A sort of identity politics is a major force tearing at the seams of America’s liberal democratic order (broadly understood), argues Jonathan Haidt in his recent and important essay (originally a talk), “The Age of Outrage.” My aim here is to amplify and comment on his piece.
Haidt helpfully distinguish good from bad identity politics. Unfortunately, he is a little vague on what separates the two; he couches the difference as between bringing people together versus tearing them apart. That’s a good start, but it leaves deeper causes obscured. Thankfully he offers good good illustrative examples, beginning with Martin Luther King:
The civil rights struggle was indeed identity politics, but it was an effort to fix a mistake, to make us better and stronger as a nation. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric made it clear that this was a campaign to create conditions that would allow national reconciliation.
Haidt also points out that “intersectionality” originally was a sensible form of identity politics:
The term and concept were presented in a 1989 essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, who made the very reasonable point that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience. She analyzed a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors, even when the company could show that it hired plenty of blacks (in factory jobs dominated by men), and it hired plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by whites). So even though GM was found not guilty of discriminating against blacks or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. This is an excellent argument.
Incidentally, Bret Weinstein—a victim of a pathological form of identity politics at Evergreen State College—offered a similarly nuanced view on identity politics in his recent conversation with Sam Harris.
Haidt describes what has gone wrong with identity politics on many of today’s university campuses:
Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile. Anything that a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don’t have it. A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose. . . .
[N]owadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.
See Haidt’s essay for more insights, including his advice on how to address the problem. Here my goal is to dig deeper into the problem.
What fundamentally divides good from bad identity politics is its stance on the individual. Benevolent identity politics ultimately is individualist—it advocates viewing people as individuals with their own thoughts and choices. Pathological identity politics is collectivist—it treats people fundamentally as members of a group, which is why its adherents increasingly sound indistinguishable, except for a few adjectives, from members of the KKK.
This take gives rise to a couple of paradoxes.
First, is individualism compatible with Haidt’s focus on bringing people together? Doesn’t individualism separate people rather than unite them? No. When we see and treat individuals for who they are, rather than merely as indistinguishable members of various groups, we open the ground for individuals to interact with each other authentically and reasonably. We do not, for example, reject what someone has to say because of the color of the person’s skin—regardless of what it is.
Second, can there be a truly individualist version of identity politics? Isn’t the concept inherently built on collective features? No again. The individualist recognizes that, historically and to some degree today, many individuals have been horribly oppressed because of their group identity. The Jim Crow laws, for example, specifically targeted black people. Many of the drug laws have overtly racist origins, and they have been used in outright racist ways (as with sentencing disparities).
The individualist goal is to end oppression against individuals, including when individuals are oppressed because of characteristics they share with others. When black people, or women, or gays, or others are oppressed because of their skin color, genitalia, sexual preferences, or other comparable features they share with others, then the call to end such oppression must recognize its underlying nature. (On this point I agree with Jacob T. Levy.)
The individualist goal, though, is ultimately not to equalize power between groups, but rather to ensure justice for each individual. The goal is to achieve “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin”—or by any other such feature—“but by the content of their character.”
The collectivist view, by contrast, leads people to cast blame (or to make excuses) on the basis of skin color or comparable characteristics; to ignore real reductions in certain forms of oppression; to see devils everywhere beyond one’s in-groups; to assume the worst of intentions of people in “enemy” groups; to cast a suspicious or even a hateful eye toward reason and science; to excuse or even to celebrate injustices toward members of the “wrong” classes; to continually look for the heretical—or worse, the “privileged”—within one’s groups.
Collectivist identity politics in both leftist and conservative forms is on the rise in the United States, and the country desperately needs a reasonable alternative. Thankfully Haidt and a growing number of individuals in and out of the academy are offering one.