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.

 

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”

Maybe we can’t get past our pain, but we can get past our tunnel vision

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Roosevelts. Eleanor Roosevelt is known to history as a kindhearted person, a woman of character who treated others with human dignity. She was the primary mover behind the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And there’s Mr. Rogers who taught the inherent worth of every person. And people who knew him say, yes, he was really like that.

Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Fred Rogers lived a charmed life, however. Mr. Rogers had a lonely childhood and was bullied by his peers. As a child Roosevelt’s mother would tell her how ugly she was. Her father’s alcoholism killed him, and she lived with abusive, drunken uncles. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (so her maiden name and married were name the same). He was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

But Roosevelt and Rogers were forces for human dignity because of their pain. Not because they somehow got over their pain, but because they got past their tunnel vision. Their pain was the source of their empathy—even when personally attacked they could see the pain inside the other person and respond with compassion.

It’s something many of us aspire to but fail to achieve. And people who can’t get past their tunnel vision not only can be destructive—they often think their abuse of other people is morally justified.

They see themselves as the real victims. Hitler, for example, was abused as a child and claimed he was defending Germans against their Jewish oppressors. Stalin was once a political prisoner who subsequently sent millions to the gulag in the name of economic justice.

Abuse is often excused as a justified punishment for a moral transgression. When we feel the desire to punish someone we should stop and ask ourselves what our true motives are. Setting healthy boundaries with people or not bailing people out from the natural consequences of poor choices aren’t the same as punishment. And punishment is sometimes necessary, as when someone commits a crime. But other times it’s revenge we’re after.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed called “Why can’t we hate men?” The outrage and the defenses it sparked were predictable. There’s a petition to sanction gender studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters for writing the piece, but I don’t think that will accomplish anything. There are too many calls to fire or punish people instead of genuine efforts for dialog.

Men too often take the bait with articles like this. Their anger and defensiveness gives others the opportunity to laugh at them. Instead we must simply observe the fact that misandry has always been a thing in feminist circles. I’m not saying that all feminists hate men, or that misandry is a central aspect of feminism. But it is tolerated.

Far too many women have been subjected to gender based abuse, and this is the source of much misandry. And though we as a society rarely talk about it, women’s gender based abuse of boys and men is the source of much misogyny.

But none of this is an excuse for hate. Yet, we have no control over what other people do. The starting point is oneself. Promoting human kindness and avoiding hate is the most powerful thing I can do. It’s my responsibility. Look at what Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. Rogers accomplished for humanity compared to Hitler and Stalin.

This is a challenge for every age, and ours is no exception. Every day brings a mean tweet from President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, millionaire Bill Maher hopes for a recession so Trump won’t be reelected, despite the harm this would cause for millions of working families.

Over at the New York Times David Brooks advocates “personalism.” He notes that, “We talk in shorthand about ‘Trump voters’ or ‘social justice warriors,’ but when you actually meet people they defy categories.” These labels ignore “the uniqueness and depth of each person.”

Personalism, Brooks continues, is about seeing each “person in his or her full depth.” This approach is I-Thou rather than I-It: “get to know their stories” instead of seeing them as data points.

Punishing people like Professor Walters won’t defeat the hate she promotes. Recognizing her humanity while also setting firm boundaries—including her responsibility to recognize the humanity of others—is a better approach.

And this can start with the question: “What do you think increased hatred will achieve for the equal human dignity of all people?”

MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.