class types are not terribly well brought up, and can be very rude at times. Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures. The actual ruling class propagates ideologies of individualism, while tending to act as a class. (Many of what we call ‘conspiracies’ are the ruling class showing class solidarity.) The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold. Because they are petit-bourgeois to the core, the members of the Vampires’ Castle are intensely competitive, but this is repressed in the passive aggressive manner typical of the bourgeoisie. What holds them together is not solidarity, but mutual fear – the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.


The second law of the Vampires’ Castle is: make thought and action appear very, very difficult.

There must be no lightness, and certainly no humour. Humour isn’t serious, by definition, right? Thought is hard work, for people with posh voices and furrowed brows. Where there is confidence, introduce scepticism. Say: don’t be hasty, we have to think more deeply about this. Remember: having convictions is oppressive, and might lead to gulags.

The third law of the Vampires’ Castle is: propagate as much guilt as you can.

The more guilt the better. People must feel bad: it is a sign that they understand the gravity of things. It’s OK to be class-privileged if you feel guilty about privilege and make others in a subordinate class position to you feel guilty too. You do some good works for the poor, too, right?

The fourth law of the Vampires’ Castle is: essentialize.

While fluidity of identity, pluraity and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC members – partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background – the enemy is always to be essentialized. Since the desires animating the VC are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialized. Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/ has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. So far, OK. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip. Once the VC has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim (often from a working class background, and not schooled in the passive aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/ latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.

The fifth law of the Vampires’ Castle: think like a liberal

(because you are one). The VC’s work of constantly stoking up reactive outrage consists of endlessly pointing out the screamingly obvious: capital behaves like capital (it’s not very nice!), repressive state apparatuses are repressive. We must protest!" (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/)


Characteristics 2: Common Cause Ottawa

"In order to situate our critique, it is useful to consider some of the common practices associated with anti-oppression politics. Although a homogenous grouping of practices does not exist, there are dominant trends that can be observed. There are common customs and rules that constitute the lived practices of anti-oppression politics. The descriptions we provide here are not exhaustive but representative.

Workshops, Workshops & More Workshops!

Workshops are a foundational component of anti-oppression politics. Anti-oppression workshops are mandatory in many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activist groups. Workshops attempt to provide an overview of the ways in which power operates in society, outline different forms of oppression, and encourage participants to reflect on the ways in which they experience privilege. Group exercises such as “Step Forward, Step Back” and “Mainstream/Margin” are used to draw on personal experiences to highlight the different ways in which oppression and privilege affect participants.


In Pursuit of Safe(r) Spaces

Safe or “safer” space policies are a standard outcome of anti-oppression politics. Organizations and groups incorporate into their mission statements or basis of unity documents a policy that expresses their commitment to anti-oppression via the construction of safe spaces. These statements present a laundry list of oppressions (racism, sexism, homophobia, “classism,” ableism, ageism, etc.), and cover guidelines for appropriate behaviour. Common features of these policies include using inclusive language (i.e. avoid gendered language), being respectful towards others, and the provision of “active” listeners.


Call-out Culture & “Working on Your Shit”

The “checking of privilege” is a fundamental component of anti-oppression practice.

The analogy of “unpacking the knapsack” first used by Peggy McIntosch in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack has been widely adopted by anti-oppression advocates, who centralize recognizing and thinking about privilege. Part of this practice includes the use of the qualifier—people preface statements with an acknowledgement of the ways in which they are privileged ( i.e. “As a white able-bodied settler who is university educated…”). If someone is not adequately “checking their privilege,” the retaliation is “the call-out”—an individual or group is informed (often publicly) that they need to “work on their shit” in order to realize the ways in which they benefit, and are complicit in x oppression.


The “Good Ally”

The identity of ally (as someone who primarily identifies as engaging in struggle in support of others) is another cornerstone of anti-oppression politics. According to a popular anti-oppression guide, an ally is “…a person who supports marginalized, silenced, or less privileged groups.” The fundamental pursuit of someone with privilege is the quest to become a “good ally.” It is considered fundamental to take leadership (usually unquestionable) from representatives of oppressed groups and act as an ally to their struggles. Innumerable lists, guides, and workshops have been produced to outline the steps and necessary requirements for being an ally. The individual focus of the idea of “ally” in contrast to the collective response of “solidarity” which used to occupy a similar place is symptomatic of the general denigration of collective action by anti-oppression politics." (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/common-cause-ottawa-with-allies-like-these-reflections-on-privilege-reductionism)


History

Kenan Malik:

"To understand the characteristics of contemporary identity politics, we need first to go back to the origins of modern politics, at the end of the eighteenth-century. This was when the distinction was first established between the left and right as we understand them. It was also when the distinction between identity politics and its critics first emerged. Of course, identity politics was not then called identity politics. Nor was it associated with the left or with struggles against oppression.

In fact, the very opposite. The origins of identity politics in the late eighteenth century lie with the reactionary right. The original politics of identity was racism and nationalism, and it developed out of the counter-Enlightenment. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities. ‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’

Where reactionaries adopted a particularist outlook, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from the almost-forgotten but hugely important Haitian Revolution of 1791, to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the twentieth century to the movement for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights.

The relationship between left, right and identity changed in the decades after the Second World War. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. The old politics of identity faded, but a new form emerged – identity politics as a weapon wielded not in the name of racism and nationalism, but to confront racism and oppression, and as a means of challenging inequality.

The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing ideas both of black identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. It provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals.

In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, and was linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes’, as the feminist and sociologist Sonia Kruks put it; ‘nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’

The meaning of solidarity has transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The latter draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.

‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to establish, than by the group or tribe to which we imagine we belong." (https://kenanmalik.com/2017/07/23/not-all-politics-is-identity-politics/)

Discussion

The differences between 'old' (civil rights) and 'new' identity politics

by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay:

"It is vital to distinguish between universal liberalism and identity politics and recognize what they share in common alongside how they differ. Both see and oppose inequality and seek to remedy it, but they do so with very different conceptions of society and use different approaches. These differences matter. Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide. Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity." (https://areomagazine.com/2018/09/25/identity-politics-does-not-continue-the-work-of-the-civil-rights-movements/?)


The old identity politics of Universal Liberalism

by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay:

"It is essential to understand that “liberal” does not indicate a place on the left of the political spectrum, as it is often used in the United States. Neither does it indicate a place on the right of the political spectrum, as it is often used in Australia. Rather, it is a philosophical and ethical position with a long history which focuses on individuality, liberty, and equal opportunity. In fact, it is found in decidedly left-wing political positions, decidedly right-wing ones, libertarian ones, and among the unaffiliated but broadly centrist. Therefore, universal liberalism is a widely held principle, and it is one which grew out of Enlightenment thought and the founding of secular, liberal democracies. As such, it birthed the civil rights movements.

The Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride functioned explicitly on these values of universal human rights and did so to forward the worth of the individual regardless of status of race, gender, sex, sexuality, or other markers of identity. They proceeded by appealing directly to universal human rights applying universally. They demanded that people of color, women, and sexual minorities no longer be discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. They insisted that within a liberal society that makes good on its promises to its citizens, everyone should be given the full range of rights, freedoms, and opportunities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated this ethos of individuality and shared humanity explicitly when he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Liberal feminists did so when they sought to have access to the same careers as men, the same pay for identical work, the same right to obtain mortgages, overdrafts and loans in their own names, and the same freedom to be responsible for their own debts just like male adults. Gay Pride demanded that gay men have the same right to a consensual adult sex life as heterosexuals and argued that their relationships and those of lesbians and bisexuals should be recognized as equally valid and important as those of heterosexual couples. As the name indicates, Gay Pride was and is not only about legal equality but about recognizing sexual minorities as human beings who are not disordered or depraved but perfectly normal, healthy, and moral individuals of equal worth who deserve the same dignity as every human being—as determined by their character. This social element of the Civil Rights Movement is consistent with anti-racist and women’s rights activists also demanding to be recognized as full human beings and individuals with as much to offer society as white men.

These movements succeeded, but not because of a tiny minority of activists, even those as inspirational as Martin Luther King. They succeeded because they appealed to a universal liberal spirit through which liberal democracies proudly defined themselves, but which had not been extended to all their citizens. The civil rights movements explicitly called upon nations (and their institutions) to uphold the promise of precisely this ethos; an ethos that had been steadily growing (despite setbacks) since Renaissance humanism, was developed further during the Enlightenment, found explicit voice in philosophers from Mary Wollstonecraft to John Stuart Mill, was featured front, center, and central in the U.S. Constitution, and was perfectly primed to take a huge leap forward following the end of the World Wars, the collapse of Empire, and the end of Jim Crow." (https://areomagazine.com/2018/09/25/identity-politics-does-not-continue-the-work-of-the-civil-rights-movements/?)


The 'new' identity politics

by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay:

"Identity politics is a very different approach than universal liberalism and, in its Social Justice form, it stems from an intellectual shift in leftist academia. In the late 1960s through to the mid-eighties, a number of leftist intellectuals from various disciplines became disillusioned with Marxism and theorized a radically different way of seeing society. This was a time during which Western societies were making huge leaps forward in tackling legal inequalities by decriminalizing male homosexuality and making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race or sex, either in access to jobs or in payment for them. It was also a time in which great advances in science were made, including those which gave women control over reproduction. Ironically, at this very time, this group of disillusioned leftist intellectuals decided it was time to give up on the myth of progress and the validity of science. This was postmodernism, and it would trade upon the good name of the civil rights movements to advocate its own approach to breaking down hegemonic forces in society and thus disrupting the problems those cause. (If you do not know how it is relevant here, it would be useful for you to read this and this before continuing.)

This new way of thinking was rooted in social constructivism, the idea that knowledge is not found but made by humans in the form of discourse – ways of talking about things. Knowledge is constructed, the theory goes, in the service of power and therefore perpetuates inequality. Under this approach, all dominant metanarratives – big, overarching explanations of how we are to understand the world – must be dismantled, including science and reason. Thus, the concept of objective knowledge, which is accessible to all, is denied because it is impossible to separate from subjectivity and personal perspective. Consequently, the knowledge society had was understood to be that of straight, white, heterosexual men and excludes knowledge that can be obtained only by inquirers who are not that.

While the original postmodernists were fairly aimless, and their ideas were not very user-friendly, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s a second wave of “theorists” significantly adapted these postmodern ideas and made them politically actionable—and they kept trading on the good names of the civil rights movements to do it. Postcolonial theorists, intersectional feminist theorists, critical race theorists, and queer theorists largely took on the concept of social constructivism but rejected its radical anti-realism. They argued that nothing could be addressed unless it was accepted that identity groups existed, constructed as they were, and that power clustered around some of them while being denied to others. That is, for these applied postmodernists, objectivity may remain impossible, but identity and oppression based upon it are objectively real.

They identified that these power dynamics arose largely on the level of discourse. Consequently, for true equality to exist, the knowledge of women and racial and sexual minorities, which are understood to be different and products of lived experience, should be foregrounded. Identity politics were born, and they claimed to be the true inheritors of the liberal civil rights project even as they abandoned both the epistemology and ethics that define liberalism both in theory and practice.

To take one very explicit example of this conceptual shift, consider the foundational essay of intersectionality, “a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory,” written by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was also instrumental in critical race theory. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Crenshaw takes issue with the approach of what she called “mainstream liberalism” (what we have been calling “universal liberalism”), which attempted to remove social significance from identity categories to overcome barriers preventing women and people of color and sexual minorities from accessing all that society had to offer. [We can understand “removing social significance from” in a social sense as the position that there should not be expectations or limitations on someone because of their identity. It aims to overcome expectations such as that “My doctor will be a man and my nurse will be a woman. My lawyer will be white, and my gardener will be Mexican.” That does not aim to remove the identity, but expectations associated with it (even if people continue to choose differently because of differences in interests between the sexes or cultural factors which are not imposed by white, patriarchal expectations such as people of Indian origin being overrepresented in medicine in the West).] Crenshaw correctly described mainstream liberalism as attempting to continue breaking down barriers that reinforce assumptions about racial and gendered roles.


She also observed that this was antithetical to identity politics, which she favored:

- [For] African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others…identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development. The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination—that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.


Crenshaw explicitly rejected universality, at least in the political context in which she wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race theorists have continued to do so.


She wrote:

- We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concommitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.

Within this framework, far from becoming irrelevant socially, gender and race are the sites of political activism."


The Problems with Identity Politics

by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay:

"The problems with the identity politics approach are:

  • Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
  • Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
  • Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.


By relying so heavily on social constructivist perceptions of society—which sees it in terms of hierarchies of power perpetuated in discourse and on lived experience—as an authoritative form of identity-based knowledge that cannot be disagreed with by anyone outside that group, identity politics feeds, legitimates, and builds upon itself. Because it starts with the assumption that a power imbalance characterizes any interaction between people seen as having a privileged identity and people seen as having a marginalized identity and assumes that this can be shown by interpreting the language of the privileged through this lens and regarding the perception of the marginalized as authoritative, it is prone to highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias.

Biased readings of interactions by people who see society in this way usually look like a distinct lack of charity. If a man explains anything to a woman or offers factual information, he can be accused of “mansplaining,” which is when a man is assumed to have done so because he believes women to be generally ignorant. However, there is much evidence that men speak in exchanges of information much more frequently than women and to both sexes, and the accusation is frequently made when it was quite reasonable for him to have supplied information he had. Similarly, someone complimenting a black speaker on her eloquence could be accused of being surprised that black people can be eloquent even if her meaning was straightforwardly admiring and even envious. This is because intention does not matter nearly as much as impact from the perspective of identity politics, and the experience of the marginalized person is considered authoritative. Of course, most women do not object to men being informative, and most black people are quite happy to be complimented by white people. Nevertheless, this attitude is pervasive within identity politics and has considerable influence.

The reverse of this is the oft-heard argument that “reverse racism/sexism does not exist,” which means that people of color cannot be racist to whites or women sexist to men even if they are explicitly derogatory about their race or sex. Within the cultural logic of identity politics, this follows because racism and sexism can only flow downhill along gradients of systemic power. For a person of color to be racist against whites or woman to be sexist against men, there would need to be a power balance which favors people of color and women. The problems with this kind of rationale are not only that it sets different identity groups in opposition to each other, makes communication difficult, and creates a moral economy that locates social power (immunity from legitimate accusations of bigotry) in perceptions of victimhood or oppression. It also reduces the ability to be able to genuinely empathize across identities if we are understood to have entirely different experiences, knowledges, and rules.

It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.

This is no true justice, however, as the people being targeted are different than the people who historically oppressed people of color and women. This instinct is almost certainly also natural to us, as “the sins of the fathers” has a very long history. It is one best left behind, and it certainly has no place in a liberal democracy. If most people are now working on an understanding of fairness, equality, and reciprocity as individual, this mentality can be incomprehensible and alienating.

It is in this way that identity politics is the most counterproductive and even dangerous. We humans are tribal and territorial creatures, and identity politics comes far more naturally to us than universality and individuality. Our history bears the evidence of humans unapologetically favoring their own tribe, own town, own religion, own nation, and own race over others and creating narratives after the impulse to attempt to justify doing it.

The universal human rights and principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality—which have developed over the modern period and resulted in the civil rights movements, legal equality, and much social progress—are much more uncommon to us and must be consistently reinforced and maintained. If we allow identity politics in the form of Social Justice to undermine this fragile and precarious detente, we could undo decades of social progress and provide a rationale for a resurgence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given the novelty of egalitarian society, it is not at all clear that women and racial and sexual minorities could easily win these losses back." (https://areomagazine.com/2018/09/25/identity-politics-does-not-continue-the-work-of-the-civil-rights-movements/?)

We are not our identities

By CHRISTINE LOUIS-DIT-SULLY:

"Black. Woman. Uneducated, working-class background. These are some of the identities that are supposed to define me, that are supposed to give me a particular perspective in life. These identities today are supposed to give you knowledge about my ideas, beliefs, and opinions before you ever even meet me or listen to me. These identities are supposed to tell you and me who my enemies are and who shares common interests with me.

Can these accidents of birth, however, really tell you who I am?

I don’t think so. But many today firmly hold the belief that these identities reveal everything about me, and they will resort to insults and ad hominem attacks when they find out, through my own actions, that these identities do not tell you much at all about my ideas and opinions.

In fact, by focusing these identities onto our current political discussions, we deny the most important aspect of who we are: our capacity to be moral, autonomous agents.

Imposing identities upon us in accordance with expectations surrounding factors we cannot control, such as skin colour, denies the fact that we are capable of free thinking, capable of making conscious and rational decisions, capable of developing and expressing our own political and moral views and acting upon them.

By focusing on these identities, we are also abandoning any chances to build bridges and go beyond our current divisions. When we focus on identities in the political context, we shift the focus away from discussing the kind the society we want to built. We end up discussing, rather, how different identities, seen as permanently and irreparably divided, can struggle and live parallel lives. It is about accepting the way things are instead of finding solutions to our social problems and making way for progress.

Do I really need to identify as a black woman to try to convince others of the importance of free speech? Should my identity as black woman be more important than the rational arguments I use?

Yes, there are differences between all of us, but discussing the merits of ideas regardless of who we are is the only way for us to understand each other across identities and culture. More importantly, despite our differences in culture and identity, we are all capable of hearing an idea, understanding it, disagreeing with it, developing it, and promoting it.

‘Despite our differences in culture and identity, we are all capable of hearing an idea, understanding it, disagreeing with it, developing it, and promoting it.’ (https://conatusnews.com/political-principles-identities/)


How identity politics stands in the way of collective action and human solidarity

By CHRISTINE LOUIS-DIT-SULLY:

"If we insist that all ideas are determined by identities, if we cannot transcend these identities through the exercise of reason, if we cannot think beyond identity-prescribed interests, then there is no room for collective action and solidarity with others.

The only ‘solidarity’ available to us today is determined by our identities instead of our conscious decisions to fight with others for a common political cause. For example, as a black person, I am supposed to see other black people as having common interests with me, just because they happen to have the same identity. My personal experience with racism is supposed to lead me to think that another black person with her own personal experience of racism has more in common with me than a white person who knows me and lives with me. The rational debate that would lead us to determine which common values we want to support and which common interests we all have is abandoned and replaced by interests determined outside of our control.

If we wish to create a better society, we must convince others that our ideas are right, that they are good. When we try to convince someone by arguing that history and tradition make the idea right, we are actually saying to the person that they do not have to think through the idea themselves because others in the past already have for them.

When we try to convince someone by arguing that identity determines truth, like the idea that black people understand racism better than white people, we are effectively saying that our identities do the thinking for us and that only people with the same identity will be capable of understanding it.

If only an identity group can understand an idea then what we are asking others to do is to accept what we say without the possibility for them to criticise and discuss that idea." ((https://conatusnews.com/political-principles-identities/))

Why Identity Politics are counter-productive

Sheri Berman:

"Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”

What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)

Building on such research, Diana Mutz recently argued that Trump’s stress on themes like growing immigration, the power of minorities and the rise of China highlighted status threats and fears particularly among whites without a college education, prompting a “defensive reaction” that was the most important factor in his election. This “defensive reaction” also explains why Trump’s post-election racist, xenophobic and sexist statements and reversal of traditional Republican positions on trade and other issues have helped him – they keep threats to whites front and center, provoking anger, fear and a strong desire to protect their own group.

Understanding why Trump found it easy to trigger these reactions requires examining broader changes in American society. In an excellent new book, Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason analyzes perhaps the most important of these: a decades-long process of “social sorting”. Mason notes that although racial and religious animosity has been present throughout American history, only recently has it lined up neatly along partisan lines. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious, ideological and regional identities, but gradually Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters, while the Democrats became associated with non-whites, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters.

This lining up of identities dramatically changes electoral stakes: previously if your party lost, other parts of your identity were not threatened, but today losing is also a blow to your racial, religious, regional and ideological identity. (Mason cites a study showing that in the week following Obama’s 2012 election, Republicans felt sadder than American parents after the Newtown school shooting or Bostonians after the Boston Marathon bombing.) This social sorting has led partisans of both parties to engage in negative stereotyping and even demonization. (One study found less support for “out-group” marriage among partisan Republicans and Democrats than for interracial marriage among Americans overall.)

Once the other party becomes an enemy rather than an opponent, winning becomes more important than the common good and compromise becomes an anathema. Such situations also promote emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence. Making matters worse, social scientists consistently find that the most committed partisans, those who are the angriest and have the most negative feelings towards out-groups, are the most politically engaged.

What does all this mean for those who oppose Trump and want to fight the dangerous trends his presidency has unleashed?

The short-term goal must be winning elections, and this means not helping Trump rile up his base by activating their sense of “threat” and inflaming the grievances and anger that lead them to rally around him. This will require avoiding the type of “identity politics” that stresses differences and creates a sense of “zero-sum” competition between groups and instead emphasizing common values and interests.

Stenner, for example, notes that “all the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference … are the surest ways to aggravate [the] intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness … Nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions and processes.”

Relatedly, research suggests that calling people racist when they do not see themselves that way is counterproductive. As noted above, while there surely are true bigots, studies show that not all those who exhibit intolerant behavior harbor extreme racial animus. Moreover, as Stanford psychologist Alana Conner notes, if the goal is to diminish intolerance “telling people they’re racist, sexist and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.” (https://kenanmalik.com/2017/07/23/not-all-politics-is-identity-politics/)

2. Fraser Myers:

"Traditional anti-racist politics – working towards the abolition of race – has been turned upside down. Today, the identitarian impulse has taken over. Everyone is exalted to think racially and to see race as part of their personal and political identity. Some even argue that it is racist to refuse to acknowledge racial differences. Races are also divided into oppressor and oppressed. The white race is, naturally, the chief oppressor group and even its most hard-up members are said to benefit from ‘white privilege’.

In this worldview, people are increasingly seen not as individuals, independent of their race, but as ‘representatives’ of their race. In politics, this burdens ethnic minorities with the expectation that they will hold the ‘correct’ views. These ethnic-minority Tories have committed the cardinal sin against diversity by thinking for themselves. They have crossed a line and defied what is expected of them as ethnic minorities.

The dehumanising slurs and accusations of race treachery thrown at Javid, Patel and others are a product of a worldview that reduces all individuals to their immutable characteristics. Identity politics is inherently dehumanising. That it has now taken such an ugly turn against ethnic minorities should surprise no one." (https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/28/uncle-toms-cabinet/?)

Discussion 2

Class Theory Insights

1.

"Leftist identity politics arose out of a quasi Marxist oppressed/oppressor dynamic, but crucially divorces the concept of class struggle from class itself, defined by Marx in terms of relations of production. Privilege and marginalization in identity politics become intrinsic characteristics of certain racial and gender identities, and so no means of resolving the contradiction via politics - through the creation of a democratic system of universal suffrage and individual rights or via economics - via the social ownership of capital, becomes possible. What we are left with, then, is a darwinian struggle between the races, defined by relationships of zero-sum adversity. While it won't be phrased specifically in this way, implied is the notion that noble races must strive against naturally exploitative races for mastery of the world. .... What drives them is no core philosophical or moral convictions at all, but rather raw machiavellian collectivist egocentrism and opportunism." (https://thealternativeleft.blogspot.com/2017/09/what-jordan-peterson-gets-right-and.html)


2. Kenan Malik:

"In practice, contemporary identity politics does little to challenge the roots of oppression. What it does do is empower certain people within those putative identities to police the borders of ‘their’ communities or peoples by establishing themselves as gatekeepers. It has allowed self-nominated authentic voices or community leaders to consolidate and protect their power. As solidarity has become redefined in terms of ethnicity or culture, so those who demand to be the voices of those ethnicities or cultures are afforded new privileges. From the perspective of identity politics, the African American academic and activist Adolph Reed observes, ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.’ That is why, he adds, the more aggressively ‘working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations’ have their protections dismantled and their lives broken, ‘the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left’ that ‘the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.’ " (https://kenanmalik.com/2017/07/23/not-all-politics-is-identity-politics/)

Cornell West's Appeal

Cornell West:

"dentity politics is supporting a politician based on the politician’s race or gender or sexual orientation.

Some black supporters of former President Barack Obama, said West, were unwilling to criticize the Obama administration for a weak response to Wall Street entities culpable in the financial crisis of 2008. Some proud supporters, he said, opted to focus on Obama’s peace prize, but were not willing to criticize him for carrying out far more drone attacks overseas than President George W. Bush.

“Please get off the crack pipe,” West said, before he urged his audience to “come to terms with” the suffering of people in Middle Eastern countries affected by drone strikes.

“It’s not a matter of what color the president is,” he said. “It’s a matter of what kind of courage and integrity that president is exerting...”


West turned from what he regards as flawed political support for drone warfare to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

He cited the experience of Jewish people, persecuted, he said, for thousands of years, nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, led at times by leaders who asserted — understandably but not justifiably — that Jewish people cannot trust anybody but themselves.

“Where is the delicate, difficult discussion that keeps track of the humanity of each and every one of us?” asked West.

“Human beings are human beings,” West said. “Look what Negros did in Liberia in the name of freedom, subordinated the indigenous population. Look what Europeans did in Australia or New Zealand or the United States.”

“How do we keep track of those kind of difficult truths that radically unsettle us but at the same time not push us toward drinking from the cup of hatred and bitterness as opposed to a compassion that tries to connect the humanity of Palestinians and Israelis together. Very difficult.” (https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20180306/cornel-west-speaking-at-brown-university-urges-resistance-to-identity-politics)


More information

  • critiques of identity politics from the alt-left:
  1. https://thealternativeleft.blogspot.com/2016/12/sounds-regressive-but-ok.html
  2. https://thealternativeleft.blogspot.com/2017/12/right-wing-students-school-counselors.html
  3. https://thealternativeleft.blogspot.com/2017/12/feminist-men-latest-failure-of-guilt.html