I normally don’t like list-based articles. They’re ways of effectively turning creative thought into an assembly line of pithy, separate insights, preventing the need for an organized argument.
But in this case, there’s just so much ground to cover that it’s worth it to use short arguments.
I’ve been seeing many people, including ironically many of those who embrace or at least apologize for right-wing racebaiting and identity politics, act very skeptically of the Left’s embrace of identity politics. They’re concerned when we raise criticisms of white privilege, or of patriarchy, because it seems as if there is a collective attack on other groups. It seems like naked warfare between equal combatants.
Putting aside that this is usually a strawman, there’s obviously a lot of valid concerns driving that skepticism. The 20th century taught us that the naked embrace of identity can become a way for mass violence to be mobilized. Identity politics can be ugly, divisive, cruel and brutal. I personally am very skeptical of ethno-nationalism: I’d rather see us cooperate collectively.
But ultimately, saying that you’re in favor of justice but against identity politics is a lot like saying you’re in favor of cheese but not so much producing dairy products.
Politics is about who we are. The very reason we “do” politics, just like why we “do” economics and culture and family, is because we have aspirations, values and desires, and we want to discuss those and create policy solutions to organize our efforts to fulfill our aspirations and desires. As Reza Aslan has pointed out, demanding that people keep religion, or ethnicity, or gender, entirely out of politics is to say that we just shouldn’t have those icky people in our democracy.
In fact, trying to avoid the implication of identity politics and achieving some kind of neutral politics is rather akin to saying, “We’d have world peace if we were all dead”. It’s inarguably true and it’s also totally trivial: it’s a deepity, as Daniel Dennett would put it. You can’t remove identity from politics without removing people from politics. And just like trying to actually achieve world peace through killing people is nonsensical and ultimately harmful in its outcomes (and inevitably discriminatory in terms of who will see their lives ended), so too is trying to redress social injustices without redressing the way that people have been categorized into groups of dominator and dominated ultimately pointless and harmful.
#1: Identity Politics Isn’t Inconsistent With Stakeholder Politics
The correct way of thinking about identity politics is stakeholder politics.
Everyone comes to a bargaining table with things that they want and things that they want to give up. They come to that table with a sense of who they are and what they want.
Nothing about that means that one has to demand smashing everyone else under the bootheel. Saying “I want something” doesn’t logically or practically necessitate saying “I don’t want you to have something”. They’re totally different issues.
In practice, it is overwhelmingly those with power who come to a negotiation ready to defend the ongoing way that their aspirations are achieved at the direct cost of others, and it is those without power who come to the negotiating table just wanting equality.
White nationalists want to drive American citizens, or citizens of whatever country they occupy, out to have an ethno-state, no matter if they dress that up in voluntary verbiage. But this was not the position of even extremist black nationalists like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.
Even radical feminists don’t insist that men be forced into the kitchen at gunpoint. It is only those defending patriarchy who insist on the perpetual maintenance of a system where women bear the burdens of society without the attendant rights to influence that society as a result of their disproportionate responsibilities.
Very few gay activists, even radicals, are insisting that heterosexual marriage be abolished. But that was the uniform position of the right wing for decades, and remains the position of many.
This pattern doesn’t hold up all the time, of course. One can always find edge cases, and there are plenty of ugly examples of movements that at least preached liberation creating brutal dictatorships.
But even if reality were the reverse of what we actually see, even if it were those who were oppressed who tended to be more abrasive and maximalist in their demands, that still wouldn’t mean that they had no right to demand at the very least the rectification of the scales and it wouldn’t eliminate the value of stakeholder politics.
In stakeholder politics, groups come to the table with their ideas, values and demands, but they intend to make sure that everyone leaves better off or at least as minimally worse off as possible. Even when we’re not part of multiple stakeholder groups at once, and that’s fairly rare, we still hope to come to the table with a vigorous defense of our interests but not an aggressive demand to harm others.
The difference between stakeholder politics and uglier forms of identity politics is the difference between war and business. You can still have people be stridently and forthrightly standing up for their worldview while being ready to listen to each other and cooperate.
We’re all individuals. And yet we all need to find a way of cooperating. That’s the very nature of politics. Demanding that we turn off who we are to participate in politics defeats the purpose.
#2: It’s Incoherent and Inhuman
Saying that we should do politics without our identities is like saying you should take a breath without your lungs or fire a gun without a bullet. It’s nonsense.
Human beings do politics. There are no robots or faceless mannequins doing politics, near as we can tell. Everything that a human being does is done by a person, with all of their personality and unique mentality behind that.
It’s remarkable how much people are willing to embrace this inhuman, fundamentally castrated notion of how we should relate to each other.
Only, they don’t really. Because…
#3: Pretending to Have Neutrality is a Privilege
The only perspective by which it can possibly make sense to say that identity politics are bad is when your identity has already won.
This reality is so important, and so resisted, that it really bears repeating.
The only framework in which someone can even pretend that it’s possible to relate to everyone else in some kind of identity-less fashion is one where one’s own identity has become the seemingly-objective yardstick that everyone else is measured by.
Power, by its very nature, tends to make itself seem objective. It forces out all alternatives to it. Just like a planet in the solar system is defined by its ability to sweep everything else out of its orbit, the very existence of power necessitates the attempt to make it seem like a fixed fact of reality.
White folks, straight folks, men, the rich… they very often have the ability to think that their worldview is universal, that all deviations from it are only apparent (either lies or at best childish flirtations), and that they are the yardstick that one measures the world by. Even if one finds another group to be superior, one is still measuring that by having the fixed unit be centered on the person doing the measuring. In the coordinate system of culture, those with power set themselves at the intersections of axes: they are the zero point to compare everything by.
The only people for whom politics are not nakedly and obviously about who one is, where one lives and what life one was born into are those who won, or at least those whose ancestors won.
#4: It Misdiagnoses The Problems of Identity
The only way that identity politics can be a problem is if you just assume that identity is a source of inequality, and the only discussion is who gets to dictate who gets bashed and how hard.
As I pointed out recently at Quora regarding transgender issues and feminism, “The only context in which it even makes sense to ask this question is one wherein we not only view gender and sex as fundamentally fixed constructs and the presentations of sexuality as fitting into a simple binary rather than being personal choices along a fluid continuum, but also wherein we view sexuality as a locus of inequality. If we had a society where opportunities for those who presented themselves as men and those who presented themselves as women were equal, whether or not those presentations were more or less traditionally masculine or feminine, transgender identity would be moot. You’d be changing your identity from one equal category to another”.
The same applies in general to identity politics. The source of the problem isn’t the assertion of identity, which is ultimately fluid and changing no matter how much we try to deny it; the source of the problem is that we allowed identity to become a way for us to be divided in the first place.
But pretending that that didn’t happen doesn’t make it go away any more than pretending that you in fact turned on your blinker retroactively reverses the dinged fender. Once a problem has been identified, you have to monitor your success at fixing it. And even when the problem ceases to exist, measuring it doesn’t cause it. Heat isn’t caused by thermometers and speeding is not caused by your speedometer.
#5: It Misdiagnoses the Problems of Politics
Worse, the problem of identity politics is actually an admission that we don’t have a functional democracy.
A classical way of thinking about it is through the 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s general will. The idea of the general will has been used for ugly ends, but it’s ultimately a pretty important distinction. The fact is that individuals can, even as a group, decide to vote and agitate out of their naked, short-term, individualized self-interest. But this is almost always a result of asking the wrong questions or constructing one’s political systems incorrectly. In reality, people when they’re doing politics need to act as citizens. Just like it’s not appropriate to act the way one does shooting hoops with friends at the office, so too is it not appropriate to come to the voting booth or the public square with the intents one has for one’s private life. Being in a democracy demands that we try, however best we can, to think about what everyone needs, and act as citizens rather than private individuals. Effective democratic institutions make it easy and automatic to act as a citizen and hard and inconvenient to act as a private individual.
If identity politics can stop that, then democracy is already failing. Just like blaming a hangover on having gone to the party is senseless because no one made you drink, blaming identity politics for the fact that the democratic system had created antagonistic rather than cooperative relationships is senseless.
#6: Identity Politics Aren’t the Only Ugly Kinds of Politics
I’d understand the position that identity politics are so dangerous as to be necessary to avoid totally more if identity politics were the only ugly kind of politics.
But the 20th century also teaches us that the attempt to transcend the human condition can also lead to ugly outcomes.
After all, what else were the Soviets but the attempt, at least in their propaganda, to overcome the human condition and create a new man? Didn’t the fascists and the Nazis similarly offer the idea that the collective human will could conquer biological and physical reality?
The politics of globalization can be ugly too. It can be hard for Westerners to see because they’re swimming in it, but it’s easier when one looks at a globalized ideology like jihadism. Jihadism is ultimately a utopian ideology too: it’s designed to transcend all the messiness of national borders, ethnicity, race and class to create a world unified by one thing: belief.
In fact, it’s typically not identity politics per se that gets ugly, but very often only when there’s some broader extremist ideology that serves to make the identity politics part of some kind of broader cosmic war or battle for the future of humanity.
Stripping people of their differences and their humanity has been the hallmark of totalitarian regimes. Even when that’s not accomplished by murder, it can be accomplished by propaganda and conformity.
Think about the world Orwell describes in 1984. There is no identity politics left in that world, and it’s not a utopia.
#7: Reality Doesn’t Change Because It’s Inconvenient for You
Most importantly, the fact is that we have inequalities based on identity as much as political economy.
You can’t even talk about either without talking about the other. The way that our unequal economic system is maintained is in great part by dividing people into the categories of identity they more naturally can fall into, the identities of ethnicity and gender. And the differences in identity are given reality by the separation of space and economic access.
Trying to pretend that women don’t face poverty, or that people of color don’t face discrimination from cops, isn’t justice. It’s not noble. It’s just ducking reality.
Feminists didn’t create patriarchy. Anti-racists didn’t make up racism. Boots were on people’s necks already before anyone identified where the pressure was coming from.
Yes, removing boots from necks can be disruptive. But maintaining boots on necks is more disruptive to people’s lives.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.