Identity politics is nothing new

But the focus has shifted from supremacy to oppression.

Flagstaff, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Human beings are a tribal species. We sort ourselves into “us and them” with little effort. And from the dawn of humanity various groups have promoted cultural narratives and even legislation to their advantage.

Historically the focus has been the superiority of the in-group. In the 1600s British colonists in what became the United States of America justified African slavery with the allegation that Africans were the cursed sons of Ham (though Genesis chapter nine says nothing of the sort). And whites labeled the indigenous nations of North America as savages.

The ideal of equal and universal human rights is a desired antidote to supremacy claims, but identity groups can be a barrier. In the 1850s when scores of Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe, Anglo-Saxon protestants in America claimed that something must be done about these cultural pollutants. The short lived American Party—better known as the “Know Nothings” due to their secretiveness—at one point managed to elect over fifty party members to the House of Representatives on an anti-immigration platform. Though the American Party quickly collapsed, nativism continued and anti-immigration legislation based on race persisted into the twentieth century.

And of course, the Ku Klux Klan emerged after the Civil War to enforce unequal treatment based on race, helping along the creation of Jim Crow laws.

Starting in the 1950s the civil rights movement reasserted the ethic that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. But in contrast to this message of unity, by the late 1960s left wing groups were advancing an ideology based on identity group conflict. Rather than claiming supremacy, the emerging identity politics of the left focused on oppression. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claim that,

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Whether you are privileged or oppressed is based on your demographic profile. Everyone belongs to multiple groups, however, and the concept of intersectionality—the complex matrix of identity groups that individuals belong to—emerged to navigate the degree to which one might be oppressed. And higher status is conferred on those who are the most oppressed.

Though neo-Nazis continue to carry the tiki torch of racial superiority, groups labeled as privileged are increasingly adopting the left’s oppression based identity politics. And this has significantly shifted conservative politics.

Samuel Sommers of Tufts University and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School write in the Washington Post that their research shows that by 2011 whites on average perceived anti-white bias as more of a problem than anti-black bias. The researchers note that this belief stands in contrast to shorter life expectancy for African-Americans compared to white Americans, the greater chance of blacks facing police brutality, and other forms of discrimination. Sommers and Norton interpret these findings as a zero-sum mindset—improvements for blacks are thought to come at a cost to whites.

But it’s not just white Americans. The assumption that we must focus our concerns only on oppressed groups has resulted in a counterreaction from those who disingenuously claim men are more oppressed than women. While men and boys do face unique challenges, the claim that men are now second class citizens overstates the case. Instead, as I wrote for the Good Men Project, we should challenge the notion that a group must be oppressed before we take their issues seriously.

Finally, Emma Green writes for The Atlantic that “most American Christians believe they’re victims of discrimination.” She cites a survey on immigration from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute which finds that “nearly eight in ten (77%) white evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians now rivals that of other groups.” Though only half of Catholics and mainline Protestants agree, three-quarters of Republics concur.

While the Pew Research Center has found that public opinion of evangelicals is much lower among younger Americans—57% favorable for Americans in their 30s and 40s compared to 67% favorable for those over 65 — people in their 20s show a slight uptick in approval of evangelicals (59%). In contrast, most Americans in all age groups have an unfavorable view of Muslims.

Identity politics on the left and right seem to be pushing us into a downward spiral. Status based on oppression incentivizes maintenance of a victim identity, which includes finding more and more subtle ways one is oppressed.

Resentment grows. Various groups feel more alienated from one another as their shared identity as Americans and as human beings erodes. In some cases this even leads to a willingness to initiate violence.

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Postmodernism and religious fundamentalism have similar roots

Sedona, Arizona

Religious fundamentalists and postmodernists may have very different political views, but philosophically they are cousins. Both have roots in the Counter-Enlightenment. Both deny scientific objectivity in favor of subjectivism in one case and revelation one the other.

In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen R. C. Hicks goes back to the Enlightenment to expose postmodernism’s roots.

As he explains it, the medieval worldview was supernatural, faith based, collectivist, feudal, and believed in God’s will and original sin.

In contrast, modernism is naturalistic, individualistic, based on autonomy, values objectivity over faith, and lead to capitalism, democracy, and human rights.

Postmodernism, however, rejects scientific objectivity in favor of subjectivism, sees most things as social constructions, is collectivist, and socialist.

The Counter-Enlightenment

Christianity felt threatened when Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and others promoted reason and scientific objectivity. How could the belief that there is one God who is three persons withstand rational analysis?

Hicks writes that Immanuel Kant sought to defend faith and counter Enlightenment ideas by restricting reason to analysis of one’s internal experiences. That is, reason is incapable of knowing reality itself. There’s an insurmountable barrier between subject (you) and object (the outside world). Other German philosophers took subjectivism all the way, advocating personal feelings over reason.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected reason most explicitly. Pining for a mythological past, he thought modern society was pathological and should be replaced. Rousseau was especially protective of religion, rejecting the Enlightenment’s religious tolerance.

Today, fundamentalists often claim that reason cannot answer ultimate questions, and that God’s revelation – the Bible – trumps scientific findings about the origin of the species. In this view, science is as subjective as any personal opinion. Biblical revelation is supreme. And fundamentalists often oppose separation of church and state.

But right-wing Christians reject collectivism, seeing it as a governmental threat to religious liberty. Postmodernists, in contrast, are collectivist and see Christianity, not government, as oppressive. So a split happened somewhere along the way.

The leap to postmodernism

While postmodernists see science as one subjective opinion among many, they reject traditional religious claims as oppressive. But socialism originally claimed to be a scientific endeavor. What happened to that?

Hicks says that right-wing collectivism collapsed with the defeat of National Socialism – the Nazis – in World War II, leaving left-wing and atheistic Marxist socialism as the dominant collectivist ideology.

And by the 1950s mathematical rigor in economics had shown capitalism to be a superior system that increased wealth for both rich and poor, while socialism would fail in the long run. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberal economic reforms in China, history proved socialism’s failure.

This left socialists with two choices: abandon socialism and embrace capitalism, or abandon science and reason in favor of subjectivism. So the far left rejected the Enlightenment just as the religious right had done centuries before.

Further, in the early twentieth century the Frankfurt School in Germany expanded Marxist thought beyond economics and into sociology and psychology. Herbert Marcuse popularized this in American universities. Class conflict became conflict between various identity groups.

More recently, intersectionality – a matrix of oppression based on membership in multiple oppressed groups – has amplified identity politics. Identity politics, however, is not just a left-wing phenomenon. Christians, whites, and men have also joined the game.

Postmodernism contradictions

Hicks notes postmodern contradictions and provides a compelling explanation:

  • Postmodernists say truth is relative, but insist that they tell it like it really is.
  • Postmodernists say all cultures deserve equal respect, but that Western civilization is uniquely destructive.
  • Postmodernists promote tolerance but are intolerant of anyone who violates their speech codes (political correctness).
  • Postmodernists say the West is uniquely racist and sexist, yet it’s the West that first championed human rights, identified and addressed ethnocentrism, abolished slavery, and promoted women’s equality.
  • Postmodernists say capitalism is inherently oppressive to the poor, yet the poor in Western countries are much better off than the poor in other countries.

Hicks provides a detailed explanation showing that at its core, postmodernism is absolutist and totalitarian. Relativism and subjectivism are merely rhetorical tools for arguing against Enlightenment values without having to provide real intellectual substance.

Political implications

While right-wing Christians are an older demographic, and their political power is likely to wane in the coming decades, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of slowing down. Islamists believe the West – with its Enlightenment values – is a to threat their culture. And they’re willing to kill to stop the spread of Enlightenment values.

In contrast, the postmodernists are far less violent. Their agenda is to invert Western society’s hierarchy. Status is derived from belonging to multiple oppressed groups. And oppressed groups are held to lower standards than dominant groups are.  For example, white people shouldn’t sell burritos, but it’s racist to similarly segregate minorities. And some have called for the abolition of men as a social category (as if men are not a biological reality), but to call for the abolition of women would be misogyny.

Hicks references Nietzsche’s description of weakling morality to describe the postmodern approach. People who cannot confront those who are more powerful feel frustrated and envious. They rationalize their hate by telling themselves they are morally superior because they are oppressed.

But what about those who are too smart to really believe that? They seek to passive-aggressively undermine Enlightenment values. Rhetorical techniques of relativism and subjectivism can cause a society to lose faith in itself. Hicks illustrates this with direct quotes from postmodernists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Kate Ellis.

Islamic terrorists likewise desire the destruction of Enlightenment values – but with violence. It’s no surprise, then, that postmoderns are often willing to defend terrorists.

What the future will bring is hard to say. Postmodernism might collapse as groups competing for the status of more oppressed than thou turn on each other. Or, considering the recent rise in postmodernists’ violence on college campuses, postmodernism could surge ahead and feel more empowered to use violence.

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.