If you’re like me and abhor discrimination against gays, women, or ethnic minorities, and have worked for their equality in the past—and yet are also uncomfortable with “identity politics”—you need to do some hard thinking. Why is it okay to be in favor of all the “rights” movements I just mentioned, yet not be in favor of the kind of identity politics that claims, for example, that blacks can’t be racists and women can’t be sexists? Or that people like Ben Shapiro must be censored but people like Linda Sarsour are heroes. Is it a false distinction, and we’re really reverting to conservatism in our dotage, or is there a real difference between being liberal and espousing identity politics? I’ve discussed this before, and feel that one can sensibly support the liberal causes given above while decrying the identity politics beloved by many Leftists—and increasingly infecting mainstream liberal media like The New Yorker and The New York Times.
The best discussion of the difference I’ve seen between identity politics and classical liberalism, with the latter favoring equal rights, treatment, and opportunities for all, is discussed in the article below by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, just published in Areo (click on screenshot). This is a must-read piece.
The difference between liberal egalitarianism and identity politics rests, as I’ve said, on the difference between striving for universal rights and striving for narrower group rights that aren’t subsumed in a larger agenda. The former is the task of classical liberalism; the latter of identity politics which, in contrast to the liberal agenda, is divisive.
Let’s see what Pluckrose and Lindsay say about the difference. (Their premise, which is supported quite well, is that identity politics is an extension of postmodernism that claims simultaneously that there is no objective truth but then bases its politics on the objective reality of minority groups and of the oppression of some groups by others. I’ve collected a few quotes (indented) under three topics, but you really should read their whole piece.
What is liberalism and how does it differ from identity politics?
It is vital to distinguish between universal liberalism and identity politics and recognize what they share in common alongside how they differ. Both see and oppose inequality and seek to remedy it, but they do so with very different conceptions of society and use different approaches. These differences matter. Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide. Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity.
. . . The Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride functioned explicitly on these values of universal human rights and did so to forward the worth of the individual regardless of status of race, gender, sex, sexuality, or other markers of identity. They proceeded by appealing directly to universal human rights applying universally. They demanded that people of color, women, and sexual minorities no longer be discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. They insisted that within a liberal society that makes good on its promises to its citizens, everyone should be given the full range of rights, freedoms, and opportunities.
Pluckrose and Lindsay then cite the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of critical race theory, to underscore the difference between classical liberalism and identity politics:
Crenshaw explicitly rejected universality, at least in the political context in which she wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race theorists have continued to do so. She wrote:
We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concommitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.
Within this framework, far from becoming irrelevant socially, gender and race are the sites of political activism.
What are the dangers of identity politics? Pluckrose and Lindsay identify three problems.
The problems with the identity politics approach are:
- Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
- Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
- Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.
By relying so heavily on social constructivist perceptions of society—which sees it in terms of hierarchies of power perpetuated in discourse and on lived experience—as an authoritative form of identity-based knowledge that cannot be disagreed with by anyone outside that group, identity politics feeds, legitimates, and builds upon itself. Because it starts with the assumption that a power imbalance characterizes any interaction between people seen as having a privileged identity and people seen as having a marginalized identity and assumes that this can be shown by interpreting the language of the privileged through this lens and regarding the perception of the marginalized as authoritative, it is prone to highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias.
As for the dubious claim that sexism and racism instantiate a combination of power and privilege rather than bigotry alone, they say this:
It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.
I suspect it is this kind of hypocrisy—this “it’s okay when we do it” attitude—that rankles many of us about identity politics. I don’t think ‘reparative’ in itself is a bad way to think, as we need to restore people’s equality by addressing historical inequities, like the poorer schools available in inner-city neighborhoods. But that’s not the same as a form of retribution embodied in the constant demonization of those less oppressed.
What is to be done? Easier said than done, according to Lindsay and Pluckrose. What’s easy is to simply reject this kind of attitude and work for universal rights and a consistent standard of rights that applies to everyone. That’s easy to say, and that’s what I’ve been doing here for years, but what’s hard is that realizing that such a stand leaves you open to accusations of racism and sexism. And those words are anathema to all liberals. Still, we should be willing to tolerate the slurs and the accusations that we’re “alt-righters” if we’re to uphold classical liberal values. As Pluckrose and Lindsay say:
There is a need for liberals of all kinds to push back against the identity politics approach. If we really value principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, we must value them consistently. If we want to continue the work of the civil rights movements, we must recognize that identity politics are not doing that, are not working, and may even be undermining the good they achieved. And we must recognize that this originates with and is aided and abetted by Social Justice scholarship, rooted in postmodernism, and diversified into many forms of grievance studies.
We need to call for a more rigorous approach to social justice issues. This should be one which does not rely on a belief in a society dominated by systems of power and privilege perpetuated in discourse, utilizes highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias as an interpretive technique, or regards lived experience interpreted in this way to be authoritative.
. . . Society simply works much better when different segments of it are able to empathize with each other, recognize how much they have in common, and form their relationships, personal and intellectual, with others based on their individual traits, interests, and shared goals. There is very little reason to assume that the people who will understand you best and share your interests and goals will have the same skin color, the same genitalia or gender identity, or the same sexuality. People of all races, genders, and sexualities are intellectually and ideologically diverse. Those who speak authoritatively of “women’s experiences” or ask one to “listen to people of color/trans people” are attempting to constrain individuals from those groups to one specific ideology and conception of society. This is not acceptable, and it certainly isn’t liberal.
. . . Universality does not require assuming that racism, sexism, or homophobia does not exist. Neither does it assume that there is no work left to do to oppose these problems and defend vulnerable racial or religious minorities, protect women’s reproductive freedom, and hold on to LGBT rights. When the need to do all of those things is presented in terms of universal human rights and fairness, it will find much more support than when it is presented in terms of incomprehensible theory, irrationalism, biased interpretations of interactions, cruel irony, demands for reparative justice, and abandonment of the principle of non-discrimination against people by identity markers.