What’s the difference between identity politics and older movements for gay rights, women’s rights, and civil rights?

September 26, 2018 • 1:15 pm

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.

h/t: Grania

46 thoughts on “What’s the difference between identity politics and older movements for gay rights, women’s rights, and civil rights?

  1. “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?”

    I’m gonna go with: “because the earlier rights movements weren’t completely full of shit,” and just leave it at that.

    1. I would go with, because blacks can be racists and women can be sexist. Let’s face it, humans are complex and trying to pigeon hole everyone into certain categories and saying they are all the same is foolish.

  2. “Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.” I think this is striking something key. It’s not identity that’s harmful, but the identity first approach. Identity politics also enhances the idea that our differences lie between groups and not among them. It’s the same problem with universities defining diversity by race. They’re essentially saying, “we don’t have enough people of x race at our school, so we need to get more people of x race, because we wan’t diversity, and people of x race are different than y race.” It’s exactly the opposite of what the civil rights movements was striving for. MLK said “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sadly, when we subscribe to identity politics, we’re letting him down.

    1. It’s even worse than that because that divide can never be bridged. Classical liberalism recognizes a shared humanity among all people and concentrates on what makes us similar, but identity politics concentrates on what makes us different right down to the individual and because I can never be you and have the same experiences as you, we cannot come together on anything.

      1. Yes, exactly. We can never truly understand each other in that sense, and the point should be to accept that and accept that every person is different and immensely complex, but we all share the fact that we are human. Identity politics attempts to fragment people into the categories they identify with, but the problem is that like you said, that goes right down to the individual. There are an infinite amount of possible categories to identify with, so it can only stop at the individual.

  3. The concept of modern day liberalism is neither classical liberalism nor identity politics. People who call themselves classical liberals are afraid to refer to themselves for what they are – libertarians. Most of them rightfully belong where they are, which is the Republican Party. They continually yelp about freedom and liberty, which is nothing more than the politics of selfishness. “What’s mine is mine and you’re not getting any of it. If you’re starving or don’t have medical care, tough luck. That’s not my concern. Don’t look to my tax money to help you. Go see a charity, maybe they can help you.”

    This is why libertarianism has a home in the Republican Party. They want no government regulation of business and want to shred the social safety net, if not totally eliminate it. To them, inequality, regardless of its scale is a good thing because the “worthy” deserve all they get. People on the lower level of the socioeconomic scale can only blame themselves, primarily because they are too lazy to better themselves. Of course, the “successful” should not be highly taxed. They shouldn’t be punished for their accomplishments. Labor unions should be done away with because they are “illegal combinations” that deny individual employees the right to negotiate with their employers. As far as the environmental damage done by unregulated business, don’t worry about it. The “free market” takes care of everything.

    Under a truly libertarian regime, there would be a small strata of the rich and everybody else would be struggling to survive. Freedom for the few, slavery for most. It was in response to this philosophy that modern day liberalism broke off from the laissez-faire variety. Modern day liberalism grew out of the belief that actual freedom meant a decent standard of living, which often required government to step in.

    At the Boston Review site, there is posted an enlightening article by Helena Rosenblatt, entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Liberalism.” I recommend this article to anyone who wishes to learn how the concept of liberalism changed since the late 1800s. It is a fine historical review of a topic that classical liberals seem to know nothing about. Much of modern day liberal philosophy was enunciated by John Dewey. Rosenblatt says:

    Throughout these works, Dewey explained that there were “two streams” of liberalism. One was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation. The other was beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce and was therefore committed to laissez-faire. American liberalism, he insisted, had nothing to do with laissez-faire, and never had, nor did it have anything to do with the “gospel of individualism.” Instead it stood for “liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character,” and its aim was to promote greater equality and combat plutocracy with the aid of government.

    Notice the clause “aid government.” It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who put this philosophy into action, which has remained liberal philosophy ever since.

    So, I find “classical liberalism” abhorrent. It is a giant con game. I wonder how many people fall for its claim that it promotes freedom. Also, as I noted in several previous comments, modern day liberals reject the extremes of identity politics, including the identity politics of the Trump cult. It is strange (well, actually it is not) that classical liberals are oblivious to the identity politics of Trump and the Republican Party.


    1. Thanks very much for these comments. Recent references to “classic liberalism” as if it meant (or still meant) the strain of thought that runs through figures like Mill and Dewey and beyond make me particularly uneasy. It has become the mask of libertarianism — the “handmaid of oligarchy” (I can’t remember where I saw that phrase). I do know it was Isaiah Berlin who said “liberty for the wolves means death to the sheep,” though I’ve encountered libertarians whose response to that was pretty much “Who cares? They’re sheep.”

      1. I like the expression “handmaid of oligarchy.” I have not heard of it before. I believe it to be true. If libertarianism ever prevailed, the few will rule (large corporations) and the masses will be drones or slaves, although I guess they couls pass their free time smoking marijuana, huddling in their hovels, without fear of the police arresting them. This is why government, through regulations, is necessary to restrain the inevitable excesses of business.

    2. Wow, Historian, I don’t even know where to even start with your rant.

      Speaking as a libertarian who isn’t at all afraid to call himself one, let me just be kind and say that perhaps you’re a bit behind the times. No, we don’t “rightfully belong” in the GOP; that’s why we have our own party. There MAY have been an argument, MANY years ago, that the GOP was slightly less inimical to human life than the Dems, but that argument, if ever tenable, collapsed when the GOP abandoned all pretense of fiscal responsibility.

      So now we have the Forever-WAR GOP, the party of hegemony and foreign military adventurism, and the Dems, who would take that same tax money and use it to educate, for health care, infrastructure, etc. (although they don’t seem to bother much with impeding hegemony and foreign military adventurism, either). And you think we belong in the GOP? Where have you BEEN?

      And BTW, I’ll put my libertarian bona fides up against anyone’s (and a party member since ’73). But I switched to the GOP only to vote for Ron Paul in the primaries in ’08. (Would have switched right back, but that was the year that the GOP decided to whore itself out to mass-murderer Bob Barr.) Switched to the Dems in ’16 to vote for Bernie in the primaries. A LOT of libertarians did. And I support environmental causes, as do many libertarians.

      There are a LOT of us “pragmatic” libertarians; if you want ideological purity, check with the anarchists. We don’t much mind a safety net with health care and education; we know that we can afford all of that and more with less taxation if we move away from the system of militaristic, hegemonic, fascist oligarchy that both the GOP and the Dems seem *quite* comfortable with. I don’t know who “your” libertarians are that give you your ideas, but you should get out more. There are a LOT of libertarians who might be much more supportive of what YOU want if you’d just quit insulting them with ignorant opporobrium.

      1. This is from the Libertarian Party platform of 2018:

        “Since governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights, we oppose all interference by government in the areas of voluntary and contractual relations among individuals. People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others. They should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of individual rights, is the free market.”

        This is what it says about the environment:
        “Competitive free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Governments are unaccountable for damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection. Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.”

        This confirms what I said above. Libertarianism is based on selfishness and the delusional belief that the free market solves all problems. This sentences sums it up: “People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others”. Yes, mine is mine, and screw the government if it tries to take any of it. Every other of their beliefs is secondary to these core principles. So-called economic liberty trumps everything else.

        Yes, the Libertarians have their own party. But, when they think some of their views may be implemented, many, if not most, will vote Republican.


        1. “People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives… for the benefit of others.”

          To me, this libertarian thought is the only viable pro-choice argument. If one abandons it and still wants to defend the right to abortion, he eventually comes to calling a viable fetus full of reflexes “a lump of cells”.

        1. Pithy that, Old Guy.

          Well, then you’d be surprised how much criticism I’ve borne on this site alone these last few years for espousing some pretty mainstream libertarian ideas.

          Although not as much as I’ve put up with on supposedly libertarian sites for, for example, pointing out that mandatory vaccinations are not a “liberty issue.”

          1. Did not mean to be picking on you. Just thought some of your ideas would not be thought of as liberation. To me that would be a compliment. Maybe I have been reading yo misanthrope books about the Kock brothers et al.

            1. No offense taken. In any political party, there is a range of views, and sure I argue with other libertarians about it. Some are hard core anti-govs, others, like me, can point out that “socialist” countries like Switzerland and New Zealand rank higher on both economic and personal freedom (see, e.g., the Fraser Institute indices) than does the U.S.

              Many progressives–not all-in the U.S. seem to think that the Dems represent personal freedom. Sure, unless you’re subject to the structural racism of the entire structural racism of the entire police/prosecutorial/judicial/prison/probation/parole complex, or catching bombs and bullets in all of places we’ve invaded, or you’re a Mexican peasant dealing with the inevitable results of U.S. drug policy. NONE of which the Dems, as an institution, have any problem with at all. I’m a libertarian because I *do* have a problem with that, and no less so because I’m OK with the social safety net and investment in infrastructure.

    3. They continually yelp about freedom and liberty, which is nothing more than the politics of selfishness. “What’s mine is mine and you’re not getting any of it. If you’re starving or don’t have medical care, tough luck. That’s not my concern. Don’t look to my tax money to help you. Go see a charity, maybe they can help you.”

      When it comes to accuracy there is nothing like an historian. Congratulations!

      Out of mercy I leave it here, since the rest of the post is a crescendo of insults and mischaracterizations.

      1. If you or someone you care about doesn’t have health insurance and gets seriously ill, I trust you won’t ask the government to help pay your bills. Declaring bankruptcy is an efficient way to stiff medical providers and to shift the costs to people who paid out of their own pocket for health insurance. How many libertarians who have chosen not to purchase health insurance have said: “Since I don’t have insurance and can’t pay the bills, I will decline treatment even if I die. It’s the only principled thing to do? Hooray for freedom!”

        1. “How many libertarians who have chosen not to purchase health insurance have said: ‘Since I don’t have insurance and can’t pay the bills, I will decline treatment even if I die'”?

          I dunno…how many non-libertarians who have chosen not to buy health insurance have said the same?

          But then what would I know? I’m just another libertarian for health care. You seem to think that libertarians are some monolithic, ideologically pure group. We *pragmatic* libertarians just want proposed government actions to do what they promise by meeting a falsifiable goal. By that standard, health care works. So we don’t oppose it. What we do oppose is the privatization of profit and the socialization of loss (and debt), fulfilling government’s prime function: stealing money from poor people and giving it to rich people. That’s not a libertarian scheme; that’s what the D/R duopoly does all day, every day.

        2. Your generalizations are as valid as “Democrats are freebies that want to sit on their couch while collecting welfare checks.”

    4. It is, also, as far as I can tell, a con of another kind, since people like Mill, Smith, Hume, Locke, and so on who are cited as “classical liberals” are *not* the “nightwatchman state” proponents claim they are. (Moreover, one shouldn’t be wedded to old thinkers too much – chances are they are wrong somewhere!)

    5. Wow! Way to stereotype an entire group of people in the comment section of an article decrying such generalizations. Double-wow your stereotyping of a group whose core ideological positions guarantees a plurality of views within the group (making such generalizations nearly impossible) and which demands toleration of such a state.

      Or were you being intentionally ironic?

      -Singed, a libertarian not a Libertarian.

  4. My main concern about identity politics is that it is reductionistic defining people solely in terms of their demographic.
    There are certainly some ways in which different minority groups perceive life in fundamentally different ways, but don’t make that the whole story.

    Post-modernism being my least favorite form of liberal thought, I will want to ponder the ways it feeds into identity politics.

    1. Yes, that is a big problem. I don’t know who would want to be defined solely by their race and gender. I don’t want to go full Godwin and suggest Hitler would love that but really I can’t think who else that would be useful to. I’m a lot more than a white woman.

  5. This is a good article (and Jerry’s highlighting of it is even better); but society isn’t just about empathy, relationships and personal experiences. One of the ways we try to make progress is by putting forward ideas and propositions for debate, criticism, opposition and the appeal to evidence.

    It seems that this doesn’t work any more: ideas and propositions are now primarily assessed according to who makes them, rather than the evidence for or against them. I do have some concerns about what might happen to our societies if this were to become the way our future governments work.

    1. That’s why postmodernism (in the sense relevant) was and is vehemently opposed by many of us. It destroys any ability to resolve things other than by violence. (Or maybe by tiddlywinks contests.)

  6. Pluckrose and Lindsay give a pretty good précis on postmodernism in their piece.

    Postmodernism had its place in the arts, particularly in literature, where I first encountered it as “post-structuralism.” But it jumped its boundaries when it filtered into the social sciences. And when it invaded the hard sciences and math, it jumped the shark.

      1. People tried, particularly in education contexts. Like suggesting that perhaps physics would be more friendly to girls if it started with waves and oscillations and not mechanics with their dastardly “rigid bodies”.

        (As it happens there’s merit to the sequence as proposed, but not because of any difference in male/female cognition or affect.)

  7. Because rights movements bring people into mainstream society and identity politics push people away from mainstream society?

  8. Pluckrose and Lindsay oversimplify. They try to paint a broad and diverse swath of movements in the colors of its worst representatives. I’m not buying it.

    Gender and race are sites of political activism. You don’t have to be a postmodernist to see that. A person prefers to say “I am Black” over “I am a person who happens to be Black” has a valid point.

    It’s reasonable to define “racism” as “prejudice plus power” instead of just “prejudice”. It’s not reasonable to pretend that people don’t use “racism” to mean just “prejudice”, and it’s a strategic mistake to demand that they stop – but it’s absolutely true that prejudice without power is in a different league.

    I think the very term “identity politics” is typically an excuse for sloppy thinking and broad brush characterizations. It’s a smear, implying that advocates have an ethnic group in place of ideas, and a political weapon.

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