Identity Politics Does Not Continue the Work of the Civil Rights Movements

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.

Universal Liberalism

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

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.

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  1. They based their understanding of the Civil Rights movement on “I have a dream”. That alone shows they know nothing of MLK or it.
    ANYONE who bases their understanding of MLK on one line from one speech and hasn’t even bothered to read or try to comprehend everything ELSE he said is not to be trusted.
    Like “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” doesn’t exist.

  2. I love it. It might be easier to say that it is a zero sum assumption combined with an assumption about data outcomes or likely outcomes by various strata associated with race, class, ethnicity etc? Identity politics or the outcome of a non-empirical analysis of the working class and their various strata descriptors of race, class, ethnicity, gender etc is sort of based on the assumption that for some people to gain- others must lose so that those who have gained are necessarily oppressing those who have lost, that combined with the assumption that economic opportunity and access to human rights and economic justice is always going to be the same for various members of our societies based on history and their class, gender, race etc.

    So outside of economics which is telling a story of an entire society that is being put in to legalized debt peonage which is capturing all wages, which are stagnate, and a finance class that is screwing itself over by doing this, the narratives or language of civil rights and feminism can sound empty and unjust.

    And to some extent it has been the agenda of neoliberal corporate political interests to co-opt movements on the left and use the language of economic justice and equal opportunity and change it just a bit or just enough to make it sound unjust to make it sound forceful and unfair. So for example they turn “equal opportunity for all” in to “equality of outcomes” on the neoliberal right. Which are very very different things. And on the neoliberal left they automatically assume that white men have it better in the work place and school without considering the most recent data which shows a very different set of outcomes for men and women in the US to the detriment of both groups vs the rest of the contemporary western world where there is no significant gap in science and maths education between men and women, and where there is no significant gap between GPAs between men and women, and where women make roughly the same and all make more vs cost of living and all have universal healthcare and education up through college all funded as a means of monetary stimulus.

    And to some extent this problem of the zero sum assumption has a lot to do with how our money is made or created. When we create a dollar and a treasury bond the government is essentially building in to the monetary model and the economy a reliance on an investor class who invests in to bonds which are owned mostly by the rich and which, contrary to popular opinion are mostly domestically owned according to professor of economics Mark Blyth.

    So all money is framed as that which is either owed to or owned by the rich. PhD and professor of Economics Stephanie Kelton talks a lot about how this is unnecessary even though to some extent this original monetary policy design of debt based money is not fundamentally flawed as long as it is NOT matched with Austerity (see mark blyth on austerity) on social programs or middle out monetary stimulus.

    If it is matched with austerity on social programs that invest in to the real economy on mainstreet then the money system creates a massive debt crisis and a government propped up lending class that are invested in a extremely vicious cycle of net extraction and increasing instability and debt which must be pushed on to other foreign borrowers/lenders which will all inevitably crash, but which doesn’t really have to crash to the degree that it does for us to have profiteering and or capitalism. Indeed according to Stephanie Kelton and others we could just create some portion of money every year as sovereign money or nondebt based money for spending associated with monetary stimulus into the working class. Hence the green party’s push for a green new deal or any government spending that creates a viable public sector for the working class.

    So the zero sum is what debt based money is to some extent if not in fact a bit of a negative sum built in but with inflation built in to match it…. Anyways some of the context of this though is that our society does build infrastructure which is nearly priceless or at least worth far more than the money that is invested. But at the same time we also waste a ton of money at the pentagon and other government spending that is lost in waste and fraud….But I would always argue that what is built can be priceless and a net virtuous cycle of net investment which pays back across generations for pensions and solvency of investments.

    Michael Hudson recently wrote a book about the history of debt based money and how ancient societies used the taking on of public debt (the palace would pay off debts), the forgiveness of private debts and paying off of the lenders as a way to create a blank slate in the economy or a new start. In modern society we have done half of that- we had a jubilee for the bankers in 2008 and on and forgave their debts with 12.3 trillion in Quantitative easing and negative interest loans the end of effect of which was a bailout for the lending class only, while the American consumer and middle class and majority were not given a jubilee at all in effect.

    But this then creates a finance economy that is just a house of cards or dependent upon war and economic war to survive rather than actual viable capitalism and wage based consumerism and investment in the people. So what I am trying to argue is that identity politics is a symptom of the economic problems and it mirrors a bad monetary design which would have everybody fighting over a shrinking pie in the real economy (the bottom 95% see losses) and a slightly growing pie in the top 5% (who are the only earners who have seen gains) and a ridiculously exponentially growing pie in the top .1% some significant portion of which is hidden dark money.

  3. I’m not a scholar. Thus I’m curious about who initiated the term “identity politics”, my smarter companion Wikipedia might have an answer to that. I don’t know much, hence I also wonder if the politics by Donald Trump, bolsanero, brexit, Victor orban, marine le pen, NVA(belgian-flemish nationalists), geert wilders, German extreme right party… I wonder if they’re also labelled as identity politics, because the author of this piece sure doesn’t refer to them when talking about the recrudescence of racism. I don’t know alot, I was born in a country in Africa called Congo. If my memory is right we lived as savages according to the writings of Stanley and therefore needed to be civilised by western colonizers. I don’t know much, thus I might be wrong when I say that colonization was an extreme form of oppression dividing people. Separating the oppressed from the oppressors in a system of abusive domination. I must be retarded to believe that the recent history of the 20th century has an impact on the condition of how the majority of descendants of people from former colonies live in the West. Dear author, I’d like to invite you to some of the multicultural neighbourhoods of Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg…maybe you might be right and these ghetto children are indeed retarded individuals, because most of them don’t really succeed in life. or maybe the power structures, the system, education, structural racism and how society was organised might have worked at their disadvantage…needless to say I really enjoyed reading your peace.

  4. Late to show, but this is an excellent piece. The one thing it only touches on lightly is the idea of identity itself. Amartya Sen has written & lectured widely on the subject. There’s a series of 6 lectures on You Tube on various aspects of identitythat are well worth anyone’s time.
    Sen is also superb on defending universal values, particularly in drawing on non western historical evidence which is particularly powerful in the face of the ‘universal vale’s is just another name for western hegemony’ argument.

  5. I suppose Dr. King would now be reformulated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin”

  6. Just to reiterate and summarize, for those downvoting the truth, the facts and reality, solely because they don’t like it:

    1. The United States is the source, and primary proponent and example, of every modern political assertion about human rights and liberal democracy.

    2. The “Enlightenment” thinkers that the modern left, modern atheists, or people like Steve Pinker and some libertarians venerate, and try give all of the credit for modern liberal democracy, existed and had been writing and speaking for some time before the US was founded. The founders of the US were very familiar with all of those ideas. They were also students of history, and pragmatic realists. Thus, they embraced some of those “Enlightenment” ideas, and rejected others. Jefferson, for example, once called Hume a “degenerate son of science”.

    3. The founders of the US stated – repeatedly, explicitly and at great length – the rationale for their “experiment” in democracy, which had not been attempted since the failures of Greece and Rome. What they stated (I posted multiple quotes below, some of the most famous out of many) is that the source of their principles was Christianity, and that Christianity in the society at large was essential for the survival of the system of liberal democracy and representative republicanism they had created. From the top down, and the bottom up, Christianity was at the core of the entire system – both its philosophical assertions, and its practical survival.

    4. Modern atheists and secularists are attempting to rewrite history, to give themselves credit for the US, liberal democracy, and many other things they cannot legitimately claim credit for. The abolitionist movement was led, and justified, by evangelical Christians. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Southern Baptist preacher. The founders themselves, recognizing that slavery (which had existed in the colonies for almost 160 years before the Declaration of Independence) was incompatible with the principles of the new country they were founding, knew that it would have to be reckoned with, and feared for the outcome.

    5. As George Washington said in his farewell address, people who attack Christianity and promote atheism are not patriots or friends of the ideas and liberal democratic political system of the United States, as they are attacking the very fabric and foundation of the society. Not that they should not be allowed to speak their peace, but that they should not be allowed to win the day. Modern “progressives” like the “New Atheists” are not promoting anything new. They’re taking another run at ideas that have been discredited (in mass death through WWII and communism), which have been around for centuries, and which the founders of the US explicitly rejected.

    7. Present day “Enlightenment” fetishists cannot claim credit for the United States, or for liberal democracy or liberalism in general. They can more credibly claim credit for the French Revolution, and the contrast between the two illustrates where “Enlightenment” extremism goes wrong, and why the US went a different route. They conveniently ignore the importance of the Protestant Reformation that preceded “the Enlightenment”, and the role it (and the printing press) played in the eventual democratization of Western Civilization. Modern liberal democracy, and the United States, in very concrete terms, are as much the product of Protestantism as they are a product of “the Enlightenment”.

    In summary, the US was and is a product of all of the things that were happening at the time it was founded. Technology had led to the wide dissemination of information, which created a push towards the democratization of many institutions, starting with Christianity. As Jefferson so often emphasized, the core idea was “free minds”. That people would be allowed to think, speak and argue for themselves, without government attempts to control ideas. The fact that average people were reading the Bible for themselves in larger numbers than was once possible, is a core element of it all. Some concluded that the Catholic Church, and other established churches, had gone wrong and needed reform. Some used it as an excuse to try to reject and eliminate Christianity altogether. Again – The American vs. French Revolution.

    So now we have the internet, which is a modern version of the printing press. But it also contains the potential of George Orwell’s “1984”. And the question is, which way will it go? Towards greater empowerment of the founding ideals of the US (and greater liberalism, properly, classically understood), or towards surveillance and thought control? We know which path the “SJW”, identitarian left wants to take. But it will not be defeated if its opponents side with the atheist rejection of religious liberty, and the ahistorical idea that the US is founded upon atheism rather than Christianity.

  7. Imho second wave feminism, far from being a liberal project, started all this incredible misery. Women’s emancipation turned into feminism including misandry and heterophobia somewhere between ’75 en ’80.

  8. “Universal liberalism” would not exist, and cannot continue to exist, without Christianity. Its existence is a luxury provided by the foundation of a Christian society. A failure to recognize and accept that reality (which the founders of the US, and Martin Luther King, Jr., understood clearly) dooms the goals of this article, with which I generally agree, to failure.

    The “LGBT movement” to which the article refers repeatedly, if constrained to liberalism (properly understood), would have stopped at the abolition of sodomy laws. Anthony Kennedy, and the rest of the justices who voted with him, did violence to the law and society by inventing and imposing a constitutional right where none existed, in ways that go far beyond the specific issue. It set the government against the source of its own principles. It created a legal paradox that strikes directly at the heart of the First Amendment (and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against people of faith). It set in motion a cascading series of disasters that have only begun to play out, but are inevitable unless the Court corrects itself by strongly and unequivocally defending religious liberty. That is the danger of activist courts. When they contradict the voters and cut them out of the loop, there is no recourse beyond the monumental task of constitutional amendment.

    In short, the very concept of “human rights” as understood in the West comes directly from the New Testament. And it is by appealing to both the Constitution and the Bible that the legitimate Civil Rights movement of MLK won assent from the majority, and thereby legislation, not court rulings. The failure or refusal of this article to acknowledge the centrality of religious liberty, and Christianity in particular, is a fatal flaw.

    Again, I suggest a clear-headed reading of the Founders of the US, and an examination of the contrasts between the American Revolution and the French Revolution (which was a core element of US history education in high school at least until recently). And a clear understanding of Christianity and the Bible. If the goal is to defend and continue “universal liberalism”, you cannot do it without those things.

    1. “Universal liberalism” exists in spite of christianity, not because of it.

      Actually having a deeper understanding of biblical principals, such as god’s one chose race (racial superiority), pro-slavery, pro-subjugation of women, and the superiority of men, etc, instead of a surface, sunday school reading of it would prove this to you.

      If it were not for the new liberal reinterpretation of the new testament and cafeteria treatment of the old testament instead of locking them into a fundamentalist dogma you would not have the society we have today. We should be more grateful that the founders of this country were deists and knew the evils of religion, especially fundamentalism and kept it out of our system of secular government. It is under this secular system that the theists are protected in their faith, but not from being bigots and discriminating against others in that society.

      Allowing theological bigotry against gay people, women, or people of color etc, would tear the concept of human rights to shreds, as anyone could claim legal bigotry as long as it was a ‘strongly held religious belief’. But who decides what that actually means, if the person is deluded or lying? Should I be able to read the bible, and decide that it was my strongly held religious belief, quoting scripture in the process, that I should be able to own slaves or beat my children to death for disrespecting me?

      Stopping you from discriminating is not violence to you or the law, it is upholding the spirit of the law for the good of the nation. You can believe whatever you want, you just can’t discrimination against people outside of the thoughts in your head.

      I would no more like to live in a fundamentalist christian nation than I would one of any other faith, be it islamic, buddhist, or hindu.

      We can, do, and will have “Universal liberalism” without christianity or any religion what so ever, as the Founders intended.

      1. Your statements are dishonest and factually inaccurate. You count on people reading them who don’t know any better. I’m not one of them. I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end multiple times. I’ve read the founders of the US in their own words.

        I will not go to the trouble of correcting you, because I know you know the truth, and are deliberately lying. That is the fundamental flaw of radical leftist dogma, and postmodern social constructivism. You actually think you can rewrite history and impose your own invented reality, because there is no such thing as reality, only “narratives” used for games of power.

        If you have to be dishonest to get your way, you haven’t actually gotten your way. But you can cause massive damage. Because imposing a lie on reality requires suppression of individual liberty, by force. And that force must be escalated over and over. That is why communism requires mass murder and surveillance of thought.

        The things you said are not true, and you know they’re not true, and you know that I know they’re not true. Which is why the left begins with calling everyone a Nazi, and ends with mass murder, reeducation and gulags. When you depend on lies, that is your only way to maintain power.

        1. “because I know you know the truth, and are deliberately lying”

          There is no way that can possibly know this from what is written here.

          Even if you are right and the previous poster is deliberately lying, you can not determine that from the post. It is also possible that you and the previous poster have a disagreement. Accusing someone of lying doesn’t further the discourse and doesn’t make you look at all reasonable to anyone reading this.

          I say this as someone utterly fed up with the illiberal left who would like to see a return to sane, rational discourse.

          1. Based on their statements regarding the Bible and the Founders of the US, it is clear to me that they know the truth, and are deliberately “spinning”, cherry-picking and taking things out of context to construct a “narrative” that achieves their power goals.

            It could be argued that they are merely parroting someone who has taught them that narrative, and they themselves are totally ignorant of its blatant, provably false, dishonest and ahistorical claims. But I strongly doubt that’s the case. They wouldn’t state it so firmly if they weren’t the ones trying to sell a story for their own benefit.

          2. I guess, in order to illustrate my point for any honest reader, I’ll go ahead and post some illustration. First, quotes from the Founders.

            Thomas Jefferson – himself not very devout – quotations inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial:

            “Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”

            “…the Holy Author of our religion…” Spin that one?

            “that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion…”

            These are quotes defending religious liberty and pluralism.

            John Adams:

            “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

            George Washington:

            “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

            It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

            From there, if you want, you can jump ahead to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, to FDR leading the nation in prayer on D-Day, or any president since who ends every address with “God Bless You, and God Bless the United States of America”. Or all of the oaths sworn by public officials and in court: “So help me God”.

            As for the Bible itself, the quotations and citations would prove even longer than the above, but shortly, the poster made these statements:

            “…such as god’s [sic] one chose [sic] race (racial superiority)…”

            This may indicate antisemitism on their part, but it is also utterly false. The Jewish people were not chosen because of their race, or because of their superiority, but rather because they were so small and insignificant that for them to survive and thrive is proof in itself of God’s hand. And the statement completely ignores Christianity and the New Testament, which are all about offering salvation to the whole world, regardless of race, sex or any other “identity” distinction. All of these things are stated emphatically and clearly in the Bible itself, and illustrated repeatedly by events in it.


            False. The most uncharitable reading you could give is that it tolerates the existence of slavery. But it is the teachings of the New Testament which provide the basis for the abolition of slavery. Which the Founders of the US, even slave owners themselves, knew and cited, along with the later abolitionist movement. From the beginning, they knew that slavery was incompatible with the principles they laid down, which they themselves invoked God as the source of.

            “pro-subjugation of women, and the superiority of men”

            A distortion, using a half-true smear. The idea that men should have leadership roles in marriage and the church while on Earth, with a corresponding responsibility to God for their behavior, is biblical. So is the statement that in God’s eyes, in the ultimate eternal sense, there is “neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek”, but that all are equal in the eyes of God. Which is where the idea stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the motive for the abolition of slavery and segregation came from.

            “If it were not for the new liberal reinterpretation of the new testament and cafeteria treatment of the old testament instead of locking them into a fundamentalist dogma you would not have the society we have today.”

            This is a complete misstatement of what modern Christians believe theologically, and of how they arrived at those beliefs. Every major denomination, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, holds the same official position on the authority of scripture, and with regard to the Christian view of the Old Testament. None of them involve “liberal reinterpretations” or “cafeteria treatment of the Old Testament”.

            “We should be more grateful that the founders of this country were deists and knew the evils of religion, especially fundamentalism and kept it out of our system of secular government.”

            The primary concern of the founders, and of the people they represented at that time, was the persecution of Christian groups – usually more conservative, “fundamentalist” groups – by established state churches. The concern was not to protect the government from religion, but to protect religion from government. There are numerous letters written by the founders to religious leaders of the time assuring them that the government would not seek to stamp them out or force them to violate their beliefs, which was their primary concern. The first quote I posted from Jefferson, echoed in the First Amendment, is not complicated. But the left uses deliberate obscurantism to try to evade its clear intent and meaning.

            “Allowing theological bigotry against gay people, women, or people of color etc, would tear the concept of human rights to shreds, as anyone could claim legal bigotry as long as it was a ‘strongly held religious belief’.”

            Most important here is the use of the words “theological” and “legal”. Since they used both, it cannot be a mistake. This person wants the government to *disallow theology* with which they disagree.

            To uproot the meaning of the word “marriage”, and the opinion held by almost every person who has ever lived, in every civilization, and to then immediately begin legal sanction against those who dissent, against the will of the people expressed shortly before in over 30 states (including California), is a mind-boggling act of tyranny that strikes at the core of not only the United States, but all of Western Civilization.

            The case of Brendan Eich is instructive, but less financially secure people will still have recourse under the Civil Rights Act if they are fired from their jobs for their religious views. It is then up to the courts to decide if they will exacerbate or correct their errors. To requote Jefferson:

            “…all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”

            Not just hold views, but profess them, without attempts to “influence [them] by temporal punishments or burthens”.

            The Constitution forbids government punishment of religious belief and expression, and the Civil Rights Act forbids private sector punishment of religious belief and expression. The left clearly, vocally and emphatically opposes both.

          3. Well said. Joe goes on to try to defend the assertion but the op could well have just read someone else’s comments and agreed with them. They (more likely) have just interpreted it differently than Joe. Joe can’t know that he’s lying whether or not he is. I have a pretty good knowledge of the Bible and US History at the time of the founders and I think he’s right on.

            It’s refreshing to see someone call out a bad argument focusing on the argument itself. Fist bump.

    2. Nonsense. For over 1500 years christendom was defined by monarchy, despotism, oligarchy and intellectual stasis. Progress towards democracy has been a constant battle against christianity. We have democracy in spite of christianity.

      1. Nonsense. Those forms of government existed long before Christianity, and it was the advancement of Christian principles through those societies over time that produced the rationale for self-government, human rights, equality under the law and individual sovereignty.

        Read my previous post for specific proofs. I suppose you think the Founders of the US should not be taken at their own word as to the source of their motivations?

          1. Their opinion about the centrality of religion (I.e. Christianity) to the survival of liberal democracy was clearly sincere, and agreed upon by almost all of them. They said it over and over.

            On a side note, the people voting on comments here are interesting. When you get overwhelmingly down downvoted for probable statements of fact, you know that the people doing so care more about their political agenda than truth. Which the article explains well.

            This is the catastrophic flaw of the modern left. It denies that there is any such thing as truth. This is the end game of atheism. Might makes right. And people have known that for hundreds of years. Nietzsche was at least honest about the consequences of atheism. People like Sam Harris, who argue that morality is possible without God, are con artists. And as you can see from my quotations, George Washington was already dealing with those kinds of people 250 years ago. “Progressives” at this point are regressives, hanging on to discredited ideas. And destroying society in the process.

          2. Bad autocorrect above. “Probable” was “provable”. Which I’ve already done.

            In any case, the left can only succeed by calling everyone a liar, poisoning the well, so that their own lies can be put on equal footing with the truth. Hence postmodernism, moral relativism, and the inevitable tribal warfare of identity politics power games described in the article. Repeating again what I said days ago. Because their agenda is based on lies and believes only in power (might makes right), they must continually escalate authoritarianism into totalitarianism and kill more and more people. That’s what you have to do to enforce a society built on lies. Only a society built on truth and honesty can be free.

    3. This is an interesting set of beliefs I’ve never encountered in quote this way before. One thing – most of the key founders were deists, a “religion” that is barely one, and which has very little in common with most forms of Christianity practiced in the US today. I have heard the claim by Christians many times that the country’s founding was based on Christian principles, or a similar sentiment, but the history backing this up never quite seems to materialize. Case in point here.

  9. Again, I continue to have a profound problem in seeing ‘social constructivism’ and identity politics conflated into the one thing. You might be on firmer ground if you were to bring critical realism into the analysis. But a consistent social constructivist would be the last person to champion reified identity forms.

    1. Could one or more of the people down-voting the above comment explain why they did so? The construction of identity seems problematic to me. Keen to understand your objection to the comment. Thanks.

  10. Could we please stop referring to cowardly, anti-social people who deny the existence of objective truth and consequently, the possibility of justice, as Social Justice Warriors? We could use Peterson’s “Postmodern Neo-Marxists” or maybe just “Screamers.”

    Helen P. thanks for this wonderful (and extremely useful) piece.

    1. Define a ‘postmodern neo Marxist’… Peterson is not the best source for this kind of thing. Primarily because he’s read postmodernism through Stephen Hicks pseudo study of postmodernism. A thoroughly discredited book by the way.

      1. Jordan simply means people who think truth is relative to the group describing it and that society is a series of groups fighting for zero-sum power such that dominant groups are always in some way oppressing other groups.

      2. I assume your point is that postmodernism is not compatible with any grand narrative view of the world, including Marxism. Fair enough.

        However, identity politics seems to be the bastard child of postmodernism and Marxism even though the two are incompatible if the people espousing the belief had a consistent world view. (Perhaps it is the bastard grandchild of postmodernism after an intergenerational tryst with Marxism to carry the metaphor to the distasteful conclusion).

        It isn’t Peterson’s fault that his political opponents have an inconsistent worldview.

        “A thoroughly discredited book by the way.”

        Being discredited by people who have a world view that includes 2+2=5 is as meaningless as the rest of what the community says. There are certainly issues with that book but a scholarly community that has given up on reason has no basis for saying so until they reform their own thinking to be in concert with observable reality. (Including the notion that we can observe an approximation of reality and get closer approximations through scholarly work.)

  11. Thought-provoking piece, Helen and James. I think you’re right to draw a distinction between the Black Civil Rights Movement, Second-Wave Feminism, and LGBTQ equality and the current identitarianism among certain elements of the (center-ish) Left. However, other Leftists critiquing identitarianism have argued that we need to pay more attention to how that ideology becomes a method of circumventing a redistributive program aimed at combatting economic inequality. Adolph Reed just published a new piece wherein he critiques what he terms “race-first neoliberalism.”


    He has argued(and has argued in the past) that this ideology benefits a cross-racial elite brokerage class but does nothing to challenge economic inequality. That elite brokerage class is quite fine with economic inequality as long as the inequality is proportionally distributed across demographic categories and that there are proportional demographic distributions amongst the top wealth brackets. Walter Benn Michaels makes similar arguments in his book “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.”

    Glad that Areo is continuing to push these conversations forward.

  12. Few would agree today that victimhood is still a moral currency. Times have changed; victimhood has been abused and weaponized, it often becomes a profession. Accusations are bought and paid for, combative people get offended for a writer’s fee. This is one bias the left unfortunately ignores, a denial that contradicts our moral pose since there’s vested interests and worse, a lack of concern for human rights and debate.


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