Identity Politics Explained

In a nutshell, identity politics is the art of taking something quite simple and getting it all wrong.

The backdrop question – what role does demographics play in human identity – is actually simple. So simple, that only very powerful institutional politics (departmental interests within academia and monied interests outside of it) can steer people wrong. Before the brainwashing begins, everyone knows that there are multiple layers of identity – gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc. – and everyone knows that the bottom layer is the layer of shared humanness. Everyone instinctively knows that in our social interactions, sometimes our shared humanness is the dominant feature of the interaction, and sometimes one of the other layers of identity is relevant or even the dominant feature of a given interaction. But in any wholesome vision of a more ideal multicultural society, it is the shared humanness that lays the foundation. We need to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness. This is not rocket science.

“Identity politics,” in its current usage, removes shared humanness and defines human identity in every transaction as demographic identity. A black woman sees everything from the point of view of a black woman, a white man’s reality is always white and always male. Every thought or speech act is a priori politically situated. There is no escape from demographics. Indeed, in an Orwellian turn of the dial, the concept of “shared humanness” is itself rejected as racist. Saying that you “don’t see color” when meeting people is officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities, oddly enjoining students to view each other first and foremost not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race. And the point is not to create sympathy between the races but to highlight impenetrable walls between their experiences. For example, when activists recently called on the Whitney Museum to “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket on the grounds that “the shameful nature of white violence” cannot be “correctly represented” by a white artist (quoting Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney), the message is clear: Creatively identifying with people of other races, genders, etc., is to be forbidden, presumably because it asserts the false notion of shared humanness. This is identity politics in its current form.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, it is false on the face of it, as anyone with even a modicum of multicultural social life outside of the ivory tower of academic theory knows that cross-group social bonding takes place often in a spirit of shared humanness and less often with attention to group differences. Secondly, it is impractical. It is de facto a divisive theory and not a unifying theory and thus intrinsically antithetical to any future vision of a society living in racial harmony. Thirdly, in its historical aspect, it reverses the positive trends of the Civil Rights and hippie movements of the 1960s, movements that were both radically integrationist and unifying, movements that looked to a time when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We could appreciate our different backstories, race, ethnicity, etc., but the anchor was shared humanness with universal rights and principles. Everyone acknowledged historical inequities that still need to be addressed, but the idea was to work them out together as human beings with a common interest in a more perfect union. Identity politics, on the other hand, fosters the idea that common interest is a myth, that each demographic group needs to get its share of the pie and then go home and block the entrances. It is a short-term vision with no hope of reaching the ideal of a multicultural society that is harmonious, uninhibited, and free to join hands across demographic lines without shame or judgment.

Thus, the final problem with the “identity politics” branch of liberalism is that it has done more than any conservative formation to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights era. Surely, conservatives have been most unhelpful in the policy arena, but in terms of the evolution of consciousness toward a society of peace and harmony across races, genders, nationalities, etc., identity politics has been the most destructive force of the past 30 years. It is demoralizing to consider, but it is not conservatives today but identity politics liberals who are rapidly burning all bridges back to Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mandela, all of whom explicitly appealed to our shared humanness as the lighted path toward racial and gender harmony.

So here we stand at an urgent pass. The identity politics Left gets worse, with “cultural appropriation” fences and do-not-cross lines (despite the head fake of “intersectionality” but that’s for another discussion), the demographic double standards for what you can say, think, or do, the branding of all whites as racist and all men as sexist, the erasure of all past and present Western culture as white supremacist and thus without value. Conservatives too have taken a turn for the worse in Trump era, reasserting their own kind of racist, sexist, and xenophobic, demographics-driven identity politics. Despite a policy platform that perpetuated disparities between races and genders, most of my conservative friends had over the years, on the level of consciousness, jettisoned the Bull Connor racism of the Civil Rights era and accepted the equality of all humans as a universal principle and an endgame of racial harmony as a valid goal. Despite liberal cries to the contrary, the Left-Right dance had actually brought moderate conservatives closer than identity politics liberals to Martin Luther King’s principle of equal treatment and unbiased judgment for all regardless of demographics (again, this is on level of consciousness and not policy). But now both Left and Right are in a demographic divisiveness death spiral.

I might sound quite pessimistic here, but all is not lost. Little children growing up in our multicultural spaces understand perfectly well that some kids are black, some kids are male, some kids speak different languages, but that we are all on some level kids with a shared interest in playing together. They get the “shared humanness” part. And therein lies our hope. Just forget about everything you learned in academic theory classes and become like little children. You were there once. You can go there again. And in today’s political and environmental conditions, now is the time to make the pivot. Turn off that academic theory. Turn on the heart and imagination. Greet everyone you meet on the street in a spirit of shared humanness, without regard to race, gender, or political affiliation.  We’re all in this together and we might not have much time.

Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:3)


1960s vs today’s liberals, part two

The difference (when it comes to issues of cultural identity) may be differing views of human nature. In the Civil Rights and hippies decade, there was much struggle but there was much optimism. The liberal assumption was that people of no race were intrinsically racist, that people brought different views and backstories to the table, some wrongheaded and destructive, and some just different. Our role was not to pass judgment but to help each other to find the lighted path with no preconceptions based on race and gender or where you came from. The progressive goal was to find the human goodness in all and celebrate each other across demographic lines, to work joyfully together, without judgment and without shame. Sure, there were problems, but there was an underlying sense that the goodness of the human heart would win out in the end.

Liberalism today (or a large branch of it) seems to take a much darker view of human nature. The assumption seems to be that all white people are racists, all men are sexists, and those who don’t acknowledge their racism and sexism are the worst and most dangerous sort. Instead of looking for ways to celebrate each other across demographic lines, the modus operandus seems to be to search every alleyway to validate one’s own grim premise in this regard. The old liberalism that eschewed shame and judgment and trusted in the goodness of the heart to come through in the end has yielded to a liberalism dedicated almost entirely to identifying targets for shame and judgment. S/he who finds the most racism wins.

The hippie view of human nature had its risks. It was rooted in a naïve idealism that was not always well equipped for the contingencies of the real world. But the risk of the current variant of liberalism is that you end up fostering self-segregation along demographic lines; you end up with people sharing less openly, thinking less outside the box, for fear of offending, and when they do offend, you end up eating your own; you end up with people living under an imminent threat of shame and judgment instead of celebrating each other openly in a spirit of positive affirmation of self and other.

I prefer to go with the hippie risk of “naïve idealism.” Maybe it’s just selfishness. After all, this preference allows me to greet people on the street, regardless of demographics, backstory, or political affiliation, with a good-faith optimism, and a little bit of joy at our shared humanness, rather than greeting them with suspicion and a sharp eye scanning for their sins. Then again, perhaps my preference is simply a function of my age. But I would like to think that it won’t get me scarlet-lettered out of hand by my younger colleagues. There’s still a lot of work we can do together.

For Part One of 1960s vs today’s liberals, click here.

 

 

 

The End of Civil Rights

Forgive another re-post; this was written before Trump, but seems timely again (if a little controversial) as we consider where to go from here:

Civil Rights is Dead

For a post-Trump (and lengthier) view, see John McWhorter’s article on the need for a new, more inclusive PC.

Civil Rights is Dead

The original Civil Rights dream of integration and racial harmony, which was slowly and fitfully gaining traction in the 1960s and 70s, has now been derailed. Derailed as much by us-versus-them identity politics on the left as by the persistence of race and gender stereotypes on the right. There’s only one way out now, only one way to resuscitate the beautiful dream. Timothy Leary had it right: Drop out, turn on, tune in. When it comes to race and gender, we need to “drop out” of politics, left and right, “turn on” the lights of heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other as brothers and sisters, starting with the simple, childlike guidance of those two lights.

On Cultural Appropriation

With the “cultural appropriation” meme, the political wheel has turned full circle, with liberals adopting the separate-but-equal style of Civil Rights era segregationists – put walls around “my” culture and make it off limits to others (or at least make them sign in before touching). As a 1960s-based liberal, I carry the integrationist torch to an extreme that must horrify today’s liberals and conservatives equally. I advocate every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation.

How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground

For those who self-identify as liberals, things were simpler in the 1960s and 70s. The left had an easy claim to the moral high ground then, embracing the Civil Rights movement against racist segregationists, fueling a feminist agenda against transparently sexist cultural formations, advocating freedom from conventional constraints, and deploying Gandhi’s principles of non-violence against the war-makers in Vietnam.

Now the moral high ground seems up for grabs. Liberals are more vulnerable, rightly or wrongly, to charges of prejudicial, restrictive, and divisive policies. Where did things go wrong, and is it just an image problem or something more substantive?

If I had to pinpoint one thing to study under this lens, I’d go with the rise of “identity politics” to a kind of critical mass in the 1980s. The intention may be admirable. We can say that all men and women are equal by law, but that elides the fact that social and human rights problems are often demographically defined. If we want to work toward a “more perfect union,” individual rights and grievances are an insufficient analytic. Demographic identity needs a voice, especially for underdog groups whose members share to a large extent material conditions and obstacles.

In practice, this quickly escalated into a kind of demographic determinism, where whites cannot and should not try to envision the black perspective (a magnification of the kind of withering critique the white William Styron took for writing Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective), where men have no business trying to envision the female perspective, the same with Latinos, etc. Authors and public intellectuals became treated as a priori “politically situated,” able to access the world and express themselves only via the demographic experience of their own race, gender, and ethnicity. At this point, the damage is done. Demographic identity, which morphed into the “identity politics” of 1980s liberal academic departments, works fine as a supplement to our shared human identity, but when it becomes a replacement for our shared human identity, you have become a divider, not a unifier.  You have ceded the moral high ground, and you can rest assured that many in the public domain stand ready to seize upon this and use it against the liberal agenda more broadly.

Liberals today could learn from 18th-century thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, who appealed equally to men and women with arguments based on a rational standard that knows no gender, or Olaudah Equiano, whose slave autobiography made it clear that racial identity was real and valuable but that our shared humanness (our ability to stand in each other’s shoes) would always be the key to progress in race relations. Or the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, who emphasized over and over that oppression dehumanized the oppressor as well as the oppressed, that we are all in this together with our humanity at stake. These great figures were all unifiers because our shared humanity was at the root of their visions. That’s why I pinpoint “identity politics” as the ghost in the liberal fall from the moral high ground, because – of all the factors we might look at – I believe this is the one that most rattles the link between a liberal vision and the concept of our shared humanness.

Is this, then, an image or substance problem? I think a bit of both. It is an image problem in one sense. When it comes to immigration or economic inequality or gay rights or women’s reproductive rights or access to health care or diplomacy versus belligerence abroad, etc., etc., the core liberal vision still stands today at a higher moral ground than the conservative one (especially if one uses Democratic and Republican parties as representatives of those two ideologies).

In another sense, the problem is substantive. Post-1960s liberals were not only better situated than their conservative counterparts (morally speaking) on those core economic and structural issues, but their vision held the moral high ground on two notable levels. Their short-term vision was all about breaking free of conventional chains on expression, lifestyle, and modes of social organization.  And they had a long-term vision much like Olaudah Equiano’s, where demographic identities could be celebrated but without clouding the shared humanness that undergirds the other layers of identity.

Current liberals (at least enough of them to make a dent) seem to have lost that vision. They place too much short-term emphasis on speech codes and on restricting expressions of anything deemed “offensive.” And their long-term vision suffers from divisive strategies that often sound more scolding than celebratory. “White privilege” and “male privilege” is a case in point. I certainly agree that there are racial and gender inequities that persist and need to be addressed, but these terms perpetuate the oppressor/oppressed dyad, another upcycle of “us versus them” thinking. They send the message, intentionally or not, that “your hard work didn’t count, your efforts to treat people fairly didn’t count, it was all privilege and you should be a little ashamed of it.” This is at best a tactically and morally awkward extension of Elizabeth Warren’s more solid town hall point about how no one builds a business alone – tactically awkward because likely to alienate more potential allies than it gains; morally awkward because Warren’s point rests upon the unifying premise that we are all in this together, whereas the argument based on demographic “privilege” seems to rest upon a premise of conflicting interests and binary leverage. (Beware of anything that sets the “men vs. women” trap. As a great American said, “Those who are against women’s rights would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men.”) The “privilege” argument in its current form is not in the long run a unifying vision. It falls short of Wollstonecraft and Equiano and Douglass. It cedes the moral high ground held by them and held, I believe, by 60s/70s liberals as well.

If the left (or a sizable subset thereof) has ceded the moral high ground, this doesn’t mean they’ve yielded that ground to conservatives/Republicans. Issue for issue, the latter are even further from the moral high ground. Rather, when liberals relinquished the moral high ground, they left a vacuum.  We need a morally rejuvenated liberal party, or even better, a new grass roots, non-partisan movement, one that flushes out a little of the us-versus-them acrimony and upcycles some of the celebratory 1960s vision but without moving backwards from here. I’m not sure how to do that, but I’m open to suggestion.