Something different from what I have been working on (more on that soon enough)….
Maybe December is the month for identity politics talk. Last year, it was it was Jacob (see here). This year, Akiva Malamet (see here). I don’t think there is anything necessary or inherently laudable about identity politics, but I suspect Jacob is right that it can help enliven the quest for justice. I suppose this is because of what Akiva discusses as “the thickly embedded nature of social interaction within communities, such that social cooperation is in part determined by the role that people play for who they are.” Perhaps in contrast to Akiva, though, I am uncomfortable with the idea that “to pay respect to a person’s selfhood means to treat them with regard to the variety of components that make up who they are.” At the end of the day, this depends on what is meant by claiming that those components “make up” who we are. In my view, this cannot correctly be taken to be anything other than a matter of the contingent state of affairs of our lives. I’ll try to briefly make this clear.
As a fortunate happenstance, I went to a universalist (not Unitarian) church service this past weekend to see a friend’s son in a performance. I then found myself enjoying the minister’s talk, which emphasized—as part of the church’s inclusionist theology—a clear statement that we were each spirit, not black or white, not gay person or straight, not Christian, Jew or Muslim, and not republican or democrat. Those are all contingent factors about the way we live our lives, but under (or beyond) those descriptive factors, we are each spirit. I would prefer to use the word “agent,” but the point is the same. It is a form of universalism I think all liberals (in the broad sense, so including contemporary libertarianism) should accept. It’s also why I am ambivalent (at best) about so-called identity politics. It involves taking those contingent factors and treating them as essential to our selfhood when they are not.
My first academic work (my dissertation and a series of papers that came from it; see, e.g., this and this) was an attempt to defend liberal individualism—basically, the view that each of us is essentially an individual agent, not a mere member of a community and that, as such, it is the individual that is of primary normative import. Any moral weight given to communities on my view (then and now) is derivative of the moral import of the individuals within the community. If a community does not help the individuals in its midst lead good lives, there is no reason to want it to continue. The view I argued against was a form of communitarianism most forcefully defended by Alastair McIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Sandel. While they were not clear about their own positive view—the work I looked at was focused on arguing against liberal individualism—the core of it, I think, came down to the view that we are each essentially who we are because of our communities and so it is the community, not the individual, that is primary. (Metaphysically as well as normatively.)
My main problem with identity politics should now be clear. Those favoring identity politics don’t talk about identity as something individuals choose, but as something individuals are born with. Individuals are born into groups, whether they be ethnic, racial, religious, or other. Whichever group they are in, then, is meant to be their identity. The group, that is, is primary. There is no concern with whether or not people can choose to reject the group and the identity it (supposedly) imposes. Instead, there is an implicit assumption that our group makes us what we essentially are—and that what it makes us into is what we must be.
I don’t know if any serious political philosophers accept that view now. I hope not. But that sort of communitarian view has a way of coming back every now and then—and must be repeatedly refuted. And so, perhaps, must identity politics. We ought to remind people that they can choose their own identity. While the identities that we create for ourselves usually include elements from our group affiliations, many of us can and do choose away from those. Some people choose against their religions, nationalities, etc. (Rachel Dolezal might have been an extreme example.) We each choose who we will be. We ought not accept that we are who we are merely by virtue of the group we belong to. (Communitarians never really come to grips with the fact that we usually belong to multiple, sometimes competing, groups.) We ought also tolerate people’s choices in this regard and others—subject to the same limited restrictions to toleration we ought accept more generally.
To be fair, identity politics may just be an empirical-phenomenological view about how people seem to be, to themselves or others. So, Joe is a black homosexual and identifies more as the latter than the former and votes accordingly. But here’s the thing: if the metaphysical view is false—if people can choose away from the groups they are born to—its not clear why the phenomenological view matters. I don’t mean to deny that identity politics—how individuals identify themselves or are identified by others—matters in politics. That is a simple empirical claim. But if our identities are only contingently made by our group membership, we can work to limit the extent to which this matters politically. We can, that is, work to encourage a culture wherein all people see themselves as agents (or spirits) first and members of groups second. If successful, people may become more able and willing to make political choices based on the recognition that we are each individuals first and group members second. Group membership would then be less important. Identity politics could fade away. (And with it, concerns about cultural appropriation, but that’s a tale for another day.) Then again, I’ve always had something of a utopian streak.