THE TERM “IDENTITY POLITICS” IS MEANINGLESS
About 20 years ago, Professor Noam Chomsky made a powerful observation about public relations propaganda in his speech, Class War: The Attack on Working People: He was referencing the Persian Gulf War slogan, “support the troops.”
…you don’t want people to think about the issue. That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything. But it’s crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something.
In the case of “support the troops,” this was an intentional diversion that was more or less successful. Every attempt to criticise this ridiculous war had to address support for the troops. You don’t want to protest too much, or question too much because doing so can endanger the troops and deny them the status and recognition they deserve for “serving their country” (another term that could have been evaluated using the Chomsky criteria, as there are many ways to serve one’s country). This diverted attention and energy away from a nonsensical war, the blowback from which was even more devastating than those of us who protested imagined. Every act of resistance had to be preceded with an affirmation that we “support the troops.”
In a less formal, but potentially more invidious way I can see this playing out in current discourse with terms that are thrown around and taken for granted without really offering an analysis to their meaning. The meaningless terms themselves then become subject to debate, while the underlying issues are ignored or, brushed aside. Such a term is “Identity Politics.”
Today there’s a great debate about the value of identity politics in contemporary political action and discourse. Notables like Sam Harris and Jordon Peterson decry the fact that the current discourse is constrained by political correctness associated with this identity politics. Groups like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter are criticised for pandering to identity politics. The Democratic Party is cautioned not to use identity politics as a way to dig itself out of its longstanding political quagmire.
Identity politics is bad. Period. Don’t do it.
Okay. But exactly what is identity politics? Frankly, I’ve not heard a good definition…mostly because I believe there is no good definition. It’s a meaningless term. In the interest of fairness, however, I will offer what I think the critics of identity politics mean by this term.¹ Self-professed critics of identity politics seem to be referring to movement politics that focuses its attention, more or less exclusively, to the needs of a particular social group. The groups are often based on minority or otherwise marginalized gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc. According to Google, identity politics is “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditioanl broad-based party politics.
These definitions are fair, but lacking. As opposed to what? What would a non-identity politics look like? Go ahead. Try to imagine it.
Theoretically, we could suggest a pan-humanistic ideal of politics in which everyone eschews their membership in a particular group or tribe and works toward a general idea of the universal good. I love this idea. I believe this is the underlying assumption that Sam Harris makes when he’s outlining his criticisms of identity politics.
However, this is not political reality. The reality is that people belong to social groups. Furthermore, in line with the scientific expertise of Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson, there’s plenty of research to suggest that group membership and identifying with social groups is an innate human quality. Human beings need social groups intrinsically, and when they form these groups, their membership shapes their sense of self, their identities. I believe this observation is consistent with Harris’ understanding of the available science.
Furthermore, these groups are identifiable within any given society and differential outcomes for each group are clear in the research. Scientifically speaking, poverty does disproportionately impact minorities more than it does whites. Cultural elements and socialization are different for identifiable groups. People who live in rural communities have a different worldview than those living in cities. Different groups have different, identifiable needs. Men will never need prenatal care. There are very real differences between identifiable social groups. That’s what makes these groups…well…groups.
In democratic societies power is shaped by what Max Weber referred to as “Parties”. In essence, in order to achieve our goals despite resistance, members of society form groups or parties by which to direct their energies. According to Weber, “Now: “classes”, “status groups”, and “parties” are phenomena of the distribution of power within a community.” These parties act on different, sometimes conflicting needs. They are founded upon different, sometimes conflicting cultural values. There are few pan-humanistic universals, and even in areas where we can make such an argument, a clean environment for instance, there exist very different perceptions on its value and the best way to achieve this goal. Parties muddy the political waters.
Take this notion of the party and elaborate it with what we know about group dynamics and individual identity.² Our participation in groups influences, even shapes, our identities. True, human beings participate in many social groups in many different ways, but those groups with which we develop our most intense affinities and associations become formative in our sense of who we are. Those who participate in social movement based groups are especially likely to embrace the transcendent goals of the movement, racial equality, gender parity, social justice. These transcendent goals, and the groups that represent them become embodied in the individual and integral to that individual’s sense of self.
In other words, all politics is identity politics. If it this were not true, there would be no politics in the contemporary sense. Politics in a “nonidentity” ideal would be a homogenous group coming to a consensus on its collective best interest without meaningful dissent or resistance. That’s utopian and nothing like what any nation actually experiences. In democratic societies, there is no way to liberate politics from identity.
So when people like Michael Shermer decry the Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), for pandering to identity politics, what they really mean, intentionally or not, is that such activists are promoting a politics that challenges their own identities.
This is especially pronounced among pundits like Harris, Peterson, and Shermer, high status, white men. The high status, white, male identity is by all measures still the dominant identity in the United States (and Canada for Peterson). One of the things that sociologists know about the nature of dominant status is that members of the dominant group are not aware of the particulars of their group membership on their identities. They just assume that their identity is the right and natural way of things. Any variation from the taken for granted notions of self is defined as pathological. They can’t see their own reflection because everywhere they look is a mirror of their selves.
When sociologists and social scientists try to elaborate the differential nature of marginalized or subordinated identities, it’s difficult for those in the dominant group to understand or even to see the divisions. This is a long tradition in sociology going back to W.E.B Dubois analysis of the Dual Consciousness among African American men to Dorothy Smith’s Standpoint Theory. Those whose identities have been ascribed to a subordinate status in a given society must be aware of how their identities are perceived by the larger society in ways that those ascribed to the dominant group do not. Think about the level of self-analysis necessary of a black man living in the Jim Crow south as he walks down the street, or of a young professional woman walking into a mostly male office. These are mundane activities that white men can perform without thinking, but women or minorities must keep at the top of their awareness.
For months now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this term, identity politics. I had a general frame for understanding the issue that I largely elaborate above. Yesterday, however, Sam Harris handed me a thought experiment that helped me add an extra element to this understanding. Recently I’ve gotten into listening to podcasts. In my search for something stimulating (I’m not really a podcast fan, I’m very visual and easily distracted, so I’m particular about what I spend time with) I stumbled upon Sam Harris’ debate with Ezra Klein. There were few surprises in the debate except the following thought experiment offered by Harris.
Harris noted that a recent study into human DNA revealed that Europeans and Asians have about 2% Neanderthal DNA. Harris shared this story with a tongue-in-cheek Tweet, “Attention all racists: You were right! Whites are special. We’re part Neanderthal: Blacks are just human.” During the debate, Harris suggested a thought experiment which Klein ignored, but I think is fascinating. Harris suggested that it was lucky that the conclusion of this research fell on the right side of the political debate, by which he meant that it was discovered that whites had this Neanderthal DNA. He asks, quite reasonably, what if the conclusion had gone the other way? What if it was discovered that blacks had the Neanderthal DNA while whites didn’t?
This is fantastic, and, I think, representative of Harris’ concerns and misunderstandings about identity politics. Harris suggests that scientists would have been scared to publish such findings or would have been attacked by the PC police and the Social Justice Warriors for doing so. He may be correct. And he is right that that would have been a loss for human understanding. His prediction, however, has less to do with the harms of identity politics and more to do with the nature of power as it relates to knowledge.
As a scientist, Harris lives in a world in which knowledge is this pure thing. You make your observations, you ask your questions, you form your hypothesis and then shape your experiment in such a way that you can purify the resulting knowledge by controlling for external variables. That’s good science. If done correctly, the resulting knowledge is this pure thing that stands on its own regardless of politics. I believe that this is the nature of his defense of Charles Murray’s science while condemning Murray’s politics if I’m reading this correctly. According to Harris, Murray’s science is sound, therefore his conclusions are sound. And that’s all that really matters. Where he goes with these conclusions is a separate argument.
What Harris does not understand, or perhaps it’s better to say that he is not accounting for, is that knowledge doesn’t stand on its own. Knowledge is a mechanism of power dynamics within society. It’s a tool that is used by social groups to shape identities and to inspire participation and action. It would be great if this were not true. If Harris’ laudable ideals were actually the way societies work. But that’s not the way it is (my apologies for sounding patronizing).
Let’s extend Harris’ thought experiment. If it were discovered that Africans had more Neanderthal DNA than did whites, how could that knowledge be used by different groups within American society? Do you think that this knowledge might be used differently than the actual conclusion that whites have more Neanderthal DNA? On its own, the scientific fact that whites and Asians have Neanderthal DNA while Africans do not³ is politically neutral, a piece of pure knowledge that helps us understand the human genome better. Nothing more. But in the hands of institutional complexes, organizations, social groups, political movements, this knowledge becomes a tool, even a weapon, related to power.
So, yes, the hypothetical conclusion of black/Neanderthal DNA would constitute a threat to black subgroups in a way that the actual conclusion of white/Neanderthal DNA does not. Consequently, it is reasonable to expect that there would be a different, more antagonistic response to this knowledge from the impacted groups. The validity of the science is irrelevant. We can see this in how Charles Murray uses the knowledge derived from the science of IQ.
For whites, the white/Neanderthal prospect is simply not a threat to white identity and is not, to my knowledge, being weaponized by black identifying groups against the culturally dominant white group. Whites can ignore the conclusions and go on with their lives. Blacks cannot. They know this scientific fact will find itself on an alt-right website somewhere, that it could be used as means of advocating policies detrimental to blacks (again, see Murray). Just take a look at Harris’ Tweet. “Whites are special…” because they have this DNA. Of course, Harris is being satirical here, but would such a construction be unreasonable when it comes to identity politics? Dominant groups can dominate the larger discourse in ways that subordinated groups cannot. Could a white identity politics be constituted around a nonsensical idea that whites are “special” because they have this DNA? Look at how whites have used phenomena such as the dominance of African Americans in certain sports to suggest that this is an indicator of lower levels of evolutionary development. Apparent superiority in a particular category, in the context of power dynamics that shape knowledge, becomes evidence of inferiority. These conclusions may be scientifically neutral, but their potential impacts are powerful.†
The concept of identity politics as presented in contemporary discourse is a red herring. Using Chomsky’s model, railing against identity politics distracts us from addressing very real issues of inequality and injustice. All parties, including Harris’s and Peterson’s and Shermer’s, whatever parties they may represent are foundational to human identity. Identity politics is most easily identifiable among the groups that are the most dispossessed and disempowered. That’s what makes it a threat. To brush off dissent from groups like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter based on nothing more than the perception of their identity politics has the effect, with or without intent, of silencing their voices and nullifying their goals.
Ironically, this is the very thing that those who decry identity politics claim that they are fighting against, the silencing of a particular group, in this case, white academics expressing right-leaning opinions. That they can’t see this as identity politics in and of itself is integral to their dominant status and not necessarily an indicator of bad faith on their part. That they complain about being silenced on their widely distributed podcasts, million follower YouTube and Twitter feeds or while standing before packed auditoriums while their books are national bestsellers is just ironic.
The problem from the point of view of dominant identifying groups is that the dynamics that cultivate identity within a group are, in many ways, empowering and inspiring to subordinated and marginalized groups. That constitutes a threat, real and perceived, on the part of the dominant group. It challenges dominant power hierarchies by which folks like Harris and Peterson benefit. That they resist is perfectly rational from the point of view of their group affiliation.
That’s not to say that their analysis of identity politics is without some merit and should be ignored. I’m especially sympathetic to Harris in this matter. He seems to have this romantic, humanistic ideal that I find appealing. The real debate, however, isn’t some new concept of identity politics. The problem is group closure, the tendency of in-groups to insulate themselves from outside influences, especially the influence of perceived out-groups. This is a real thing and it must be addressed, especially on the political left. Closure entrenches people’s thinking in such a way that they become immune to any contradictory evidence, no matter how valid and reliable. Closure perpetuates and may even reinforce ignorance, a dangerous proposition in a society increasingly driven by science and facing threats that can only be resolved using scientific thinking. It can lead to dangerous in-group/out-group dynamics even violence against perceived outgroups.
Harris, Peterson and Shermer have something to say in this regard. Their methods, however, invalidating dissent by applying labels such as SJWs, or dismissing an argument as invalid based on a meaningless rhetorical formation like Identity Politics, is characteristic of closed groups. Closed groups cannot open the dialogue. The way to dialogue in closed groups is through what are called bridges. Bridges are people who are accepted in multiple groups and have the legitimacy to be heard. The question is how do we build these bridges? I can say that the process is very different from that required for building followings on social media. Unfortunately, our society encourages the latter. A great deal of Harris’s and Peterson’s success is related to the fact that they have a talent for building followings.
Identity politics is just as meaningless a term as non-identity politics. If we want to debate this, we should do so in the context of group dynamics and closure and coming up with strategies to build bridges between parties. If I’m being honest, I might want to reflect on this myself. Blogging is such an endeavor that encourages building followings over bridges. Discursive arrangements that encourage closure, that suggest we should shut ourselves off to the ideas of others, are dangerous. As it stands, the use of Identity Politics as a rhetorical tool does just that.
- I do not want to infer by this piece that commentators like Sam Harris are acting in bad faith when it comes to their criticisms of identity politics. I like to assume that everyone is acting in good faith according to their sincerely held beliefs unless I see a reason to conclude otherwise. I find that this position leads to stronger sociological analysis. Imputing bad faith is way too easy and leads to shallow thinking.
- An adequate link to a confirming source is inadequate when compared to the breadth of research on this matter. A quick Google search can confirm.
- Obviously, this is a simplification. There’s been plenty of interracial reproduction which means blacks almost certainly have Neanderthal DNA depending on geographic history and culture.
† (Added 10/17/2018) Today, the New York Times offers confirmation of this argument. Knowledge generated through genetic research has political implications, especially when it is co-opted by tribal ideologues.