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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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.