Social Justice, Libertarianism

Some Thoughts on Identity Politics

I have been thinking lately about identity politics. More precisely, why so many people deeply committed to nondiscrimination nevertheless are uncomfortable with identity politics.

An initial difficulty is to define identity politics. Here’s the definition in the Google dictionary: Identity politics is “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” (For expository convenience, I will group these identity criteria under the terms “ethnicity” and “ethnic status”). This definition focuses on political alliances. An obvious criticism of such tendency is to observe that people can pursue worthy goals more effectively by forming broad-based alliances (some have criticized Hillary Clinton’s campaign on that score). Such approach is entirely pragmatic: political goals are more likely to be achieved if more people participate in the movement.

A second definition of identity politics is the idea that ethnic groups are entitled to benefits (usually coercively obtained) by virtue of their ethnic status. At first blush, this does not seem very appealing: to say that I’m entitled to a benefit B by virtue of my ethnic status sounds, well, not nice. But, of course, identity politics understood in this way, to be persuasive, must be linked to some other narrative. One is a history of past injustice. If so, my claim that I am entitled to a benefit B by virtue of my being a Latino is a short-hand for the claim that I am entitled to B as compensation or redress for the wrongs inflicted on Latinos now or in the past. Being Latino, by itself, does not suffice to generate the claim. A common criticism of this position is that these claims are hard to sort out, and often result in benefitting or punishing undeserving people.

A very different narrative is diversity, the current dominant rationale for ethnic preferences. I, a Latino, am entitled to a benefit B because possessing that benefit will promote a public good, diversity in the workplace or the classroom, or diversity among those who will get the benefit B. A common criticism of this position is that, in the real world, it applies only to groups that have political clout. It does not apply to everyone who can contribute to diversity, such as conservatives or libertarians, for example, or even to ethnic groups out of favor. If the claim is amended to embrace all diversity, then it ceases to be identity politics (it still may be open to objections, but those are beyond my concern here).

There is another dimension of identity politics. It is the idea that who states a proposition is relevant to the truth of that proposition. This is mistaken. “As a Latino, I support affirmative action!” is a non-sequitur (or a tautology simply saying that I support affirmative action). The validity of an argument depends on the facts and sound reasoning about those facts. They do not (cannot) depend on who the speaker is. Sure, someone may be prone to identify a new argument because of who she is. As an example, feminists did a great service when they showed why the common law of rape was unjust. But that speaks to what Popper calls the context of discovery of a proposition. It doesn’t speak to the context of justification of that proposition. So, one who says, “as a Latino, I believe X, Y, and Z” is invoking an irrelevant reason in favor of the truth of X,Y, and Z. The correct statement would be: “I believe X, Y, and Z are true for reasons A, B, and C. And I was motivated to think about X, Y, and Z because I am a a Latino.”

These are preliminary thoughts. A more definitive assessment of identity politics requires further research into each of these versions of the concept and the available objections.

  • “An obvious criticism of such tendency is to observe that people can
    pursue worthy goals more effectively by forming broad-based alliances”

    Not necessarily: recall Mancur Olson.

    I do not take identity politics seriously for many reasons. Here are some that come straight off the top of my head.

    1. A group is a category, not an identity.
    2. Identity politics adopt the form of ‘persecutors – victims – rescuers’ which comes from fairy stories (including conspiracy theories), not from social science.
    3. Its advocates seem incapable of speaking clearly or coherently: they seem to be playing a game with words rather than arguing or explaining.
    4. They are also highly intolerant, without a clue as to the value of freedom of expression.

    That’ll do for now…

    • King Goat

      People adopt or look to group membership as big parts of their identity all the time. Take Pence’s self-introduction: “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican.”

      • jdkolassa

        But it’s not itself an identity, is it? It’s just a component.

        • King Goat

          I guess you could say one’s identity is made up of many components, many of which involve group memberships, if you’d like.

          • Lacunaria

            Sure, one might say infinite memberships, but then how do you apply that to the “exclusive political alliances” of identity politics?

            For example, it has been repeatedly argued at me that the percentage of whites in Congress signifies unjustified racial bias in favor of white interests, suggesting that it would be more just if each racial group not only elected their own representatives but also chose solely from their own race.

            How do you propose extending this representative framework to achieve social justice given all the overlapping group memberships? Even “race” is overlapping for many people.

          • You could say that, but what you’d be saying isn’t accurate. Your identity isn’t described by the groups to which you belong, but rather how you as an individual interact with those groups.

            The fact that I play music is a big part of my identity because I like who I am when I participate in musical ensembles. It doesn’t matter so much that I belong to a group called musicians. What’s important is that when I hang out with a group called “musicians,” my interaction with that group is more to my liking than when I participate in a group called “white people.”

    • Sean II

      “3. Its advocates seem incapable of speaking clearly or coherently…”

      That’s true, if you expect them to come across with universal morality, procedural justice, neutral rules, etc. But that just it. Identitarians aren’t trying to do that. And once you see what they are trying to do, it turns out they are remarkably consistent people.

      There is a bad identity: white cishet males (in just that order). People in this category are always wrong when not specifically renouncing their own interests.

      Then there is a list of good identities: everyone not the above. People in these categories are always right, unless specifically renouncing their interests. When they do something wrong (massacre a bunch of gay people, stone an adulteress, etc), it’s invariably because people of the bad identity did something bad to their parents or grandparents.

      There’s a simple way to Turing Test this and see the fundamental consistency – indeed, the air-tightness – of the Identitarian world view. Just spend a day imagining that you’re a writer for Huff Po or The Guardian or whatever. Assume your only concern is to stay employed and avoid being denounced. Now think about how you would cover different stories to stay on the right side of your editors and readers.

      Easiest job in the world. For any given story, you just look at WHO is involved and there you have your angle.

      Speaker shouted down at a university? If he’s black or Muslim and the crowd doing the shouting is mostly not, then the students must be hateful bigots. If he’s some white guy arguing Brexit is maybe not quite Armageddon, then the students must be taking a brave stand against hate and bigotry. If he’s LGBT but acting in a white male capacity (i.e. if he’s Milo), then the students are taking an even braver stand against an identity quisling sent to gaslight them.

      Someone wants an election recount? Even easier. If they’re alleging fraud among illegal immigrants from Mexico or in a black urban precinct, they are monsters threatening the very foundation of democratic rule. But if they’re calling shenanigans on rural whites who just might be pawns on the Kremlin’s chessboard, then the recount is an heroic effort to rescue democracy.

      A bomb goes off in Tinsley? Before you know anything, you write something like “so far no proof linking explosion to UKIP extremists, details as they develop”. When they guy turns out to be named Abdul Ghafoor Kahn, then you go with “Tinsley man identified as bomb suspect, motives unclear”. This gives you time to prepare tomorrow morning’s thinkpiece blaming the whole thing on Nigel Farage and his climate of hate.

      Someone says fear of political violence is adversely affecting his life. If it’s a white person worried about a Islamic terrorism, then he’s a statistically innumerate moron who should be worried about cancer instead. If he’s a brown person worried about graffiti, then his lived experience must be shared.

      College girl gets caught faking a hate crime? Shows how hard life is after two weeks in Trump’s America.

      Kids praying in a school? If Christian or Jewish, it’s medieval madness come to haunt our modern world. If other, it’s a vibrant display of multi-cultural whatever.

      You get the idea. If anything, we’re the confusing ones. We’re the ones with the hard to predict outlook. Everything with us is some hard case or trade-off. We’re always fretting about some trolley problem or some empirical blow to our priors. Our philosophy is like some endless common law case with only too many rules, exceptions, applied examples, etc.

      Their way of thinking is much simpler. And that’s probably why it has governed humanity for 100,000 years, while our way of thinking has held sway for just a bit more than 200.

      • King Goat

        “We’re the ones with the hard to predict outlook.”

        Yeah, no one could have predicted your response here.

      • We should distinguish what they say from the positions that they take on particular issues. The latter are more or less predictable and, in that sense, consistent. The positions ought to be derivable from their theoretical statements. But they are not, because the theoretical statements are too obscure for their logical implications to be clear.

        When I was a teenager I became a Marxist. Marxism is made for teenagers because it is a fairy story dressed up in adult language, so it enables its advocates to pose as adults while remaining childish, which has very great appeal to teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Unlike most Marxists, I studied Marxist theory, I wanted to understand it. I went to the LSE because it was at the time a hotbed of Marxist activism. What shocked me was that few of the other Marxist students were interested in Marxist theory. It seemed that they thought that they knew all the answers without considering the questions. For them, it seemed, Marxism, more particularly Trotskyism, was like a fashion. The trouble for Marxists who are interested in theory is that they quite quickly realise that Marxism is a load of junk (Karl Popper’s influence was still strong in the LSE philosophy department back then – it is not nowadays).

        I think we have the same sort of thing with identity politics. The theory is just a load of verbiage. But the fashionable positions are easy to learn.

        • Sean II

          “Marxism is made for teenagers because it is a fairy story dressed up in adult language, so it enables its advocates to pose as adults while remaining childish…”

          I remember seeing something very similar about halfway through my own education. I got permission to take graduate courses while still an under, and there I noticed that one of the big problems for aspiring intellectuals was: how to quickly acquire an opinion about everything, so that you were never caught without something to say.

          Marxism solves that problem beautifully. It answers the question: what’ll I say to sound smart at parties? Indeed it gives you the greatest amount of stuff-to-say for the smallest initial investment of thought and study. Marx may not have liked the market, but he sure knew how to offer a bargain.

          “What do you think about this Falklands business?”

          “Obvious, isn’t it? Imperialism is the decadent phase of Capitalism, and what we’re seeing now is the decadent phase of Imperialism. Thatcher is but a tool of class interests which having impoverished their own workers must ever more nakedly use force to maintain access to the markets of the 3rd world. Meanwhile misguided patriotism conjured up by the capitalist press is lulling the proletariat at home into a state of false consciousness blah, blah, blah…”

          That sounds clever as hell to most people, and a kid can learn how to crank out such chatter, as good as any full professor, in just a year or two.

          • Theresa Klein

            It’s also got the appeal of being able to pose as a rebel.

            If you live in a capitalist country, that is. If you espouse Marxism you can say you’re standing up to the powers that be, even while actually advocating a totalitarian form of government.

            The progressives have it best of all, they get to claim to be speaking truth to power while absolutely embracing the status quo of the large heavily regulated welfare state. Their rebellion consists of denouncing people who think that taxis shouldn’t be regulated.

          • Sean II

            Yes, good point.

            It’s probably also worth mentioning that rebels get laid…or at least, they get laid more often than the nerds they used to be, before they found a way to rebrand themselves as rebels.

  • Kurt H

    Identity politics clearly work. After all, a white identity candidate just got elected President.

    • Doug1943

      I doubt that many people voted for Trump because he was white, since his opponent was white too. But it is true that once ‘identity politics’ becomes widespread, whites will think “”Why can’t we play this game too?” So the race-demagogues who have had success at making weak-minded white liberals feel guilty (for inventing modern civilization?) will discover that they’ve awakened a monster.

      • Craig J. Bolton

        Are “weak-minded white liberals” an ethnic group? If so, are they distinguished from intelligent white liberals or weak-minded nonwhite liberals. This is so confusing, but I’m sure you will help straighten it out.

      • King Goat

        You had me up until the weak minded whites bit (because I think as an empirical matter you’re on to something about how whites will, in the face of what they perceive to be relentless identity politics by others, start to adopt that approach). Do you think a white guy could, without being ‘weak minded,’ be impressed with creating western civilization while still acknowledging some truly tragic steps along the way? Because I think that’s more what might be going on.

        • Doug1943

          King: I absolutely think that, in fact, it’s what I have always believed. The human species was one until just a few tens of thousands of years ago, when we left Africa and spread out, and then adaptation and genetic drift did its work, making us into distinct tribes. We’re now in the process of knitting the species back together, a function of economics, mainly. But the human animal has a nasty streak, and an unblinkered look at human history will show that we all — or our ancestors at least — have blood on their hands, indeed, up to their elbows. And there will be more — as Engels said, history pulls her chariot forward over mountains of human corpses.

          So … white guilt? You bet. All the crimes in the book, magnified, sometimes by what Macauley called that most terrifying of phenomena, the power of civilization, without its mercy. Worse than anyone else? No. And since the Europeans have led the way into modernity, not even as bad as their current-day contemporaries. The US is a paradise of racial tolerance compared to any Third World multi-tribal country, especially Africa.

          But neither left nor right are historical materialists, so all contemporary discussion turns around who is more moral.

          Bolton: “weak-minded” white liberals are white, liberal, and weak-minded, which are distinct but intersecting sets, like racist white conservatives, or anti-semitic Black nationalists. I think what you really want to challenge me on is this: can I give any examples of the first group?

          So here’s one to think about: White liberals who acquiesce in teaching Black children anti-scientific mythology about their origins, are weak-minded, catering to ‘Afro-Centric’ nonsense that they know is false (unless they actually believe this mythology, in which case they are idiots). I hope we can all agree with that.

          • King Goat

            I think the only useful reason to think of moral failings is to try to improve. That effort seems undercut to engage in ‘well, I’m (or we’re) not any worse or as bad as X.’ We judge our failings by our standards and do right to keep them in mind to try to avoid repeating them.

          • Doug1943

            King: as a general observation, what you say is true. But it doesn’t apply to the plight of American Blacks. Their problems are not caused by the moral failings of whites, as the Left would have us believe, nor are they caused by their own ‘moral failings’, as the Right would have us believe, because the whole concept of ‘moral failings’ focuses on the wrong thing: on individual self-improvement. And while we do need to change the behavior of both Blacks and whites — and in fact, the last fifty years have seen, mainly through actions by the state, a huge improvement in the behavior of whites — it’s not through moral imprecations that we weill do so.

            What do we need to do? No time to go into detail here, but my hopes are in projects like the Harlem Learning Zone. And the key thing to change? The idea that doing well in school is “acting white”. But that won’t be changed by lecturing Blacks.

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  • Lacunaria

    why so many people deeply committed to nondiscrimination nevertheless are uncomfortable with identity politics.

    @Fernando Teson, did you mean “nevertheless are comfortable with identity politics”?

    Nondiscrimination on the basis of race, for example, is directly at odds with politically forcing people based upon race (i.e. racial identity politics).

    So, if it is a moral principle that the government should not discriminate based upon race, then racial political alliances are reasonably suspect.

    The rest of what you wrote is reasonable, with the main point regarding identity politics being that democracy is a terrible way for minorities to express their distinct needs or values, which is why the most encompassing government should only address the intersection of our universal values and not the (conflicting) union of every possible interest or identity group.

    • Fernando Teson

      Thank you for your comment. I meant uncomfortable.

      • Lacunaria

        Thank you for your response and clarifying. Given that a racial identity groups is discrimination on the basis that identity.

        • King Goat

          Do you think the NAACP is discriminatory? If so, was it so in 1920?

          • Lacunaria

            The NAACP’s stated mission of fighting for racial nondiscrimination is not at all racist. If they were to add (as their acronym might imply) “only for Colored People”, then that would be discriminatory and move it toward racism (depending upon your definition).

            None of which is to say that their activities were immoral in the 1920s, which is what I think you are focusing on. They were moral and coincided with the advancement of blacks.

            But if racial nondiscrimination is all they are really interested in, then they should unite with others on that actual issue independent of race, rather than be politically exclusive by race (i.e. racial identity politics).

  • j_m_h

    In one sense I don’t see how one gets away from identity in politics — politics have always struggled with the problem of personal interests, special interests (which is what I think all the above definitions of Identity Politics are really defining) and general/public interests.
    In the language of diversity I think what really happens here is the expansion of divisiveness in society — as it’s done now it’s not an inclusive at all. What it seems to setup is that of special rights that must be defined rather than working within the general principles that we want applied across the board to establish a fair and just society based on the Rule of Law. We don’t get a Rule of Law but a bunch of laws that apply on largely irrelevant factors.
    The problem is that politics do not require — and often simply don’t want — a rational argument. It’s much better to evoke the passions of others in the pursuit of my coalition’s interests. So while we can put this through some normative analysis I’m not sure if that accomplish much in terms of fixing things (assuming that anyone agrees things need fixing)

  • Theresa Klein

    There’s more to it than that. The “privilege” narrative states that people are not really individuals, but ought to be properly regarded as members of groups who are privilegded and disadvantaged based on group membership. This justifies group “identity” based programs and identity group based politics. If society is inherently divided into identity-based groups, then it makes sense (that is, it is “socially just”) to implement identity based policies aimed at adjusting for the inherent “privilege” afforded other groups.

    • Lacunaria

      Spot on! With “inherent privilege” being statistical group differences. Thus revealing how social justice is opposed to individual justice.

      I didn’t realize it at first, but this also explains Teson’s initial conundrum of why nondiscrimination implies discomfort with identity politics (for many people).

      If you define “nondiscrimination” as statistical parity between identity groups (e.g. race), then people must first separate by race in order to politically fight for their race.

      If you instead define “nondiscrimination” as individuals not discriminating on the basis of race, then separation by race in order to politically force each other directly contradicts nondiscrimination.

      • Theresa Klein

        I don’t think that “privilege” is being used to mean statistical differences though. I think it’s being use to mean “white-majority society tends to favor white people unfairly”. If white people just go around liking white people better then on average blacks (for instance) will be less likely to get jobs and get promoted, and (according to identity politics) this informal bias has to be adjusted for, so there it’s “okay” to vote on the basis of what benefits your identity group.

        Of course statistical differences are often used as *evidence* that this informal bias exists. But not quite the same as saying the statistical difference is itself the privilege.

        • Sean II

          “Of course statistical differences are often used as *evidence* that this informal bias exists. But not quite the same as saying the statistical difference is itself the privilege.”

          It becomes the same thing, once you reach a point where statistical differences are the only evidence of privilege.

          We’ve long since reached that point.

        • Lacunaria

          Sean answered well in reality but I think you are right about how they would present their theory.

          Finding the perfectly fair statistical racial distribution to compel and the individual injustices it may or may not produce is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • CTN

    Maybe it’d be helpful to just list all of the various politically-relevant reasons (purported and defacto reasons included) for thinking of people in terms of “identities” (as opposed to using other categorizations). I’d love to get this sorted out in my own head.

    Nice post and discussion, btw.