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. 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.

Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. 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 (though the latter, it should be noted, is a conservative straw man).

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 construction, 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.