Identity Politics, Social Justice & Prejudice

Identity politics often divides groups into privileged and oppressed dichotomies. Whites are privileged and minorities are oppressed. Men are privileged and women are oppressed. And so on. But these dichotomies are simplistic even though there’s some truth to them.

A case in point is La Sha’s recent article in the Huffington Post about the sentencing of American student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for stealing a government poster. Sha’s takeaway is that Warmbier’s privileged heterosexual cis-gender white male status is like a drug, and his arrogance is “pathogenic.” She juxtaposes his theft of the sign to mass shootings in the United States, and compares his 15-year hard labor sentence to the racism and sexism she’s experienced as an African-American woman.

In addition to Sha’s schadenfreude over a violation of human rights, she’s exploiting a tragedy for ideological gain. Intersectionality adds a layer of complexity. Everyone belongs to multiple groups. One person might simultaneously belong a privileged group and an oppressed group. Some groups are more oppressed than others, and that can be used to gain status. On the other hand, a person’s good standing is diminished by belonging to a privileged group. So a heterosexual white male must try extra hard to prove he’s not like the others, and this involves checking his privilege and directing self-righteousness at others in his demographic group who don’t accept this ideology.

Intersectionality can be like walking a tightrope. Cathy Young notes that, “A white woman upset by an insulting comment from a white man qualifies for sympathy and support; a white woman distraught at being ripped to shreds by a ‘woman of color’ for an apparent racial faux pas can be ridiculed for ‘white girl tears.’”

Once I was talking to a man, and he mentioned Hirsi Ayaan Ali (a black ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) being disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she’s an outspoken critic of Islam. He asked, “Why don’t feminists want people to speak out against female genital mutilation?” I didn’t know what to say. Feminists speak out against FGM all the time. The criticism of Islam (or even mentioning the role Islam plays in FGM) is the problem. Because social justice activists see Muslims as oppressed, Islam must be protected from any criticism. Hirsi Ayaan Ali’s transgression was failing to maintain the rigid dichotomy of oppressed and oppressors.

And oppressed status can be lost. In the United Kingdom, there’s an effort by the National Union of Students LGBT Campaign to drop representation for white gay men because they’re not oppressed within the LGBT community. No longer being oppressed could be seen as progress except that it means white gay men are being reclassified as privileged, and thus new members of the oppressor class.

In other cases, historically oppressed group might not be seen as oppressed at all. Cathy Young points out that “’social justice’ discourse sheepishly sidesteps anti-Semitism—surely one of the most pernicious forms of bigotry in Western history.” Social justice activists haven’t figured out how to support Palestinians while also recognizing that anti-Jewish bigotry is still a big problem.

Some argue that left wing radicalism will collapse because “revolutions eat their own.” After all, the quest for ideological purity has led some progressives to turn their backs on long time gay rights activist Peter Thatchell because he supports free speech, and feminist Germaine Greer because she doesn’t support transgender women.

But that might be optimistic. Insiders and outsides, us and them, is a quirk found in every human culture. And the self-serving bias – that insistence on justifying one’s actions – compounds the problem.