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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My disagreements with MGTOW

What does it mean to be independent?

© Dave DuBay

A few months back I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways. One example I gave are men going their own way (MGTOW).

MGTOW are against marriage, and many eschew relationships with women altogether. They claim society is gynocentric:

  • men being expected to accommodate feminism while also fulfilling the traditional male role,
  • the welfare state being primarily a forced transfer of resources from working men to women via taxation,
  • women’s marital obligations ending at divorce (which mostly women initiate) while men’s obligations continue as alimony,
  • family court’s discrimination against men, who typically are not given equal child custody and can be forced to pay child support even when a DNA test shows no biological relationship,
  • and the specter of false rape allegations.

Mgtow.com says they’re all about individual sovereignty—“the manifestation of one word: ‘No.’”

Avoiding marriage and fatherhood are legitimate choices. But there are three disagreements I have with MGTOW:

First, women seem to be one of the primary discussion topics. Imagine a man who quit drinking but continuously talks about alcohol. He’d seem like a dry drunk rather than someone who truly left alcohol behind. Or imagine a man who rarely mentions football and seems bored when others bring it up. He’d seem like a man who is truly not a sports person.

Why, then, do so many men who say they’ve gone their own way—that is, away from women—when spend so much time talking about women? A man whose life does not revolve around women, it seems to me, would instead talk about his hobbies and interests. MGTOW who rarely talk about women and instead talk mostly about how to unplug for society, live off the grid, etc. seem like they’ve truly gone their own way.

Second, MGTOW beliefs about women’s “true nature” are mostly a collection of crude stereotypes: women don’t think logically, they’re narcissistic, they’re manipulative, and the female brain is inferior — that’s why women can’t take responsibility for anything.

However, MGTOW are outraged over feminists’ pejorative claims about masculinity being about domination, misogyny, and homophobia. The irony, apparently, is lost on them.

This enmity, however, not only comes at the expense of our shared humanity—a person can’t be happy so long as he’s focused on blaming someone else.

Finally, MGTOW seem too focused on the blame game. Life is unfair, but do MGTOW really think they have it worse than other people? If MGTOW don’t believe society will change then why even bother collecting grievances?

A man can choose to focus on what is under his control—his deliberate actions and choices. And he can focus on his goals—what he wants to do now that romantic relationships are no longer an issue for him. But focusing on women and societal wrongs will only hold him back.

The Red Pill: A controversial documentary about the men’s rights movement

The latest documentary by sometime feminist Cassie Jaye has caused no small amount of controversy. More so than previous documentaries such as Daddy I Do, where she criticizes purity balls and father’s attempts to protect their daughter’s virginity. Or The Right to Love, which supports the fight for marriage equality.

The Red Pill looks at the men’s right movement, challenging what we think we know about gender issues. 

Tough questions

The film is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the men’s rights movement. Jaye gives A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam a sympathetic hearing without challenging him on his ranting online persona. Also unquestioned is men’s rights activists (MRAs) failure to take women’s issues seriously while demonizing feminists and blaming them for problems men face. And left unexamined is the claim that society is gynocentric.

But Jaye does ask feminists tough questions. They avoid the issue of paternity fraud and stand firm in their opposition to a legal presumption of shared parenting. On the issue of father’s rights Katherine Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation says a man’s choice happens before he has sex. Another feminist in the film says men have a responsibility not to put themselves in these situations. Which would be misogyny if someone said that about women. 

Later in the film feminist Michael Kimmel denies that domestic violence against men is a serious issue despite a Centers for Disease Control report (tables 4.7 and 4.8) showing that 5.066 million men have been pushed or slapped by an intimate partner in the past 12 months compared to 4.322 million women. Even with severe domestic violence the CDC found more male victims than most people would expect – 2.266 million men and 3.163 million women in the past 12 months.

Men and gender: It’s complicated

Since the advent of second wave feminism a half century ago men have struggled to proactively discuss gender issues. Today the Internet is the primary medium for MRAs to vent their concerns and anger, often anonymously. And anti-feminism is their focus.

Meanwhile, male feminists advocate men checking their privilege and acknowledging their collective guilt as oppressors. But feminism is a female perspective on gender where men’s issues are usually discussed in terms of how masculinity affects women. It’s difficult for men to speak genuinely about men’s lived experiences when taking their cues from women.

It’s a complex situation without a clear solution.

A movement is born

The central text of the men’s rights movement is The Myth of Male Power, written in 1993 by former male feminist Warren Farrell. His key point that the male role requires men to devalue their lives in the service of others sparked a movement even if it didn’t become mainstream.

Male disposability garners such little concern that few people have even heard of it. But MRAs present several statistics backed by United States government reports, including men being 93% of workplace deaths, almost four in five suicides, and 98% of combat deaths. They note that Boko Haram kidnapping girls generated an outpouring of international concern while the boys they burned alive were ignored.

Male disposability isn’t just about death. High divorce rates have decreased father involvement in children’s lives, reducing men’s value to a child support check. Yet research shows the essential role of fathers in children’s lives – boys especially. And boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done about it.

Anger

MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized. But feminists feel dehumanized by MRAs. Jaye shows footage of a feminist protest against Farrell without giving the context for why feminists labeled him a rape apologist. In The Myth of Male Power Farrell writes, “before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.” MRAs respond that this quote must be understood in its larger context. Though Farrell was not advocating rape, flippant comments about rape are always cringeworthy.

Where do we go from here?

Both feminists and MRAs seem passionate about equality and sensitive to gender bias while at other times being anti-equality and promoting gender bias. But this isn’t as inconsistent as it seems. Both feminism and the MRM are primarily about self-interest.

In the end Jaye concludes that she supports gender equality but is neither a feminist nor a men’s rights activist. But she’s not sure what direction that might go in. Despite my criticisms of the documentary, I agree with Jaye’s conclusion.

Can you believe in gender equality but not be a feminist?

If you believe in gender equality then you’re a feminist. If you doubt that then look feminism up in the dictionary. It’s a popular argument that’s difficult to disagree with without being labeled anti-equality.

But does it follow that if you’re not a feminist then you’re anti-equality? It reminds me of the question, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” The black or white dichotomy such questions create is problematic.

Another problem is the attempt to define other people’s labels for them. A better questions is, “What do you call yourself?” And, “What’s your perspective on equality?” These questions are open ended and don’t push an agenda.

Feminism advocates for gender equality from a female point of view. This matters because the Seneca Falls Convention was held 168 years ago, but recorded human history stretches back 10,000 years. But men seem inconsistent in finding their voice about gender equality.

Feminism has changed men’s roles because women’s roles can’t change without shifting men’s place in society. But that change happens to men – we don’t have a choice. And that feeling of having no choice is one reason why men’s rights activists are angry with feminism. Feminists sometimes respond by saying that men need to understand that men benefit from feminism too. And while that’s generally true, the patronizing tone doesn’t help.

The men’s rights movement isn’t the answer, though. Their rightwing talking points fail to support women’s issues. Men’s rights activists even claim that feminism isn’t really about equality.

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Beehive Mountain, Acadia National Park

So is being a male feminist the answer? I agree with blogger Ally Fogg that feminism is a movement of women, by women, and for women. Men can’t define the issues or offer solutions. Men can’t even takes sides in disagreements within feminism without it being mansplaining. As a result, a male feminist must take his cues from women. This means avoiding certain issues and having his statements scrutinized for ideological purity, all of which constrain his ability to speak authentically about the male experience.

Fogg also points out that feminism is mainly concerned with issues men cause, not issues men face. And of course, issues that men face are for men to describe.

A return to the pre-feminist past is neither desirable nor realistic. Instead, I write in an attempt to develop a male perspective on gender equality and gender issues without the constraints of male feminism, but also without the anti-feminist and rightwing perspective of the men’s rights movement. This is a male viewpoint that runs parallel to much of feminist thought but which is also free to disagree with feminism at certain points.

Final thought: while I don’t expect people to agree with me (I’m simply defining my personal viewpoint), I also reject the moralistic judgments people sometimes make because I’m not choosing the labels they think I should choose. It is each person’s prerogative to choose their own labels and to define their own perspectives, and the attitude that someone must call themselves this or that disrespects that individual’s choice.

Identity and Setting Boundaries

There are few things that can send people through the roof more than a perceived attack on their identity. I’ve long observed that my atheism can upset Christians who take my disbelief personally.

Recently, George Takei (Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek) ruffled feathers when he referred to African-American (and arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a clown in black face.” Takei is a gay rights activist, and Thomas dissented from the court’s pro-gay marriage ruling. Implying that Thomas isn’t really black has angered many African-Americans, even if they strongly disagree with Thomas’s politics.

People have reason to feel angry when their identity is attacked. But their anger is misplaced when their insecurities are triggered by someone who is asserting a different identity or viewpoint, but who is not attacking their identity (like Christians who are upset by my open atheism).

A group that has long been marginalized is particularly vulnerable to people failing to respect their boundaries. For example, it’s not surprising that many people don’t think Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce Jenner) is a real woman.

And it’s not just conservatives. Feminist Elinor Burkett ran a piece in the New York Times asking “what makes a woman?” She doesn’t include transgender women in her identity as a woman.

I think it’s every individual’s right to assert her or his identity, and good boundaries dictate that I have no place questioning others. Jenner identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, so that’s how I’ll speak of her.

Herein lies the dilemma. I don’t feel like I can tell Ms. Burkett that her identity as a woman has to be more inclusive. But I can say that I would not refer to Jenner as “he” or publicly dispute Jenner’s identity.

However, Burkett brings up a grievance that goes the other way: some transgender activists want to ban the word vagina because not all transgender women have vaginas. Indeed, Mount Holyoke College canceled the Vagina Monologues recently due to such concerns.

Perhaps only a minority of transgender women want to ban the word vagina. Such censorship crosses the line, however, for the same reason that Burkett’s use of “he” when referring to Jenner crosses the line. If a cisgender woman wants to call her body part a vagina then that’s her right we should all respect. It’s not exclusionary toward transgender women, it’s just a cisgender woman referring to her own body as she chooses.

But what to do about Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified African-American who was born a blonde white woman?

It’s been amply noted that race and gender are different. Jenner says she doesn’t want to be the opposite sex—she says she was born female with a male body. But Dolezal admits she is white but wants to be black.

The problem is that she wasn’t above board. There may be cases where a person wants to identify with a certain group. And Dolezal, with adopted African-American siblings, a black ex-husband, and a biracial child, has reasons to identify with the African-American community. I must wonder: if she had been open about this, would she have found greater acceptance?

Final example. Peter Moskowitz wrote an op-ed asking heterosexuals to stop overlaying the rainbow flag onto their Facebook profile pics. He feels that he earned the right to wave the rainbow flag after all the homophobia he’s encountered over the years, the social rejections from coming out, not to mention the real danger of physical assault for being gay. Moskowitz asks, “If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?”

It’s a valid question. Of course, no one is trying to co-opt anyone’s identity, nor is Moskowitz saying they are. But he’s concerned that people jumping on the bandwagon after the fact don’t really support his identity as a gay man.

I didn’t change my Facebook profile pic because I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon. Though I have marched in gay pride parades as a social worker as far back as 1996, and voted in favor of LGBT civil rights and marriage equality in Maine.

I’m well aware, however, that I haven’t been through what Moskowitz has. Still, I don’t think rainbow-ifying your Facebook pic is necessarily an infringement, especially for heterosexuals who have supported LGBT rights all along.