The Evolutionary Roots of Identity Politics

“We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping…”

— James Douglas Morrison

It seems these days whether you are an Islamist in Dhaka, an Antifa extremist in Boston, a white nationalist in Charlottesville, a Buddhist extremist in Sri Lanka, or just about anything else, you likely think that your views, culture, clan, nation, or ethnicity is under attack and is in danger of somehow being relegated to the dustbin of evolutionary history. At the rate identity politics is fueling peoples’ sense of being threatened, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Flat Earther extremists coming out of the woodworks soon.

Human morals have helped societies progress the way they have, and consequently, “looking out for the little guy” has, for the most part, come to be construed as a virtue. However, virtue crosses over into vice when an increasingly large number of groups believe that it is not other groups, but they themselves who are the “true” little guys deserving of special treatment. As it is known, through the lens of various academic theories which fall under postmodernism or post-structuralism, the metric of truth in these groups’ narratives becomes assessed based on power hierarchies where a victimhood narrative is formulated to gauge whether a claim is true or not. In this game of “Victimhood Olympics,” if a group claims a truth but is viewed by other groups to not be properly victimized “enough” to be entitled to that truth, then their truth is deemed to be false.

However, to those who are feeling the perceived sense of victimization, being told that their narrative is wrong or exaggerated almost invariably elicits a negative response. This is most pronounced when expectations go unfulfilled and violence is used as an alternative to appropriate that which is believed to be deserved. In other words, sensing a dissonant message can have a range of reactions and its most extreme form is violence.

With this epistemological world view, one can easily see why so many individuals from otherwise disparate groups are going around practically looking for insults. After all, if you have reason to believe that your group and what it represents is under attack then using violence to defend one’s self, the narrative, and/or the symbols associated with it becomes justifiable.

As many, including myself, have pointed out, identity politics seems to be the culprit here. Despite this however, there is an uncanny sense of irony here worth mentioning: when a group narrative against identity politics is developed one must, by definition, develop a group narrative, and hence an identity.

To be clear, I think postmodernism has no shortage in its misunderstandings, so speaking out against it is a good idea. But even if the ideas being offered as refutations are better ones, by virtue of the fact that another group is formed to offer refutations, cognitive biases may still likely exist (i.e. intergroup dynamics). Therefore, blindly vilifying everything that every postmodernist or post-structuralist has ever written under one homogenized polemic while retreating into one’s own group narrative is still playing into the very thing that is being criticized. Meaning, whenever you say there is a Them, you are, by definition, saying there is an Us — and when this happens cognitive biases predictably surface.

But where did identity politics come from? Ideologically, it seems to be heavily rooted in postmodernism and critical race theory. As true as this is and despite myself having written several articles critiquing PoMo in defense of evolutionary psychology, I believe there is an overlap and understanding it might help us navigate through some of the civil turmoil that we’ve been seeing lately.

As non-scientific and non-rational as some cultural and religious beliefs are, they offer psychological support to individuals (and hence to groups). Cultural narratives boost self esteem in the form of preventing people from thinking about that which they would rather not think about all too clearly: death. Icons, statues, holy symbols, clothing, national identity, views on sexual mores, attitudes about science, etc. come to signify not just the things themselves but rather a sense of “immortality.” And when these are threatened, people act as if they themselves are being threatened. In a sense, cultural narratives, whether true or not, mitigate death anxiety and can serve a useful function.

An obvious fact: social and cultural groups have their own beliefs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) says a delusion is a belief with no evidence to support it. However, the psychiatric community is careful (some would say too careful), and have added a cultural/religious exemption clause to this. Essentially, if you believe that Elvis Presley rode to heaven on a winged ass you are delusional, but if you believe Mohammed did, then you are healthy. Statues of Confederate leaders who defended slavery nevertheless symbolize heritage and tradition to many people. Eating crackers believed to be the body of a first century Jewish carpenter on Sunday mornings in order to achieve immortality is another cultural narrative. The need to be audited to help body thetans restore free will is yet another. But why does much of the professional community regard these rather questionable things to be immune from critique and mockery? How did this come about? Why is it noble to unquestionably regard a group’s views (no matter how absurd they may be) as respectable? How did so much of this identity nonsense come to be given a pass? So far, it seems that the answer is connected to postmodern and post-structuralist theories, but I think it goes deeper than this and may in fact be connected to our biology.

Beliefs about the world not only provide psychological buffers from the dread of death, they also provide physiological support.

While we often hear (rightfully) that ideas are not people, people behave as if they are. It has repeatedly been shown in different populations, contexts, and cultures that when mortality salience is triggered (i.e. a perceived or real threat is made to one’s cultural views or beliefs), individuals will predictably endorse the use of violence to protect the self. Psychologists call this Terror Management Theory. It’s as if images, icons, and words have come to represent the notion of one’s group being promulgated into the future. Symbols become a surrogate for immortality and come to offer psychological protection. If you attack the idea, the person feels threatened.

But why? It’s just an idea, right?

Well, sort of. But what is an idea other than a manifestation of a highly complex arrangement of atoms in your brain? There is physiological evidence showing that group ostracism (regardless of the ideas that the group possesses) causes a physiological stress response similar to physical pain. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense: although today, being rejected from a social group may lead to a case of the blues, to ancestral humans, being outcasted by the group could mean a loss of resources, mates, status, and to ultimately starving to death alone or being eaten by predators on the savannah.

Additionally, there is ample evidence showing that simply hearing dissonant messages can trigger a significant stress response. Contrary to what has been traditionally thought, this has less to do with one’s personal knowledge and more to do with group affiliation. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes perfect sense as well. If one were to assimilate a message that was dissonant to the narrative of one’s in-group, one could face social ostracism which could signify death. Simply put, this is why groups and individuals react violently when they perceive their ideas to be under attack and why simply giving them “the correct” information does next to nothing.

Populism. Nationalism. Islamism. Left-wing and right-wing extremism. Why do we see the rise of so many huddled masses engaging in violence? Various groups of people have come together in the last 200 years at a rate that has not been seen at any other point in human evolution. Humans that have been separated by oceans and mountains for thousands of years are now suddenly pressing up against one another. We know that simply seeing the face of a person from a different ethnic group can trigger a stress response — and so can their ideas. Given these facts, recent events should make a lot more sense. Why the rise of identity politics? Because nobody wants their group to be relegated to the dustbin of evolutionary history.

Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.
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Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.

4 thoughts on “The Evolutionary Roots of Identity Politics

  1. identity politics provides a commom ground to the extreme left (defense of the poor guy) and the right (protection of “western” values). the perfect storm might be brewing

  2. But why does much of the professional community regard these rather questionable things to be immune from critique and mockery? How did this come about?

    The reason religions get a pass is that it is not delusional to believe in things where you have been mislead.

    There’s a difference between believing in sky pixies because those are the beliefs held by your community, and believing that you are Jesus.

    If ‘delusion’ is extended to any belief that turns out to be false then everyone is deluded and the term ceases to be useful.

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