Identity politics demands special status not by virtue of fundamental human rights (which necessarily must be based on something other than distinct national, racial, sexual, or other identities) but of grievances. And it constricts its ethical claims by refusing to make harsh criticism of certain behaviors no matter who originates them.
But perhaps the greatest irony is that people who play identity politics count on others to respond in a humanistic way – with concern for individual welfare based on a shared humanity. – Daphne Patai, What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, p. 8
Identity politics is the scourge of democratic aspirations wherever it is found. When the political choices of individuals are based on their group identity – and every society at some level divides into groups, if not on racial lines then by class, gender and other distinctions – then the “democratic process” doesn’t work to promote the overall welfare of the nation, but the relative advantage of particular groups.
Without an effective democratic process, which includes a commitment to free speech, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law, conflicts between the groups develop and escalate, often into great violence.
Tribal and religious conflicts have served to prevent the development of free societies and abetted kleptocratic dictatorships in the developing world, especially in Africa and the Middle East. The permanent instability of many countries, like Iraq and Lebanon, is for the most part a result of the embrace of identity politics by the various groups.
One solution is to prevent group conflict from developing by maintaining a homogeneous population. This is one of the reasons that the Scandinavian countries topped the lists of countries with the highest quality of life for years (but the arrival of many immigrants belonging to diverse groups has recently upset the applecart in Sweden, for example).
In the US and some other countries where there was a large amount of diverse immigration, the idea of the “melting pot” was intended to reduce group conflict. Every immigrant to the US was expected to learn English and a bit of American history, and to do his or her best to become like the rest of the population, particularly the (then) white Anglo-Saxon majority. This worked for some groups, mostly immigrants from Europe. It did not work for the descendants of African slaves, primarily because the majority did not want to accept them.
The ideal of multiculturalism is supposed to reduce conflict by recognizing the diversity of the different groups in a society, but by (somehow) introducing tolerance between groups. So rather than trying to integrate with the majority, rather than becoming Swedish or American, group members are encouraged to keep their special characters, but at the same time to understand and accept the differences between them and other groups.
At the same time that multiculturalism became current in the West, another belief system took hold, especially in the academic world: “postcolonialism,” in which nations are divided into colonizers and colonized, oppressors and oppressed. According to postcolonialism, racism is racial prejudice combined with power – only a colonizer or oppressor can be racist.
Postcolonial analysis has been generalized from nations to minority groups in a majority society, with such groups as African-Americans, women, recent immigrants, and LGBTQ people defined as oppressed, while white males are oppressors. Another important related concept is “intersectionality,” which establishes a hierarchy of oppression – a black woman is more oppressed than a black man – and which implies that oppressed groups should support each other’s struggles since they have a common oppressor.
An important contributor to postcolonial thought was Edward Said, who argued that colonizers were not capable of understanding the experience of the people they colonized. An attempt to do so was called “Orientalism,” a form of racism. According to Said, a true explanation of the condition of an oppressed group can only come from a member of the group itself.
The combination of these ideas is lethal. Tolerance has come to mean that it is forbidden to criticize another group for practices that one’s own group finds objectionable. Criticism of – or even commentary about – another group by members of a “privileged” group is condemned as racism (or, in the case of gender groups, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) and is punished by ostracism or worse.
It’s obvious that this leads directly to identity politics. If a nonmember of a group cannot even understand the concerns of the group, then – for example – no male politician can properly represent women, and no white one can represent blacks. Intergroup conflicts are exacerbated, because by definition there is an unbridgeable gulf between oppressors and oppressed.
Thus the same force that has prevented liberal (in the sense of free) democratic politics from taking hold in the developing world has been introduced into the West.
Freedom of expression is one of the casualties. “Oppressors,” whether Israelis – I forgot to mention that Israelis and Jews, despite actually being oppressed minorities, always count as oppressors in the postcolonial worldview – white professors of psychology, Christians, former Muslims, and many others are simply not allowed to speak. Everyone’s speech is severely limited by rules of political correctness.
Tolerance is demanded for groups that are profoundly intolerant themselves. Muslim taxi drivers must be tolerated when they intolerantly refuse to take passengers carrying alcohol or blind people with dogs. And truly horrible practices, like female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape grooming gangs, and the continuing effort to expel or exterminate the Jews of Israel are considered immune to criticism.
The academic world, ground zero for the epidemic, has gone entirely insane, with barely intelligible political rants replacing scholarship in many fields, and political activism replacing teaching and research.
Understandably, those defined as oppressors have lashed back, with the same ideological weapons. Old fashioned white racists and male misogynists now justify their activities as expressions of their identity, and demand the same freedom from criticism that blacks and women are insisting upon.
As Daphne Patai noted, the whole enterprise is contradictory. The recognition of oppressed groups – and there truly are such in the world – depends upon a liberal humanism which recognizes basic human rights including free expression, equal treatment under law, and rights to protect life and property. But the identity politics that supposedly grew out of concern for human rights then turns around and negates those rights.
This isn’t just an intellectual fashion. It’s an assault on the edifice of western political thought that has developed since the Enlightenment, symbolized by the Magna Carta, and implemented in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution.
Are we truly stupid enough to throw this all away?
I am always in awe of your ability to clearly articulate and enlarge our understanding of complex issues. This particular article is very timely, as we begin Memorial Day and remember the Americans who fought so hard to protect our rights to maintain a free society. Thank you.
When it comes to Jews and Israel what truly astounds is the ignorance of those who knee- jerk hate and would destroy the only democracy in the Middle East. This especially applies to Jewish haters of Israel.
At the moment one of my greatest concerns is that these people will take over the Democratic Party in the United States and give us an anti- Israel President.
I would also add as minor footnote to this informative argument that many of those who are on board for Identity Politics really have entirely different values, and are simply hypocritically using the stuff for a single issue they are passionate about- the destruction of Israel.