In the last few years, American politics have become increasingly preoccupied with style over substance, in the avenue of political correctness, the culture wars, and identity politics. The latter issue hasn’t been discussed much yet on this website because hey! who needs to hear from another white male about race and gender issues? This may seem like a cheap joke or key point, depending on your point of view, but it cuts right down to why this has become incontrovertibly linked with political discourse today.
Identity politics (and how it’s stirred in conversation) breeds off a culture of resentment among alienated groups (privileged and disenfranchised, generally) while at the same time remaining all the more relevant, in times when a US president can’t even be bothered to condemn the KKK. Its genesis lies in the history of oppression of minority groups (Blacks, LGBT+, etc.) and the effective silencing of their voices resulting in what many believe to be a necessary template for defense. Its faults, as some would argue, lie in the abuse of where it’s applied and the mentality of “victimhood” it encourages; giving a victim the leverage of identity over an opponent in debate. Naturally, it’s a sensitive topic to discuss because discrimination isn’t some abstract idea for many people but to make some steady progress, let’s examine the criticisms and defense channeling this conversation.
Criticism of Identity Politics
Let’s divide the critics into two types: a) rhetorical and b) practical.
The former have problems with the rhetoric identity politics inspires. They charge that it inspires groupthink, which in turn compromises individual thought on complex issues and furthers the gulf between left and right. In common discourse, we expect minorities to side with liberals all the time, even though many of the matters dividing the Republican and Democratic parties have little to do with identity, e.g. gun control, climate change. We assume race and sexuality plays a major role in a Black or Gay person’s life which may be statistically sound but at times, possibly comes across as condescending and untrue. As the popular political commentator Dave Rubin has noted, “you as an individual are much more than your immutable characteristics.”
Plus, experience does not necessarily establish authority in an argument. We may not be able to fully appreciate another person’s struggles and yes, it may at times appear insensitive to even engage but debates should be run on good ideas, regardless of one’s “immutable characteristics”. This notion blossomed considerably when echoed by Obama in a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth in July (when he said opinions should not be dismissed just because they are white or male).
Practical critics think along these lines too but with goals in mind- i.e. beating Trump in 2020. As Sheri Berman opined in a Guardian piece (“Why Identity Politics Benefits The Right More Than The Left”): “Is our ultimate goal ensuring the compatibility of diversity and democracy? Then promoting the overlapping interests and identification that enable citizens to become more comfortable with differences and thus more tolerant and trusting, is absolutely necessary.” Left and right have been painted as stark opponents in the culture wars. A tough point, some liberals seem unwilling to accept, is that not all Trump’s supporters are racist white males. Okay, there are definitely some racists. And yes, a lot of his support was from white males. Their support did not rest solely on identity politics however. It derived from other places; chiefly, economic misfortune- a shared characteristic for people of all identities in many situations. In short, as Bernie Sanders would hound, the media needs to pay more attention to the issues!
In Defense of Identity Politics
Okay, so that’s all very good but racism, homophobia, and sexism are everyday issues affecting millions of lives. There are oppressive methods in place preventing Blacks from voting (by conservatives gerrymanders and legislators). There is a double standard for women and inequality of opportunities in many job sectors. LGBT groups are routinely subjected to the nastiest treatment and commentary for merely being who they are. So, in many respects, identity politics is something that has been thrust upon these groups rather than something they’ve sought out and just as the right are known to parry off cries of offense with deflections like “oh you’re just being PC”, is it not possible that identity politics helps their cause a little when it comes to such enduring prejudice?
In his article, “In Defense of Identity Politics”, Paul Von Blume writes that American society has been mechanized to the umpteenth degree to reinforce the status quo of white male privilege. When expressions like “just plain American” or “melting pot” are bandied about, he argues that while they may be “well meaning,” they really just brush over the historical “exclusion” of millions of its people. Direct, aggressive racism or prejudice in general does not necessarily tie this altogether. White privilege is maintained out of fear that the promotion of less enfranchised persons may lead to a decline in their quality of life (a concern that pervaded the “turbulence” of the 1960s). Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and Peterson opponent), has noted this much, writing for the New York Times in December 2016 that “the interests of the white working class have often been used by white political elites to stave off challenges to inequality and discrimination by black folk and other minority groups”. (It should be noted however that he’s been criticized for pushing identity politics to the extreme, referring to Jordan Peterson as a “mean mad white man” during a debate on political correctness).
White men like me will never fully appreciate the Black, Women, or Muslim experience, as diversified or as shared as it can be. In many respects, our culture and systemic prejudice has necessitated such labels as identity be used in the mainstream. It catches people’s attention when a meme or hashtag or article goes viral, encapsulating all the frustrations of “mansplaining”, whitewashed history, or privilege. It’s all very understandable but at times, overtly sensitive to the point debate gets shut down; e.g. with the above case between Peterson and Dyson, the former debater was immediately cast under suspicion (or an attempt was made) just because he was a white male arguing against political correctness. At times, this isn’t fair but there will always be exceptions in every case that define how we must study it. For example, a panel of all male commentators discussing abortion would seem ridiculous to most but of all females, rather reasonable. Also, “All Lives Matter”?
It’s a trying discussion which transmogrifies the collective into the personal experience. For all practicalities’ sake though, in light of recent political developments, it has become a “serious nuisance” underlying almost every political debate. In order for the Democrats to make some ground on those stubborn Trump supporters, there needs to be some attempt at reconciling the majority with the minority, whose interests don’t necessarily deviate from one another’s. The 2018 midterms and the 2020 election should return to the boring stuff that makes up most sane countries’ elections; economic opportunity- and that means to help all citizens advance, be it on an individual or group level.