Identity Politics: Resentments & Realities

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).

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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).

To Conclude

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.

 

Jordan Peterson & Open Dialogue

Jordan Peterson & Open Dialogue

Much has been made of Jordan Peterson, the Clinical Psychologist, and his foray into the world of public intellectualism and politics. At times, his rhetoric seems deigned for ingratiating proponents of free speech and those sickened by the debasement of open dialogue into base proclivities and at others, for widening the gulf between liberals and conservatives. Does Peterson’s loyalties lie with the latter? I think that’s reductive but certainly there’s a case to be made that his words could do a whole lot more for that camp than any other figure stealing headlines.

Peterson became something of a fixture following his challenge of the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. His objection lay on the grounds, not of transphobia, but this being an assault on free speech (by inference of “compelled speech”). Naturally, some saw this as transgressive and petty. Peterson managed to ride a wave of popularity thereafter though, with a series of videos riling against political correctness. This led eventually on to a bestseller 12 Rules for Life, a self-help guide, whose insistence on personal responsibility (and not victimhood) became inextricably linked with the numerous issues he was being questioned on. These included feminism, a crisis in masculinity, and support from some members of the alt-right.

The thing is a lot of Peterson’s support is comprised of anti-PC white males. In the arena of identity politics, he’s been attacked by many because he doesn’t seem to disavow the more extremist parts of his base. Is this necessarily his responsibility? Maybe not but it becomes a worrying clause because conservatives really could do with an intellectual figure or at least his ideas. It gives them something the likes of Trump can’t- legitimacy. Dorian Lynskey illustrated this cohesively in a February piece for the Guardian on the “dangerous” side of this professor and his perceived image as “the cooly rational man of science facing down the hysteria of P.C”. He writes, “[His] YouTube gospel resonates with young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social justice discourse and crave an empowering theory of the world in which they are not the designated oppressors.” A little ambitious on their part, yes.

Many have brought Peterson up on his defense of patriarchies as natural outcomes of history by asserting that that doesn’t necessarily make them desirable.  I wonder if perhaps both sides are being too hasty in this increasingly complicated dialogue. Yes, one could muster that the many elements constituting the history of mankind have resulted in the kind of society we now have but even with this viewpoint, that doesn’t mean all Peterson’s views are calculated to an anti-leftist agenda. In many respects, he’s a breath of fresh air because he dares to question the background behind things like the gender pay gap and the ideology surrounding humanities in universities. It’s also kind of nice to just hear an articulate figure coming from somewhere outside the left.

Even if he’s a troll benefiting from all this controversy, the liberals will take the bait however. In one notable instance, he clashed with Cathy Newman in a Channel 4 interview and came out all the more triumphant and heroic to his base by holding his own against an onslaught of accusations as to what his intentions are (e.g. is he against equal pay for equal work?!?) In others, he’s been protested with blaring horns during speaking engagements on campuses (to the effect that his free speech is quite literally being drowned out). His appeal has magnified significantly as a result of these instances and given the impression to many that liberals really are as hysterical and outraged as conservatives believe.

On the other hand, we can then return to his base of support/fans. They’re aggressive and the message that open, calm debate is the best strategy for discourse seems lost on them. Just look at the YouTube searches related to him. The titles are unabashedly biased and intended to only promote what these people already believe; e.g. “Those 7 Times Jordan Peterson Went Beast Mode” and “Jordan Peterson  Destroys Transgender Professor”. These are not the kind of fans you want. As Lynskey has noted, their “intense adoration  can turn nasty. His more extreme supporters have abused, harrassed, and doxxed several of his critics”. (That is to publish their personal details online.)  Again, he’s not wholly responsible but we can’t ignore the fact that his platform lends him major influence. Some have even referred to him as the most popular Western intellectual in the world today.

Academics are credible sources of wisdom. At least, they’re perceived to be. The problem is that Peterson may have become too big for his shoes. Maybe he does have a lot to offer in clinical psychology and helping young men take responsibility for their lives but now, his inferences have shaped new, highly impressionable ideologies that people are grappling with in quite a messy manner. I admit I find it difficult to distinguish between admiration and skepticism in his case. He’s an engaging and forthright speaker but for every seemingly sensible theory/notion he brings up (I always enjoy a bit of PC bashing), there’s a rocky generalization or embarrassing climate skeptic posturing.

Initially, I wanted to write purely on the dangerous aspects and repercussion of his espousing but a) Lynskey’s article does that both eloquently and in great depth and b) I don’t want to contribute to the idea that he’s just good or bad. He’s a complicated figure and his ideas have opened and added to our dialogue on a number of key issues governing the divide between left and right.

Some Thoughts On Political Correctness

Recently, I watched a Munk debate on the motion, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…”. On the pro-side, Michael Dyson and Michelle Goldberg argued for the necessary protection of targeted groups, who have been mistreated on the basis of identity, particularly in the case of African Americans. On the con-side, Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson pointed out the indemnifying effects this cultural swing has had on free speech, thought, and the Enlightenment. The con-side won by 70% but the issue, which I had once seen as frustratingly stupid and obvious, was actually complicated for me.

As it stands, I still think PC culture is annoying and potentially dangerous in certain cases. Beforehand however, I had never really considered the pro-based arguments one might employ. I would like to discuss some thoughts on that part first. For while it may seem the “PC Police” conglomerate are out to make sure we never speak our mind, there is an inherent need in society to check those who would vilify certain groups with hate speech or false propaganda. Terrible things can occur as a result of blatant bigotry, like the Holocaust. Plus, on a subconscious level, images can be drawn of racial, religious, and cultural groups that become highly influential.

Certain conservative commentators spring to mind in this thread, like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh. It’s fair to have an opinion; even one that diametrically opposes yours. Is it fair to exert that however, when you sprinkle misinformation throughout your diatribes and have a expansive market for your voice? Here’s where things become foggy. Hate speech should be discouraged, challenged, and forcefully opposed, yes. To oppress and shut it down however only ever serves to create a greater furor. It emboldens the ridiculous too.

For example, Katie Hopkins. You ever heard of this banshee? She believes you can judge kids’s characters on their given names, and other such things. She came to prominence in some season of The Apprentice and has somehow managed to leach off public outrage in the UK since for her wild assertions. When she spoke at Brunel University in 2015, students organised a “silent protest” by walking out. Theirs was a view based on the idea of opposing controversial views and terrible guest speakers. Why even give these people a platform to speak? While I can wholeheartedly agree that was a dumb miscalculation on the university’s part, it only served to highlight the weakness of what some might call the “Regressive Left.” There’s a great deal more satisfaction to be gained in taking one’s controversial views down on the debate platform than there is in ignoring them. So when Hopkins later asserted that the students were “close minded”, she actually had some ground on which to stand. As Professor Richard Dawkins has argued, if you can’t have honest debate and face new ideas in a university setting, where can you? If those ideas are awful, take them down.

Of course, this kind of treatment hasn’t just been reserved for D-list celebrities. Walkouts and protests have been arranged for scholars, politicians, authors, and comedians as well. One of the most depressing examples was in 2014, when former Secretary of Condoleeza Rice pulled out of giving a speech at Rutgers University, over protests surrounding the Bush Administration’s involvement in Iraq. I’m not going to argue it was a worthy war or that she was an excellent Secretary of State but she is an important political and historical figure and such figures, should be heard, regardless of your opinion. Again, it’s much more satisfying to challenge these people in person. It also demonstrates that you can articulate in an intellectual manner just why these people are wrong.

To return to the pro-side of the aforementioned debate, I’d like to refer to Michael Dyson’s argument, which he based on the idea of White Privilege. I believe it is a harsh reality and it is fair, in a sense, to assert that White people have more to lose in a politically correct society than others do, who lack that societal advantage. Perhaps, it is agonizing for some groups to hear their very real concerns and fears being brushed of with assertions of overt-sensitivity. After all, White people, like me, have not had to deal with everyday racism or bigotry. Ours is an entirely different experience. It’s beyond our sphere of comprehension, for the most part.

Political correctness and racism/bigotry may correlate but that does not necessarily mean it is an adequate or sensible means of curing society’s ills. It’s actually a rather lazy means by which to tackle those doing the damage because a) again, when you try to silence them you only really embolden them and their base and b) it pushes us on the path to a different kind of oppression- an Orwellian kind in which group think (and to a degree, thoughtspeak) replace the freedom of individual expression and wide margin needed for intellectual debate. The reality is people say the wrong thing sometimes or express opinions indelicately. That is no means for justifying racism or sexism or homophobia (pay heed Trump supporters) but rather, a reminder that we learn best when we expose ourselves to all sorts of ideas and debate them openly. In the end, good ideas are good and bad ideas are bad, irrespective of identity.