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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Lack of Diversity in Social Science Research

In college, friends majoring in biology told me I should switch majors because social science isn’t real science. It’s too subjective. Your personal biases will cloud the data.

They had a point. But researchers from a wide array of backgrounds can question each other’s assumptions, which can mitigate personal bias somewhat. Over the past 50 years universities have done a laudable job of trying to encourage more women and minorities to enter white male dominated fields. And while fields such as physics still lack diversity, 60% of biology degrees go to women, and psychology has an even larger number of women.

But contrarians say we’ve overlooked something. What about political diversity? Yet, academia has spent the past half century trying to purge conservatives, or even those who are not die hard liberals.

Does social psychology really prove that conservatives are unethical dullards? Can we trust the objectivity of a field that has almost no non-liberals? (Non-liberal because not every alternative viewpoint is conservative, or even libertarian.) Imagine for a moment that almost all social scientists were evangelical Christians, and their research found that atheists really are nasty people. Would you think something is amiss?

Jonathan Haidt writes that a century ago, the social sciences were almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But the gap started to widen, slowly at first, but then rapidly after 1990. Today, the ratio of liberals to conservatives is almost 14 to 1.

Unchecked biases degrade the quality and validity of research. Chief among these biases are negative presuppositions and confirmation bias (failing to critically examine or search for contradictory evidence for something you already believe). This can lead to “mischaracteriz[ing] liberals and conservatives alike.”

This doesn’t affect most aspects of social science research, such as personality theory or the psychology of decision making. But these biases are notable with areas of liberal concern, such as sex and gender, race, inequality, and moral and political psychology. And it can leave unexamined areas outside of liberalism’s concerns.

In the social sciences, the narrative of liberal progress is like water to a fish – it’s everywhere but often goes unnoticed. But this can lead to misinterpretation of non-liberal value statements. For example, social scientists might label someone unethical for not siding with a coworker who has filed a sexual harassment claim. But without someone to question the assumption of misogyny, the judgment of moral inferiority is unexamined.

In a previous post I wrote about a friend who received a sexual harassment complaint for using the phrase “OMG.” I think her claim was frivolous. My reasons are that I think a person is innocent until proven guilty (and the burden of proof is on her), and her failure to present any evidence other than her personal opinion is not sufficient evidence. But my perspective contradicts the liberal notion that an alleged victim must always be believed. This is not misogyny, however. Due process is a human right.

Too often people present statistics from dubious sources or which lack context, often arguing that numbers don’t lie. But numbers do lie. Ever made a math error? And too often someone will cite one study as if that seals the case, failing to question the researcher’s methodology, possible biases, and (most of all) failing to understand that studies must be replicated numerous times before being accepted as true.

Social science has a significant blind spot, and any research findings with political implications should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Liberals Against Free Speech (But Not Me)

Left leaning students started the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s and faced opposition from conservative administrators who didn’t like what the students had to say. As a child in the 1980s I remember conservative campaigns to ban books that conservatives felt promoted liberal ideals.

But somewhere along the line liberals lost their way. Many liberals still support free speech, but today the anti-free speech crowd has as many liberals as conservatives. And this is a problem because liberals control the nation’s universities and have a big voice in mainstream media. That’s the verdict Kirsten Powers delivers in The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.

The liberal response often focuses on Powers rather than her arguments: She’s not a real liberal. As an (oppositional) commentator on Fox News she’s been brainwashed by her conservative colleagues. She’s a bubble headed blonde. (Which is totally not sexist when a liberal says it.) Also, she’s a Christian, which makes her conservative on one issue: abortion. Ergo, she hates gays and lesbians.

Well, not really. She’s pro-gay marriage. But liberal commentators use the same strategy as Fox News: people won’t question what they want to believe, even when the logic is so strained it could be a comedy skit. After all, some of the same people who scoff at Fox News often watch MSNBC and fail to see the irony.

Like many book titles, The Silencing is melodramatic. Today, you can’t assume that a pro-free speech individual is liberal, or that a pro-censorship person is conservative. And for all the liberal attempts to silence others (mainly on social media and college campuses), they’re (thankfully) having little success.

Perhaps The Bullying would have been a more accurate title. Professor Laura Kipnis was brought up on Title IX charges for writing against trigger warnings and “sexual paranoia” on college campuses. Though her accusers framed exposure to dissenting opinions as harassment, in reality they were harassing Kipnis by hauling her before a board without representation and without a prior verbal or written description of the exact charges against her.

Eventually Kipnis was exonerated. But this was an inquisition, pure and simple. No different from what right winger Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s. Novelist Judy Blume also compared today’s liberal censorship to yesterday’s right wing censorship.

The experience of professors such as Dr. Janice Fiamengo, her lecture interrupted by students determined to silence her, is increasingly common. A Sun News (Canada) interview with Fiamengo illustrates the authoritarian approach that is increasingly common on college campuses. Fiamengo was going to deliver a lecture questioning the claim that the Western world is a rape culture (that North American and European culture tacitly promote and condone rape). To campus liberals, however, the existence of rape culture is to be believed and not questioned.

Which reminds me of 8th and 9th grade, when I attended a school run by the evangelical and Pentecostal Assembly of God church. Much of what they taught was to be believed and not questioned. But thankfully, there are groups such as FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which act as a watchdog group and advocates for free speech at universities.

I no longer call myself a liberal, not because my views on civil liberties have changed (though economically I can’t say I agree with either Democrats or Republicans, who are both corporatist but in different ways). But I remain anti-authoritarian, pro-civil liberties (including free speech, that guarantee that you will be offended at some point), and skeptical of ideological excess.

Messin’ With Texas

I’ve never been to Texas, though I hope to visit someday. You can’t help but hear a lot about it. Being the second largest state, Texas has a huge impact on everything from presidential elections to textbooks.

And Texas is growing fast. The US Census claims the overall Texas population will grow by 6.7 million people over the next 15 years to 33.3 million, but the state of Texas believes it could be more.

And it’s not just a booming population – it’s a shifting population. Today, 80% of Texans identify as white, though this drops to 44% for non-Hispanic whites. Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino are 38% of Texas’s population.

But Looming Boom: Texas Through 2030 by Texas A&M University shows that in just a few years Hispanics will overtake non-Hispanic whites (table 2). By 2030 half of all Texans might be Hispanic. And unlike the northeast, Texas will remain a younger state.

Because younger and Hispanic voters are more likely to vote Democratic, liberals have hopes of Turning Texas Blue.

This is overly optimistic, however, because Anglos are more likely than Hispanics to vote. And Hispanics are a younger demographic, meaning less of the population is of voting age. Besides, Hispanics are a more diverse group than some might realize – they’re more conservative than Anglo Democrats.

That is, Anglo Texans are solidly Republican which makes Democratic inroads difficult. But the GOP may find it easier to appeal to conservative Hispanics – though this will require softening the Republican attitude toward immigration.

We won’t see any change in Texan voting patterns in the 2016 presidential election. And while there probably won’t be much of a shift in 2020’s election, wonks looking at the fine print may notice a glitch in the Matrix.

Even in 2024 most Texans will likely vote for a Republican president because Anglo voter turnout will probably still exceed Hispanic voter turnout.

But the 2028 election should be interesting. I’m guessing that by then Texas will be purple, meaning it will be a swing state like Florida and Ohio are now. This means Republicans can still carry Texas in 2028, but they’ll have to work harder.

Beyond 2028, Texas will probably remain purple, but it will never be Massachusetts or California.

Is Gamergate Conservative or Liberal?

Opponents say GamerGate has a conservative agenda. And though GamerGate supporters often deny that they are conservatives, the conservative media has mostly supported the movement.

Allum Bokhari, however, says his research shows that most GamerGate supporters are liberal.

In brief, GamerGate is the claim by video game enthusiasts that the gaming media is corrupt. But opponents of GamerGate accuse supporters of misogyny and online harassment.

I’m not interested in engaging that debate, and as a non-gamer I know little about it. I’m interested in the question: Might GamerGate be a symptom of a larger issue?

Bokhari’s research finds that GamerGate supporters overwhelmingly favor gay marriage and abortion rights. They endorse women’s rights as well, but disagree that America is a rape culture. But GamerGate supporters also oppose popular social justice activist tactics such as censorship, witch hunts, and “call-out culture.”

Here’s the twist: Although almost three-quarters of GamerGate supporters identify with the left or political center, almost half of those on the left identify as left-libertarian rather than liberal.

The divide, then, is between establishment liberals and libertarian liberals. Libertarianism is usually associated with conservatives, though this is only true with economic issues. Left libertarians are more concerned with social freedom, however, and often are fine with regulated rather than pure free market capitalism.

More importantly, left libertarianism has a different foundational philosophy than establishment liberalism.

Establishment liberalism focuses on oppression as the primary political issue (often called “Cultural Marxism” by critics). This viewpoint not only claims that capitalism is destructive, but it extends this narrative, interpreting most things in terms of this group oppressing that group. As such, the power of dominant groups must be diminished while oppressed groups must be lifted up to create a level playing field. Critics often describe specific measures as social engineering, and allege that it represents a soft, manipulative type of authoritarianism.

But the individual is primary for left libertarians. For example, left libertarians support gay marriage because of individual rights, but are less interested in the oppression narrative. Critics of the libertarian viewpoint say it ignores the suffering of social injustice, fails to acknowledge the moral duty to rectify oppression, and will lead to the atomization of society. For example, left libertarians often oppose affirmative action as coercive and discriminatory, while establishment liberals strongly support affirmative action as necessary to compensate for white, cis-male, heterosexual privilege.

While it’s clear that conservatives have lost the culture wars – Roe v Wade is not going to be overturned, and gay marriage will only gain more states – the war isn’t over because the two main camps on the left, which were united in defeating the common conservative enemy, have now turned on each other.

And those conservatives who accept their defeat are making the best of the situation by allying with liberal individualists and against the so-called “Cultural Marxists.”

Establishment liberals have enormous power on college campuses, and within the Democratic Party and the media. Meanwhile, Republicans are still holding on, but their failure to attract Millennials means their demographic clock is ticking.

Where will this lead? My guess is that this rift will continue, but control of the Democratic Party will remain with establishment liberals. Meanwhile, Republicans will suffer increasing defeats in the 2020s as their aging voter base shrinks. The few young Republicans remaining will be economically conservative but socially libertarian. To survive, Republicans will woo left libertarians who previously voted Democratic, thus making the GOP less socially conservative. The elders in the Republican Party won’t like this, but as 2030 approaches they’ll be too small in number to matter.