Friday, November 2, 2007

Why Identity Politics Are Wrong

As usual, this is a long essay. The first half is sort of a personal history of my intellectual development on the subject, and can be considered optional. If you wish to skip to the actual argument, you can skip down to the bolded text preceded by "Here is why."

As long as I can remember, I have essentially been critical, justice-minded and what can be most broadly characterized as populist and left-leaning in disposition. Be that as it may, I spent several essentially reactionary and aggressively conformist years of my life as a convert to Mormonism. It did not lost long, but that was the unfortunate state of things when I entered into what, to me, constituted the most powerful and accelerated stage of my intellectual, moral and political development. This occurred in the first year I entered college full-time, in my late twenties.

One of my first experiences was in a postwar American History classes in which the topic of gay and lesbian marriage came up. Taking the "strong" moral position to stand up for what is Right and True, I was that guy in the class, that day, arguing that homosexuality is wrong and that gay marriage should not be allowed because it hurts society and the institution of marriage and that sort of thing.

It was an odd thing, as I had had no strong feelings about the matter one way or another before, and knew little about it. But my lack of understanding played into the fore when the church had teachings on the matter, and I too-casually took the role as arrogant, self-righteous persecutor in that classroom. Thinking about it later, it disturbed me.

As I read and learned more, I began questioning more and more of my assumptions (along with conclusions that had been taught by previous education, mainstream media and general conventional wisdom). Studying American History, I read in-depth about slavery, anti-slavery, war and imperial foreign policy, brutal suppression of labor and socialists, and other sharp ugly issues.

I was shamed into taking a class in women's history by my semiconservative Christian academic adviser and history teacher, who herself taught the class. I really didn't want to take that class. It sounded narrow and boring, and a crop of old prejudices and unfavorable impressions came to mind. And besides, I already considered myself sympathetic; what more could they tell me that I didn't already know?

Nevertheless, I took the class, and like so many others, it radically altered my understanding of the matter (again, note that this was a Christian, right-of-center professor as well). For women's studies, for example, I realized the issue isn't female identity or silly mischaracterizations like oppositions to bras, but justice.

As I learned more in my studies of history, I realized that all these issues tied together. Women, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism and the tortuous history of America's resumption of Europe's role over the old colonies throughout the 20th Century. It all came together in a seamless whole, and I identified with and fully supported the radical rebellions. I saw the points feminists and socialists and environmentalists and civil rights advocates and other persecuted groups were making, and I found myself in agreement. In fact, it seemed all the more clear in light of the syntheses that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panthers posited. The problem was capitalism, the idea that it is acceptable for one man to exploit another.

Needless to say, my acceptance of Mormonism had began crumbling decisively, and about a year or two later I repudiated it.

By the time I came into law school, I was a sort of self-styled radical with decisively Leftist leanings. (A very lonely thing to be in any law school, even a relatively liberal one, by the way.) I was going to learn to fight the good fight, to bring about real justice. But I kept finding myself at odds, unable to work with, the groups around me. There was the Multicultural Law Students Association, with its Asian and Latino and even Middle-Eastern (inactive as it was) subsections. There were the usual groups, such as the disgusting conservative Federalist Society (fawning after archconservative Antonin Scalia and the whole pantheon of right-wing hero figures) and the liberal equivalent whose name I cannot recall (which itself, I think, is quite appropriate). There was a women's organization, and a gay and lesbian organization. They all were champions of their respective causes, and loosely allied, but all were eagerly seeking generalized legitimacy and, well, kind of unfriendly and uncomfortable with more radical types -- if not outright hostile.

It was odd to me, and it caused me a lot of angst. Even the socialist-founded National Lawyers Guild was peopled with individuals who merely seemed to want a more strenuous ACLU, rather than a holistic opposition to the prevailing ideology. All were distinctly uncomfortable with the anything more than a vague, unspoken leaning to the left. And this was at a very, very liberal university that had a fair number of radicals in the undergraduate college.

I never quite understood it, though I agreed fully with all their causes. But the question nagged me: why do these people not see past their narrow perspectives and take a larger view? Why are persecuted gays any more important than persecuted women (or vice-versa), or than Guatemalans, Haitians or East Timorese murdered in the interests of U.S. corporate and governmental interests and their client states, or than people impoverished and worked to the point of degradations in mines and factories, all in the name of "progress" and profit?

Seeking that elusive “unified Left,” I became active, for a time, in the Oregon Green Party, which I later realized was riven with ideological conflict between the “watermelons” (socialists who had been absorbed into the Greens – Green on the outside, red on the inside – get it?) and the centrist-liberal environmentalist libertarian types, the “real” Greens, they asserted. The written platform of the Green Party was fantastic, but on the ground it was riven with the same narrow divisions and failures of "big picture" awareness. A little less than a year later I resigned in disgust after being pulled into the middle of a petty and destructive factional feud.

It later all came together for me in a quick, frustrated after-class lecture by an African professor of international and criminal law who worked with Nelson Mandela. Responding to a student's question on some issue, he explained that, rather than being the solution, identity politics are a problem that undermines any potential solutions.

Identity politics? I had heard the term used, but had discounted it as facile, self-serving conservative dismissal of critics. Quickly defined, one might say identity politics is political behavior, association or allegiance based upon rigid, involuntary identities – gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, and so forth. And they are a natural reaction to the identity politics of the Western order, which manifests itself as the western European Christian societal power so firmly ensconced for longer than anyone knows different. After all, they have the Ku Klux Klan, and so why shouldn't persecuted blacks form their own exclusive blacks-only organizations? Women have dealt with patriarchal exploitation for so long; why shouldn't they have their own equivalents? Why shouldn't people who have suffered deep and abiding general bigotry become separatist?

Since I became socially conscious and social-justice-minded, I felt firmly supportive of and empathized with separatist movements and groups, though I always, as I have touched upon, felt uncomfortable around them. Though I am in agreement and sympathy and share convictions with you, I am, when it comes down to it, the wrong race, or the wrong sex, or the wrong ethnicity. And we go our own ways.

Of course, as a side note it must be said that not all involved in such pursuits are universally so small-minded or parochial. But enough are; the problem lies in the methodology, not the individuals.

Thinking about the matter, I concluded that my international law profession is correct.

Here is why.

1) Identity politics narrow one's scope of empathy and crowd out larger considerations of morality and social consciousness

It has been said, and I think it true, that people are quite decent to others within their scope of empathy. What this means is that, if you truly accept another's humanity and feel a commonality with them, you will find it very difficult to mistreat or dishonor them. It is only when others become dehumanized to us that we become hardened to them and either disregard or actually seek to create harm to others.

Empathy is a powerful emotion – nature's way of producing cooperation and aiding survival – and is one of the redeeming features of humanity. It is one of the primary sources of altruism and beneficial human behavior. [1]
[1] I would like to clarify a commonly misunderstood concept in regard to empathy. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Both work as an emotional bond with another that produces compassion, but their foundation is different.

Sympathy is compassion based upon mutually-shared experience and nuanced understanding. For example, I can never know what it's like to have grown up gay in the United States, a country noteworthy for a its extreme persecution of homosexuality, and thus can never truly share experiential sympathy.

Sympathy as a source of compassion is not in itself wrong. The problem is that, if I rely upon sympathy to form the basis of my compassion for people, I must rely on the mere accident of circumstance to determine my sympathies and social awareness. If human society depends upon mere sympathy for cooperative behavior, it will be divided into experiential subgroups with powerful understanding for those like them, and misunderstanding, wariness and antipathy for others. I am already describing mainstream America.

Sympathy is the most intuitive and basic form of cooperation, and is the basis for tribalism and team dynamics.

Empathy, on the other hand, is compassion based upon a more generalized feeling of human unity. I can really never know what it is like to be gay in America, but I can certainly realize that, whatever its source and its individual nuances of flavor, human suffering is universal, and that, as fellow beings, we have far more in common than different, and desire the same basic things. Suffering is suffering, and one can indeed base a more generalized sense of concern for the well-being of others on shared humanity, rather than shared subcategory.

Sympathy will not save the world, for it predictably fails to bridge divisions. Only empathy can do so, though broadening of sympathy is generally be a part of the path toward a more generalized empathy.
That said, such things as war propaganda are specifically designed to heighten narrow group identity and, more importantly, undermine empathy. Notice, for example, that such propaganda and even action films use the technique of hiding, obscuring or parodying the human faces of the “enemy” in order to remove their apparent humanity. In Star Wars, for example, the enemy stormtroopers always had helmets suggesting grotesque, monstrous visages. In old World War II propaganda, including Popeye and Disney cartoons, for example, Japanese and Germans were rendered with the familiar grotesque facial features posturing in ways guaranteed to demonstrate a decided lack of humanity. And, of course, it is useful to think of how Nazi schools taught their children about what Jews "are like," showing hunchbacked pictures with exaggerated noses and facial distortions. The face is an important element of human recognition and empathy.

One of the biggest problems of identity politics is that it strongly tends to hyperfocus one's attention and scope of empathy on the specified group. After all, I am of Middle-eastern descent, not gay, Latino or female. They have their problems; I have mine. And thus I shall focus on mine and cooperate with them where there is mutual gain to be made.

In a way, this sets these different identity interests at odds with each other. After all, which deserves national attention? They become like advertisers, who are not so much interested in squashing the advertisements and billboards of others as they are making their own shine above all others. They render so much energy in their own causes, and become so emotionally invested in them, that their own sympathized causes really do take an overweening prominence over all else.

And, after all, why shouldn't they? If one studies, in depth and with compassion, the persecution and mistreatment and dehumanization that gays, for example, have suffered and still suffer, one is immediately struck with grief and rage. One does not have to be a member of a persecuted group, after all, to understand that the infliction of deep suffering, arbitrary social exclusion, physical harm, and worse to anyone is a horrible crime against everything decent that must be stopped immediately. The more I read about the history of the treatment of blacks in America, the more I felt a deep rage – of the good kind, that is – the kind that impels action and that we should all feel at injustice, and the more I felt it was a burning issue.

In fact, these are all burning issues. And the persecuted and exploited in this society are like a veritable forest, with different types of trees gathering into groups for mutual protection and urging the woodcutters to go cut somewhere else. They are not so concerned where.

In other words, identity politics strongly tend toward a narrowing of social conscience and a feeling of competition toward other causes. Often, such groups are peopled with individuals whose social conscience really is substantially limited to the issue in question, much like the Mother Against Drunk Driving who was apathetic before but, now that she lost a loved one in a drunk driving accident, now has the one issue in the world about which she knows enough to care.

And a narrowing of social conscience is the narrowing of the scope of empathy. As we divide into parochial groups with competing desire for attention and redress, we lose sight of each other – never mind the big picture and those with less public concern and publicity resources, such as those suffering in the Third World from Western military-economic depredations. And, as a result...

2) Identity politics perpetuate and re-energize divisions

I often hear conservative whites talk of “reverse racism” and justify their bigotry on the ground that blacks have overreacted and now do the same in kind. I find this to be bullshit, and an argument wholly deserving of contempt for its self-serving shortsightedness.

However, there is indeed a seed of truth – as there always is behind the bloodiest and dirtiest lies. And that seed of truth is that identity politics can indeed function to perpetuate irrational divisions by re-enforcing the same lines that the original aggressors created. Thus, where the whites in power had sought to segregate blacks in designated areas, often blacks, quite naturally and understandably, reacted along the lines of, “Fine – you don't want us, and we don't care to have to fight to be with you. We'll have our own areas.”

Have we not all felt this way about rejection and dehumanization by others? I certainly have, and not just in the distant past, either.

If this was the only way of dealing with the humiliation and dehumanization by those with social power against marginalized and demonized groups, then it would be justifiable. After all, if the division is already there and irrepairable, should individual groups not at least be able to reclaim some of their dignity? But if there is a better solution that accomplishes more while visiting less damage upon human society, it is an unfortunate misapplication of energies.

The problem, rather, again relates to the undermining of our ability to see our commonality and to extend our empathy beyond ourselves and those most immediately like us. And because it creates an us versus them mentality that is likely to be immediately reciprocated and reinforced, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, on that point...

3) Identity politics often result in their own forms of bigotry

Identity politics are a creation of homogeneity unpolluted by the outside judgments and persecutions that incited their formation. When I seek those like me, I want to find people with whom I can share assumptions and not have to justify my every statement, much less my existence and my dignity. And why not isolate oneself from hostility and stay within a community of like kind?

However, as can be seen by closely watching any relatively homogeneous group of people with similar backgrounds and assumptions, people tend to let loose in such contexts and relax their guard – both against external offense and against our internal suppression of ideas that, in a wider context, might be hurtful to outsiders.

After all, within a White Pride meeting, it flies quite naturally to demonize non-whites for their persecution of whites, who, after all, just want to have a little Pride, teach Correct History and retain the Purity of the White Race. Share those ideas outside such a den of masturbatory regressiveness, and you're likely to meet with some persecution yourself, and not unjustly I might add.

However, even among the inoffending and marginalized, social isolation into a group who share a common bond of persecution and rigid identity offers the same opportunity for bigotry. Often it might begin as mere humor or emotional purging in a safe place, and everyone will laugh and bond together. It might be retained as an in-joke or catchphrase, and eventually, perhaps, become a fixture of the new subculture.

History repeatedly shows that even the worst victimization is no guarantee that the victims, once they attain their own power over some sphere, won't repeat the original offense against others. Indeed, psychological study of what has been called the “cycle of abuse” quite supports this.

Identity politics can and often do result in a collective version of the cycle of abuse. After all, who is more inclined to become militant and hostile than someone who has been victimized, persecuted, and found new strength later? And because the group is cohesive and homogeneous, it is far less likely that new bigotries – especially well-founded ones – will be challenged and a fair and universal standard of moral judgment applied to them. The golden rule will give way to the iron rod.

As a result...

4) Identity politics are guaranteed to produce bad feelings by excluding fellow travelers

In the antislavery movement, there were instances where black abolitionists, tired of regular white bigotry, on the one side, and its equivalent in the paternalistic haughteur by white abolitionists who still retained an abiding contempt for blacks [2], on the other, concluded that they should have their own organizations exclusive of whites. And, given this paradigm, is this not justified?
[2] One might recall the old witticism that the southern racist "doesn't mind 'em living close as long as they don't get uppity," while the northern racist "doesn't mind 'em getting uppity as long as they don't live close." There is a great deal of truth to this, and there was a great deal of racism among even many abolitionists, many of whom just wanted blacks to be sent back to Africa.

But, if it is justified, are not there undeserving whites who would be excluded, and is there a less severe way of accomplishing the goal of excluding the abolitionists who were, in the end, still racist?

The problem is that the answer to both questions is yes. Not all white abolitionists were that way – and, indeed, I named my son after one who was not – but this man, who felt an affinity and kinship and true equality for black people without the paternal baggage of subconscious feelings of class and race superiority (indeed, he addressed and decried it), would be so excluded. And, for most of us, the exclusion from a group with whom we shared perspectives and ideas and kinship on the basis of mere identity would be very hurtful, and would constitute a reassertion of the old boundaries that these particular individuals might have worked hard to transcend.

Are those who are in empathy and ideational agreement not those whom we least wish to drive away?

And might an exclusion on the basis of attitude and perspective be more effective? It would certainly be messier to raise the issue and declare that even mild attitudes of paternal superiority are unacceptable, but it would also raise consciousness of the problem and protect the vulnerable cross-identity fellow-travelers.

By the way, let me note that I am not offering a critique of poor, besieged blacks who were (and whose descendants still are) trying to escape from under the thumb of a sea of racism. While one strategy may be more effective than another, one can hardly fault people in individual contexts for failures of foresight or for errors of passion. Absolutely no one deserves to criticize blacks for their failures in escaping or dealing with the brutal repression clearly shown by historical evidence.

What is the answer then?

What is better, then? The answer lies in avoiding identity-based politics and focusing upon idea-based politics. It is not exclusion that is wrong per se – after all, it is quite appropriate to exclude unsympathetic whites from an abolitionist meeting. Rather, it is the systematized exclusion on the basis of identity – another variant of tribalism, after all – that is the problem. And why is that? Because it ignores a far more fundamental problem that is at the root of almost all others – those of gays and lesbians, women, Third World peasants, racial minorities, and the rest.

The problem, as Malcolm X came to see, is that we all do have the same interests, and the problem, as I will explain below, is far more universal than this line of thinking tends to believe. When Malcolm X returned from the Middle-east, he had a change of heart, and, like Martin Luther King, Jr., came to see that racism was a narrower implementation of an even more insidious idea – the idea that exploitation of Other human beings is acceptable.

All other issues – one of the most important being tribal forms of thought that enforce empathy with the tribal group and dehumanize those outside it – are subsidiary to this.

While this may seem a far-fetched claim, the problems of the world do, and can be shown to, tie together in a complex pattern. For example, who is benefiting from the persecution of gays and lesbians? Religious forms of social control have their own requirements beyond just enemies to demonize. The Christian demonization of homosexuality is tied to two of things. First, Christianity's combination with exploitative secular authority to keep the majority of the people in check and eliminate any potential challenges to either secular or religious authority. One of the tools of Christianity has been the demonization of the interior self – our instinctual thoughts and behavior – that does not conform to the narrow, sanitized version of a “good” human being. This included sexuality. Furthermore, Christianity's most formative period occurred when it was in competition with less militant but, perhaps, less ascetic forms of religion collectively labeled as “paganism.” Because it needed justifications to suppress and eradicate them, it was handy to conveniently demonize behaviors which might have been more prevalent among them. It is quite likely that this is a prime reason for the original demonization of homosexuality, which, as we know, was a non-issue in early Western culture – virtually all respectable people were bisexual.

Closely in competition with the factor I have described is Christianity's aggressive pronatalism - doctrines and policies designed to maintain high birthrates. Pronatalism has for millennia been strongly tied primarily to the desire of those within the social and religious power structure (which, under Christianity, were virtually one and the same) to maintain growing stocks of human beings to labor, fight, pay tithes and taxes, and in general as a resource for those in power. Christianity, being a xenophobic, expansionist religion, has been characterized by leadership acutely concerned with maintaining a growing population under its control. After all, more people under you means more power and wealth for you. (And, furthermore, it is well-supported that the firmest Christian is a born-and-raised Christian.)

As anthropologist Marvin Harris explains it quite well [3], this desire by those within the societal power structure leads directly to policies designed to discourage nonprocreative sex and to create both social and psychological pressures upon people to bear children. Confining the sexual instinct to procreative sex is wonderfully effective, as that instinct is extremely powerful and will tend to be better harnessed toward procreation if otherwise-repressed. After all, all of the alternative forms of nonprocreative sex that bring satisfaction without inflicting additional children on already-impoverished and overtaxed families will tend to undermine this pressure. Thus, masturbation, "Onanism" (coitus interruptus - "pulling out"), oral and anal sex, and, of course, homosexual sex, are an enemy to the driving population-growth desires of the power segment of society. They relieve pressures that these interests do not wish relieved.
[3] His book, America Now (Simon & Schuster, 1982), is extremely insightful and descriptive in plain, entertaining and nonpedantic language of many "mysterious" social developments in America. I highly recommend it.
As what has passed for civilization has developed, this trend has continued, and we may recall that German and Italian fascism gave medals to women who gave birth to certain numbers of children - militarism goes hand-in-hand with pronatalism, as every baby is just a little soldier in waiting. Combining this with urbanization, increasing difficulty maintaining decent living standards (nowadays almost impossible without two-income families), and the increasingly pauperizing cost of raising children, and we have a society with an alarmingly (to some) shrinking population growth rate. When we throw in the abiding demonization of homosexuals at the cultural level, we have what we now have.

Whatever the claims of its adherents, history shows Christianity to be a militant, power-seeking and expansion-oriented religion with its roots in rigid, absolutist theocracy. While infamous for its centuries-long Inquisition, which brutally suppressed any heterodoxy and sought to destroy non-faith-promoting books, creating what we now know as the Dark Ages, and its bloody Crusades, it has conducted similar campaigns throughout its existence whenever it had the power to do so. Sexual “deviants” are merely one side casualty in its never-ending quest to retain and expand its social and political power. Who knows what might have been if its early opponents had been homophobic and its search for pretexts to destroy them had led it in another direction. It would certainly have been far more ambivalent and nuanced to the point of convolution in its response toward alternate forms of sexual expression.

The whole anti-rationalism that has engulfed the 19th and 20th centuries after the brief flourishing of rationalism in the preceding centuries is also related to the issue of exploitation and power. After all, the increasing use of reason and the mounting escape from the brutal stranglehold upon thought maintained by the Catholic Church in all its manifestations were leading to declarations of human rights and dangerously subversive critical evaluations of the prominent social forms. As rationalism has led to far more unified and effective forms of resistance, such as socialism, so have the power elements of the dominant institutions sought to restrain rational thought. And this, of course, leads to a whole host of other problems for everyone else, and particularly for social minorities and women, who, after all, have long been a source of free labor and one-sided sexual gratification for men.

Because reason undermines the entitlement of elites to the increasingly severe exploitation of those beneath them, it is an enemy to the forms of power that have endured so long.

In the same way that I argue against postmodern dismissal of truth and knowledge as a retreat from the often-uncomfortable field of moral inquiry into the self, identity politics are likewise such a retreat. The solution for us all lies in our finding and exploring our commonality and in the development of understanding of others, of ourselves, of human nature and of the nature of exploitation and tribal narrowmindedness. The solution lies in a broad-scale embrace of the idea of justice and reason, not just the defense of sympathized groups.