What’s good about identity politics?

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© Dave DuBay

Most ideologies have some element of truth. But no ideology has it all figured out. And many overstate their case, creating significant distortions.

Postmodernism is a favorite target of the right, and even some on the left. As best as I can define it, postmodernism is the claim that metanarratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are social constructs that serve the interests of those in power. So these metanarratives must be deconstructed. Deeply skeptical of any metanarrative, postmodernists sometimes claim there is no absolute truth.

It is true, of course, that our worldviews are social constructs. But calls for revolution overstate the case. Our social institutions are usually functional, even if the powerful benefit. This doesn’t mean everything is fine as it is. But it does mean that deliberate reform, which preserves what works while rectifying injustices, is usually best. Further, by the metric of human well-being, some systems really are better than others, such as science, democracy, and capitalism.

But the ideological divide in the United States isn’t really about postmodernism. Abstruse academic theories filter down into pop culture in a squishy, oversimplified, imprecise way. Freudianism’s popularity in the mid-twentieth century is one example. The claim the gender is a social construct disconnected from biology is another example.

Identity politics makes the abstract concrete. But what is identity politics? I describe identity politics as,

Advocating legal, policy, and social change to address disadvantages particular groups face due to specific characteristics, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion, etc.

Identity politics addresses important issues that need addressing. It isn’t necessarily the monster it is often portrayed as.  Writing for Areo, Dan Melo explains why he thinks identity politics is necessary. The problem, as he sees it, is that, “we have conflated the practical reality of identity politics with the theory of it” (emphasis his).

I feel conflicted over identity politics because I recognize that women and minorities face unique societal disadvantages. But I also recognize that this isn’t the full story. Worse, the behavior of social justice activists too often betrays the values they claim to stand for. The social justice PR problem is not unlike the evangelical PR problem.

In addition to promoting collective guilt and portraying members of certain groups (but not others) as stereotypes rather than as individuals, identity politics in practice encourages double standards.

Derogatory comments about a person based on race or sex are not racist or sexist if the target belongs to a privileged group (“bigotry is bias plus power”). Similar comments directed at someone from a marginalized group would likely get you fired and ostracized.

But if every human being has equal human dignity, then diminishing the dignity of any person, regardless of race, sex, gender, etc., is an implicit rejection of equality. Identity politics in practice, then, is anti-equality even if in theory it is pro-equality.

Further, identity politics in practice often involves discounting or ignoring issues that members of privileged groups face, such as domestic violence denial and blaming male victims of female perpetrators. Related to this is denying advantages that some members of historically disadvantaged groups enjoy, such as female privilege.

And truncating serious intellectual debate with spurious charges of racism, sexism, transphobia, and the like, prevents serious public debate.

Though progressives accuse white men of feeling anger over their reduced status—which in the aggregate is still higher than other groups—and while this criticism is not without merit, the above plays a larger role in phenomena such as Donald Trump’s anti-political correctness crusade.

The failure of social justice activists to treat others as they want others to treat them has, like the Christian Right before them, resulted in public disdain.

Which is unfortunate, because as Melo notes,

We conceptualize the idea of universal human rights because of identity. A planet on which no human has experienced the deprivation of life, liberty or property because of her skin color has no reason to identify any human as black or white in relation to those issues.

Though identity politics sometimes puts lived experience over facts, this doesn’t mean we should discount people’s experiences. Understanding the mathematics of a bird’s flight is important, Melo writes, but it tells us nothing about what it feels like to fly. Likewise,

Identity politics is an expression of experience, which is crucial to understanding the challenges that historically oppressed and marginalized people face.

But the genie’s already out of the bottle. The ineffective way identity politics has been practiced has already spurred competing identity politics movements such as men’s rights and the alt-right. And rather than realizing that their approach is failing, social justice activists are doubling down.

The ideological divide in this country is only going to get worse.

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Jordan Peterson, and straw men for everyone

Peterson should be met with critical, but intellectually honest, thought rather than adulation.

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© Dave DuBay

People can’t stop talking about psychology professor and intellectual dark web thinker Jordan Peterson. Charismatic personalities are emotionally compelling, for better or for worse.

But I have mixed feelings about him.  I agree with Jordan Peterson’s basic psychological message: we must get our personal lives together before we try to change the world—otherwise we’ll do more harm than good. And related to this is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility.

Peterson’s straw men

But I think Peterson’s politics is too alarmist, and this detracts from his psychological message.

I disdain hysterics on both the left and the right. And I think too many people talk past each other, offering straw man arguments rather than accurately representing their opponent’s positions.

We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and I am no exception. But some are more egregious than others, and I include both Peterson and many of his critics in this category.

Peterson rose to fame when he objected to Bill C-16 (now law), which added gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. He claims C-16 would force people to use alternative gender pronouns, which if true would violate their free speech rights. He says this could result in civil fines or even jail time for those who refuse to pay the unjust fines.

Further, he advanced the alarmist claim that alternative gender pronouns are “the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

Nowhere does C-16 explicitly compel the use of alternative pronouns, however. His claim is based on a slippery slope argument. Though Wilfrid Laurier University tried to censure Lindsay Shepherd for showing a video clip of Peterson debating C-16—but failed due to public pressure—this is hardly comparable to a Soviet gulag. And notably, this case involved a university, not a governmental entity.

“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s favorite boogeyman.  But this is a conflation of two different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.

Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. The best definition of postmodernism I can offer is that meta-narratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are socially constructed. And postmodernists like to deconstruct the power interests of Western society’s meta-narratives. This can include skepticism toward science and reason even to the point of denying there’s any such thing as human nature.

Marxism, however, promotes a particular meta-narrative. And that’s a problem for postmodernists.

Still, there are similarities. Postmodernists think the meta-narratives of Western society serve the power interests of white male elites. And neo-Marxists see a complex array of power struggles—the rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, whites oppressing minorities, cisgender heterosexuals oppressing sexual and gender minorities, and so on.

But while there is some agreement between postmodernists and neo-Marxists, it’s a mistake to conflate them just as it would be a mistake to conflate Christians and Muslims because both believe in God.

Progressive straw men

Peterson’s progressive critics are no better, however. They claim he opposes equality when in fact he supports equality under the law but not equality of outcome.

They say he wants gender norms to return to the 1950s when in fact he’s saying that there are scientifically verifiable personality differences between men and women, which greater gender equality amplifies rather than diminishing. And this results, on average, in different career choices.

Peterson is also critical of fascism and the alt-right, though this doesn’t stop his critics from disingenuously trying to associate him with the alt-right.

That Peterson is all about oppressive hierarchies another favorite straw man. I’ve read both of Peterson’s books and watched many of his videos, and what he’s saying is quite different.

In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson says hierarchy in some form is unavoidable because it’s built into our biology. He disagrees with the claim that hierarchy is a social construct, though manifestations of it can vary greatly from culture to culture. Peterson notes that even lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, have hierarchies. That’s how deeply biologically ingrained it is.

However, Peterson is clear that hierarchy is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It’s important to understand this because you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom if you can help it. And because societies that think they can eliminate hierarchy end up with horrifically murderous hierarchies—such as every communist country that has ever existed. As such, he opposes both far left and far right identity politics and instead advocates hierarchy based on merit.

Of course, intersectionality—the progressive belief that some people belong to multiple oppressed groups, which creates a unique experience of oppression that is greater than the sum of each oppression taken separately—unwittingly creates its own hierarchy where people compete for status by asserting they are more oppressed than others. Call-out culture—trying to lower other people’s status by publicly castigating them for oppressive or culturally insensitive behavior no matter how small (“microaggressions”)—is a prime example of social justice activists jockeying for status.

With Peterson and his critics talking past each other, we are still waiting for a serious debate.

 

Calmer than you are

There’s a scene from The Big Lebowski where the Dude is upset, and hotheaded Walter brags, “Calmer than you are.” But we all know that Walter is faking it.

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© Dave DuBay

What does it really mean to not worry about things that are not up to us?

I just completed a cross-country move to be closer to family. By any objective standard things have gone well. A week after we decided to move a job opened up, and a week later I had an offer. Within 9 days of arriving (on schedule) my significant other was offered her first choice job, and our first choice apartment came through.

So what’s to complain about?

In retrospect the events I stressed over were minor. We had to haggle with the landlord to avoid fees related to breaking our lease. U-Haul’s communication for the delivery of the U-Box was poor, creating uncertainty and last minute schedule juggling. We had more stuff than we thought, and had to make several trips to Goodwill. Avoiding an approaching tropical storm meant a detour which added a day to the drive. And our dog was totally stressed out from 5 days on the road.

Stressors like this seem minor when they’re happening to someone else. But my anxiety levels were sky high, especially because I worried that each event could derail the entire cross country move.

This is not a rational position. Every bump in the road had a simple solution, and none of the consequences were as dire as my fevered imagination would have it. In the end I expended unnecessary energy stressing over unimportant things I could not control—even though I could choose my favored solution.

Buddhists like to say that the point of practice is not to make the waves go away, but to learn how to surf. I write about taking life’s difficulties with greater equanimity not because I am calmer than you are, but because I aspire to be calmer than I was yesterday.

Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Maybe we can’t get past our pain, but we can get past our tunnel vision

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Roosevelts. Eleanor Roosevelt is known to history as a kindhearted person, a woman of character who treated others with human dignity. She was the primary mover behind the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And there’s Mr. Rogers who taught the inherent worth of every person. And people who knew him say, yes, he was really like that.

Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Fred Rogers lived a charmed life, however. Mr. Rogers had a lonely childhood and was bullied by his peers. As a child Roosevelt’s mother would tell her how ugly she was. Her father’s alcoholism killed him, and she lived with abusive, drunken uncles. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (so her maiden name and married were name the same). He was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

But Roosevelt and Rogers were forces for human dignity because of their pain. Not because they somehow got over their pain, but because they got past their tunnel vision. Their pain was the source of their empathy—even when personally attacked they could see the pain inside the other person and respond with compassion.

It’s something many of us aspire to but fail to achieve. And people who can’t get past their tunnel vision not only can be destructive—they often think their abuse of other people is morally justified.

They see themselves as the real victims. Hitler, for example, was abused as a child and claimed he was defending Germans against their Jewish oppressors. Stalin was once a political prisoner who subsequently sent millions to the gulag in the name of economic justice.

Abuse is often excused as a justified punishment for a moral transgression. When we feel the desire to punish someone we should stop and ask ourselves what our true motives are. Setting healthy boundaries with people or not bailing people out from the natural consequences of poor choices aren’t the same as punishment. And punishment is sometimes necessary, as when someone commits a crime. But other times it’s revenge we’re after.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed called “Why can’t we hate men?” The outrage and the defenses it sparked were predictable. There’s a petition to sanction gender studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters for writing the piece, but I don’t think that will accomplish anything. There are too many calls to fire or punish people instead of genuine efforts for dialog.

Men too often take the bait with articles like this. Their anger and defensiveness gives others the opportunity to laugh at them. Instead we must simply observe the fact that misandry has always been a thing in feminist circles. I’m not saying that all feminists hate men, or that misandry is a central aspect of feminism. But it is tolerated.

Far too many women have been subjected to gender based abuse, and this is the source of much misandry. And though we as a society rarely talk about it, women’s gender based abuse of boys and men is the source of much misogyny.

But none of this is an excuse for hate. Yet, we have no control over what other people do. The starting point is oneself. Promoting human kindness and avoiding hate is the most powerful thing I can do. It’s my responsibility. Look at what Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. Rogers accomplished for humanity compared to Hitler and Stalin.

This is a challenge for every age, and ours is no exception. Every day brings a mean tweet from President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, millionaire Bill Maher hopes for a recession so Trump won’t be reelected, despite the harm this would cause for millions of working families.

Over at the New York Times David Brooks advocates “personalism.” He notes that, “We talk in shorthand about ‘Trump voters’ or ‘social justice warriors,’ but when you actually meet people they defy categories.” These labels ignore “the uniqueness and depth of each person.”

Personalism, Brooks continues, is about seeing each “person in his or her full depth.” This approach is I-Thou rather than I-It: “get to know their stories” instead of seeing them as data points.

Punishing people like Professor Walters won’t defeat the hate she promotes. Recognizing her humanity while also setting firm boundaries—including her responsibility to recognize the humanity of others—is a better approach.

And this can start with the question: “What do you think increased hatred will achieve for the equal human dignity of all people?”