It is nearly beyond dispute that the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride were liberal projects, both in the broad philosophical sense and in the narrower meaning that arises within contemporary politics. Nevertheless, it is common for those of us who consider ourselves liberal in either sense, or both, to be told we must disapprove of these great liberal successes. This occurs when we criticize identity politics.
This peculiar criticism follows an insistence that these civil rights movements must be a form of identity politics because they advocated very explicitly for a certain identity group. No. This is never what liberal critics of “identity politics” mean by the term. It is fully consistent with—indeed, integral to—universal liberalism to advocate for universal human rights, freedoms, and opportunities by focusing on the identity groups who lack them. This advocacy, however, is not identity politics.
This is not a mere semantic quibble. It is vital to distinguish between universal liberalism and identity politics and recognize what they share in common alongside how they differ. Both see and oppose inequality and seek to remedy it, but they do so with very different conceptions of society and use different approaches. These differences matter. Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide. Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity.
It is essential to understand that “liberal” does not indicate a place on the left of the political spectrum, as it is often used in the United States. Neither does it indicate a place on the right of the political spectrum, as it is often used in Australia. Rather, it is a philosophical and ethical position with a long history which focuses on individuality, liberty, and equal opportunity. In fact, it is found in decidedly left-wing political positions, decidedly right-wing ones, libertarian ones, and among the unaffiliated but broadly centrist. Therefore, universal liberalism is a widely held principle, and it is one which grew out of Enlightenment thought and the founding of secular, liberal democracies. As such, it birthed the civil rights movements.
The Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride functioned explicitly on these values of universal human rights and did so to forward the worth of the individual regardless of status of race, gender, sex, sexuality, or other markers of identity. They proceeded by appealing directly to universal human rights applying universally. They demanded that people of color, women, and sexual minorities no longer be discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. They insisted that within a liberal society that makes good on its promises to its citizens, everyone should be given the full range of rights, freedoms, and opportunities.
Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated this ethos of individuality and shared humanity explicitly when he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Liberal feminists did so when they sought to have access to the same careers as men, the same pay for identical work, the same right to obtain mortgages, overdrafts and loans in their own names, and the same freedom to be responsible for their own debts just like male adults. Gay Pride demanded that gay men have the same right to a consensual adult sex life as heterosexuals and argued that their relationships and those of lesbians and bisexuals should be recognized as equally valid and important as those of heterosexual couples. As the name indicates, Gay Pride was and is not only about legal equality but about recognizing sexual minorities as human beings who are not disordered or depraved but perfectly normal, healthy, and moral individuals of equal worth who deserve the same dignity as every human being—as determined by their character. This social element of the Civil Rights Movement is consistent with anti-racist and women’s rights activists also demanding to be recognized as full human beings and individuals with as much to offer society as white men.
These movements succeeded, but not because of a tiny minority of activists, even those as inspirational as Martin Luther King. They succeeded because they appealed to a universal liberal spirit through which liberal democracies proudly defined themselves, but which had not been extended to all their citizens. The civil rights movements explicitly called upon nations (and their institutions) to uphold the promise of precisely this ethos; an ethos that had been steadily growing (despite setbacks) since Renaissance humanism, was developed further during the Enlightenment, found explicit voice in philosophers from Mary Wollstonecraft to John Stuart Mill, was featured front, center, and central in the U.S. Constitution, and was perfectly primed to take a huge leap forward following the end of the World Wars, the collapse of Empire, and the end of Jim Crow.
This is not identity politics.
Identity politics is a very different approach than universal liberalism and, in its Social Justice form, it stems from an intellectual shift in leftist academia. In the late 1960s through to the mid-eighties, a number of leftist intellectuals from various disciplines became disillusioned with Marxism and theorized a radically different way of seeing society. This was a time during which Western societies were making huge leaps forward in tackling legal inequalities by decriminalizing male homosexuality and making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race or sex, either in access to jobs or in payment for them. It was also a time in which great advances in science were made, including those which gave women control over reproduction. Ironically, at this very time, this group of disillusioned leftist intellectuals decided it was time to give up on the myth of progress and the validity of science. This was postmodernism, and it would trade upon the good name of the civil rights movements to advocate its own approach to breaking down hegemonic forces in society and thus disrupting the problems those cause. (If you do not know how it is relevant here, it would be useful for you to read this and this before continuing.)
This new way of thinking was rooted in social constructivism, the idea that knowledge is not found but made by humans in the form of discourse – ways of talking about things. Knowledge is constructed, the theory goes, in the service of power and therefore perpetuates inequality. Under this approach, all dominant metanarratives – big, overarching explanations of how we are to understand the world – must be dismantled, including science and reason. Thus, the concept of objective knowledge, which is accessible to all, is denied because it is impossible to separate from subjectivity and personal perspective. Consequently, the knowledge society had was understood to be that of straight, white, heterosexual men and excludes knowledge that can be obtained only by inquirers who are not that.
While the original postmodernists were fairly aimless, and their ideas were not very user-friendly, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s a second wave of “theorists” significantly adapted these postmodern ideas and made them politically actionable—and they kept trading on the good names of the civil rights movements to do it. Postcolonial theorists, intersectional feminist theorists, critical race theorists, and queer theorists largely took on the concept of social constructivism but rejected its radical anti-realism. They argued that nothing could be addressed unless it was accepted that identity groups existed, constructed as they were, and that power clustered around some of them while being denied to others. That is, for these applied postmodernists, objectivity may remain impossible, but identity and oppression based upon it are objectively real.
They identified that these power dynamics arose largely on the level of discourse. Consequently, for true equality to exist, the knowledge of women and racial and sexual minorities, which are understood to be different and products of lived experience, should be foregrounded. Identity politics were born, and they claimed to be the true inheritors of the liberal civil rights project even as they abandoned both the epistemology and ethics that define liberalism both in theory and practice.
To take one very explicit example of this conceptual shift, consider the foundational essay of intersectionality, “a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory,” written by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was also instrumental in critical race theory. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Crenshaw takes issue with the approach of what she called “mainstream liberalism” (what we have been calling “universal liberalism”), which attempted to remove social significance from identity categories to overcome barriers preventing women and people of color and sexual minorities from accessing all that society had to offer. [We can understand “removing social significance from” in a social sense as the position that there should not be expectations or limitations on someone because of their identity. It aims to overcome expectations such as that “My doctor will be a man and my nurse will be a woman. My lawyer will be white, and my gardener will be Mexican.” That does not aim to remove the identity, but expectations associated with it (even if people continue to choose differently because of differences in interests between the sexes or cultural factors which are not imposed by white, patriarchal expectations such as people of Indian origin being overrepresented in medicine in the West).] Crenshaw correctly described mainstream liberalism as attempting to continue breaking down barriers that reinforce assumptions about racial and gendered roles. She also observed that this was antithetical to identity politics, which she favored:
[For]African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others…identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development. The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination—that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.
Crenshaw explicitly rejected universality, at least in the political context in which she wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race theorists have continued to do so. She wrote:
We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concommitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.
Within this framework, far from becoming irrelevant socially, gender and race are the sites of political activism.
The Problem With Identity Politics
The problems with the identity politics approach are:
- Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
- Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
- Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.
By relying so heavily on social constructivist perceptions of society—which sees it in terms of hierarchies of power perpetuated in discourse and on lived experience—as an authoritative form of identity-based knowledge that cannot be disagreed with by anyone outside that group, identity politics feeds, legitimates, and builds upon itself. Because it starts with the assumption that a power imbalance characterizes any interaction between people seen as having a privileged identity and people seen as having a marginalized identity and assumes that this can be shown by interpreting the language of the privileged through this lens and regarding the perception of the marginalized as authoritative, it is prone to highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias.
Biased readings of interactions by people who see society in this way usually look like a distinct lack of charity. If a man explains anything to a woman or offers factual information, he can be accused of “mansplaining,” which is when a man is assumed to have done so because he believes women to be generally ignorant. However, there is much evidence that men speak in exchanges of information much more frequently than women and to both sexes, and the accusation is frequently made when it was quite reasonable for him to have supplied information he had. Similarly, someone complimenting a black speaker on her eloquence could be accused of being surprised that black people can be eloquent even if her meaning was straightforwardly admiring and even envious. This is because intention does not matter nearly as much as impact from the perspective of identity politics, and the experience of the marginalized person is considered authoritative. Of course, most women do not object to men being informative, and most black people are quite happy to be complimented by white people. Nevertheless, this attitude is pervasive within identity politics and has considerable influence.
The reverse of this is the oft-heard argument that “reverse racism/sexism does not exist,” which means that people of color cannot be racist to whites or women sexist to men even if they are explicitly derogatory about their race or sex. Within the cultural logic of identity politics, this follows because racism and sexism can only flow downhill along gradients of systemic power. For a person of color to be racist against whites or woman to be sexist against men, there would need to be a power balance which favors people of color and women. The problems with this kind of rationale are not only that it sets different identity groups in opposition to each other, makes communication difficult, and creates a moral economy that locates social power (immunity from legitimate accusations of bigotry) in perceptions of victimhood or oppression. It also reduces the ability to be able to genuinely empathize across identities if we are understood to have entirely different experiences, knowledges, and rules.
It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.
This is no true justice, however, as the people being targeted are different than the people who historically oppressed people of color and women. This instinct is almost certainly also natural to us, as “the sins of the fathers” has a very long history. It is one best left behind, and it certainly has no place in a liberal democracy. If most people are now working on an understanding of fairness, equality, and reciprocity as individual, this mentality can be incomprehensible and alienating.
It is in this way that identity politics is the most counterproductive and even dangerous. We humans are tribal and territorial creatures, and identity politics comes far more naturally to us than universality and individuality. Our history bears the evidence of humans unapologetically favoring their own tribe, own town, own religion, own nation, and own race over others and creating narratives after the impulse to attempt to justify doing it.
The universal human rights and principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality—which have developed over the modern period and resulted in the civil rights movements, legal equality, and much social progress—are much more uncommon to us and must be consistently reinforced and maintained. If we allow identity politics in the form of Social Justice to undermine this fragile and precarious detente, we could undo decades of social progress and provide a rationale for a resurgence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given the novelty of egalitarian society, it is not at all clear that women and racial and sexual minorities could easily win these losses back.
What should we do?
There is a need for liberals of all kinds to push back against the identity politics approach. If we really value principles of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, we must value them consistently. If we want to continue the work of the civil rights movements, we must recognize that identity politics are not doing that, are not working, and may even be undermining the good they achieved. And we must recognize that this originates with and is aided and abetted by Social Justice scholarship, rooted in postmodernism, and diversified into many forms of grievance studies.
We need to call for a more rigorous approach to social justice issues. This should be one which does not rely on a belief in a society dominated by systems of power and privilege perpetuated in discourse, utilizes highly ideologically motivated confirmation bias as an interpretive technique, or regards lived experience interpreted in this way to be authoritative.
Those of us who think it is clear that society functions best when we recognize the shared humanity and individuality of people of all identities and seek to ensure that no identity bars anyone from accessing every right, freedom, and opportunity—that is, liberals—should stand up for these values and recognize that they, and not the identity politicians, are continuing the good work of the civil rights movements.
Society simply works much better when different segments of it are able to empathize with each other, recognize how much they have in common, and form their relationships, personal and intellectual, with others based on their individual traits, interests, and shared goals. There is very little reason to assume that the people who will understand you best and share your interests and goals will have the same skin color, the same genitalia or gender identity, or the same sexuality. People of all races, genders, and sexualities are intellectually and ideologically diverse. Those who speak authoritatively of “women’s experiences” or ask one to “listen to people of color/trans people” are attempting to constrain individuals from those groups to one specific ideology and conception of society. This is not acceptable, and it certainly isn’t liberal.
Universality does not require assuming that racism, sexism, or homophobia does not exist. Neither does it assume that there is no work left to do to oppose these problems and defend vulnerable racial or religious minorities, protect women’s reproductive freedom, and hold on to LGBT rights. When the need to do all of those things is presented in terms of universal human rights and fairness, it will find much more support than when it is presented in terms of incomprehensible theory, irrationalism, biased interpretations of interactions, cruel irony, demands for reparative justice, and abandonment of the principle of non-discrimination against people by identity markers.
That is how the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave liberal feminism, and Gay Pride worked and inspired societies that valued universal human rights and equality of opportunity to support the speedy advance of social progress. They were not a form of identity politics and identity politics does not continue their work. Don’t let them convince you they do.