The dangers of discounting identity politics
The pre-eminent drawback to social media platforms like Twitter is that they give anyone who wants it unconditional approval to say absolutely anything they want. This often results in what can be conceived of as a digital game of ‘telephone': one person makes a comment that consequently gets distorted, reworded, and amplified until all that is left is something essentially extraneous from the original point – and yet is viral. This is the process by which we assign heuristic connotations to terms, and it has serious implications on real-world behavior.
“Identity politics” is the latest term to suffer this fundamental mischaracterization – both online, and off it. Politicians are taking great care of late to distance themselves from such thinking, condemning it as poison that undermines liberal politics. The problems with this sentiment are twofold. Firstly, we have an error of definition: these criticisms never define the term to any point of usefulness, creating in bad faith a self-accommodating vagueness. Secondly, treating racial and gender antagonisms as merely symptoms of an underlying economic inequity is a dangerous approach. We should, rather, treat the irreducible intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality, economic disparity, and religion, as the indigenous root of the problem that it in fact is.
Watching the connotative definition of “identity politics” evolve and change over time brings to mind George Orwell’s remark on the word “fascism” in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s point, succinctly put, is that “fascism” has come to mean little more than “something not desirable” – a shorthand that is unsettlingly like the way people use “identity politics” today.
Clearly, fascists are a real phenomenon. So are identity politics. The trick is identifying that underlying thing, rather than blindly (and often inappropriately) referring to it. At a surface level, identity politics refer to a politics that speaks to our image of ourselves. This doesn’t mean all politics are identity politics holistically – as seductive as that declaration may be – since this claim would erase everything else politics are about (i.e. specific policy issues). We can, however, argue that all politics involve an element of identity. Instead of disregarding that, as many now seem to advocate, we should acknowledge it while simultaneously recognizing that this isn’t a sufficient lens for understanding any one issue. This approach creates an awareness that either seeking to remove or exclusively focus on identity as an aspect of politics will, ultimately, produce incomplete answers.
Out of the theoretical comes practical application. Think, for example, about Brexit (this is what happens when you put a political scientist in Scotland, by the way). Let’s say the UK decides to model itself on Norway, and stays in the single market. While, purely economically, this may be the most efficient and optimal outcome, that solution would almost certainly prove wildly unpopular. It would exist in tension with the identities of many people, perceived as an unacceptable violation of the national values they identify with (through the lack of control on immigration, or new rules they would have to follow).
The key takeaway here is this: identity politics are not the poisonous plague on our electoral system people make them out to be. They are in no way an adequate mechanism on their own for making decisions, true, but they are the inescapable and noticeable results of living in a society with such an ingrained conception of the self – in other words, of being human.
The dangers of trivializing identity politics
The political right has long associated identity politics with whiny, liberal political correctness. This is not new. What is new, though, is the eagerness of the political left to condemn the frame as well. This fresh attack counterposes the common good with social identity, somehow arriving at the conclusion that ideas about common purpose are entirely devoid of identity meanings.
This is a dangerous thought. If “common” still means unmarked white masculinity - which I feel comfortable assuming - then identity politics become the enemy of working-class politics, traditional liberal party politics, and the ‘common good’ itself. To treat identity politics as dealing solely in narrow, discrete issues that prevent us from focusing on ‘collective issues’ is to treat different experiences as secondary to the homogenous one – not to mention trivializing political and social exclusion. It’s easy to forget that identity politics are about more than just experience; they're about racism and sexism and phobias that are not symptomatic to our political system but, rather, native to it. Just as “race” was understood as a story of blackness until critical theories and whiteness studies opened it up, identity politics are understood as performed by those whose identities are not white, male, and heterosexual. As Hadley Freeman reminds us, the overwhelming majority of the “identity politics sceptics are white men, whose articles are filled with quotes from other white men,” an inescapable fact that should at least give us pause.
Furthermore, it’s absolutely absurd to me that identity politics are now the sign of old-fashioned and regressive essentialist left-wing politics. It’s unsettling that such a trope manages to be so pervasive especially given that it is entirely removed from reality – most social change and political activism happens in and through identity politics. Think about Black Lives Matter, the fight for Native American autonomy and water rights at Standing Rock, the immigrant rights movement, the Women’s March, and even the March For Our Lives (the dominant identifying characteristic there being youth). Social identities, and all they encompass, have an undeniably powerful impact on our political system.
Again – as I wrote in an attempt to provide definitional clarity – there is absolutely no doubt that bad calls are sometimes made in the name of identity. The question is whether those bad calls are endemic to this thing called identity politics or merely endemic to all politics; it is undeniable that bad calls continuously come out of those forms of politics we deem not identity-based.
Identity politics are not uniquely harmful. Their revolutionary influence on our political system is incredibly pronounced, as are their causes. Treating racism, sexism, or any phobia as the consequences of economic or class disparity means erasing real experiences, challenges, and struggles. Given definitional clarity and operative context, it is crystal clear that identity politics are an integral part of our political system.