Identity politics has become the punching bag of liberals and conservatives alike, despite being rather ill defined. It is neither the world-ending menace that conservatives posit, nor the monolith that liberal critics have erected in their wish to tear it down. Identity politics—particularly the identity part—can help shape our understanding of the problems marginalized people face. It is an inevitable stage that we must pass through in our journey towards universal human rights, a pragmatic first step. Identity politics is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a better understanding. Universal human rights do not exist in a vacuum, nor are we free to pursue them independently of our identities. Identity can be strength, and strength can provide a voice. The many liberal projects that harnessed that strength could not have succeeded any other way.
Defining identity politics is fraught. A generally consistent definition by proponents and critics alike seems to orbit around any one identity group positioning itself as unique, regarding an issue or past grievance. In other words, an identity group gets to hold the conch first and maybe most often (or exclusively, depending on whom you ask) in the ensuing discussion. But what do we mean when we say identity? Is it an immutable characteristic? One that could be changed, but which no one should be required to change? An ideology? Anything at all that could be used to identify someone? While we may have to make distinctions for legal purposes (unicorn enthusiasts may not merit anti-discrimination protection under the law), there is little reason to do so from an epistemological standpoint. The broader the definition, however, the better the justification for its epistemology should be, as a broad definition needs to fit a much wider set of identities.
Anyone can be categorized into a number of identities, based a particular trait or set of traits. A group of people of color could just as easily also be cisgendered, male, Marxists or Buddhists. More significantly, there is no way to avoid these categorizations, whether externally generated or self-imposed. The universality of identity also causes some of the criticisms of it to stumble right out of the gate, since they merely embrace one grouping and reject a different one. For example, Walter Benn Michaels’ ongoing criticism of identity politics centers around the idea that it contributes little to creating social equality, which he argues neither “hostility to discrimination nor the accompanying enthusiasm for diversity makes the slightest contribution to accomplishing.” Instead, he posits that class politics holds a greater potential to effect change. But this is a case of pitting one group category against another, albeit under different titles. Even if Michaels is correct in his assertion that advancing a class identity is a better way of effecting reform, from an epistemological standpoint he is still in the same boat—and identity is his captain.
Other criticisms, some of which have appeared here in Areo, are more nuanced and dig deeper into the potential problems of identity politics. In a recent article, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay take aim at identity politics by attempting to distinguish the advancement of universal human rights for specific identity groups from what they term identity monoliths. The former aim is acceptable because—although the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Pride, for example, advanced the rights of a specific identity group—they did so through an appeal to universal liberalism, to the idea that all people should have equal access to “every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide.” Identity monoliths, however, Pluckrose and Lindsay argue, are unacceptable for a number of reasons: the focus on group identity pits one monolith against another—the adversary is a monolithically conceived privileged entity; it has roots in social constructivism (the idea that knowledge is constructed and that the knowledge that we have has largely been obtained by straight, white, cisgendered men); it creates “heavily biased readings of situations;” and, ultimately, it recreates the divisions we should be working to tear down, by setting identity-based groups against each other. In essence, Pluckrose and Lindsay reject identity politics which is focused on the identity of the group, rather than on the group’s position relative to universal rights.
However, this monolithic view of identity politics is not a universally agreed upon definition. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lays out a very different concept:
The scope of political movements that may be described as identity politics is broad: the examples used in the philosophical literature are predominantly of struggles within western capitalist democracies, but indigenous rights movements worldwide, nationalist projects, or demands for regional self-determination use similar arguments. Predictably, there is no straightforward criterion that makes a political struggle into an example of “identity politics;” rather, the term signifies a loose collection of political projects, each undertaken by representatives of a collective with a distinctively different social location that has hitherto been neglected, erased, or suppressed.
While the Encyclopedia does go on to acknowledge that the philosophical position of identity politics entails “demanding recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied,” it also recognizes that the term identity politics has a wide array of meanings and intellectual precursors. Under this definition, the Civil Rights Movement’s success cannot be separated from its identity-based ideology. A further examination of the Encyclopedia (and Google), reveals that the term is still unsettled, both semantically and philosophically. Many critics lack a precise definition of what they mean by the term.
While Pluckrose and Lindsay’s criticism is detailed—they trace identity politics from its origins to its current form as they see it, they nevertheless have to define it rather narrowly, skirting a line between what the Encyclopedia defines as identity politics (which I would argue is the more commonly held understanding)—that identity plays a central and authoritative role in advancing a particular cause—versus the form of identity politics which has resulted from some of the academic outgrowths of social constructivist theory, which advocate for a monolithic view of identity. Identity politics, especially as it is viewed in the public consciousness, may be a spectrum. The jargon has taken on a non-unified meaning, even one inconsistent with its original meaning.
Eleanor Robertson argues that a similar confusion has occurred with regard to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term intersectionality. Liberal criticisms of the way in which identity politics condones double standards for different identities and the ways in which identity provides authority may only apply to a particular section of the identity politics spectrum. Following Robertson, we should not be so ready to throw the identity politics baby out with the neoliberal bathwater. Identity plays a crucial role in advancing universal human rights.
What the liberal criticism of identity politics seems to ignore, or at least downplay, is how significant a role identity plays in shaping our knowledge of problems and how necessary a level of identity-based empowerment is to create social advancement in the first place. Let’s take an analogy from physics. In The Order of Time, Carlos Rovelli argues that our understanding of time is based exclusively on how we choose to organize information. He illustrates this using a deck of cards. If we shuffle the cards and then lay them out, how do we decide which is the first card? Is it the first card in the deck? The smallest number? The first red card? Or maybe the first spade? Rovelli’s point is that order (and therefore time) is relative: deciding what comes first requires one to first set a parameter by which to judge—in this instance numbers, colors or whether a card is on the top or bottom of the pack. It is only this relational aspect between things that allows us to arrive at a sense (albeit illusory) of order.
So too with identity. It is precisely by setting ourselves apart from one another, based on certain categories, that we are able to recognize where we stand in relation to things like equal access to certain rights. When the slave-holding authors of the US Constitution sorted human beings according to their rights, they did not believe that the parameters set by the words “all men are created equal” applied to their property. The relative nature of human interactions makes a focus on identity not just an important, but a required first step towards advancing universal liberalism. The Civil Rights Movement was able to promote the cause of people of color because it identified where they stood relative to whites. Gay Pride advanced the sexual freedoms of homosexuals by contrasting their identity with that of heterosexuals. They were not advocating for universal rights in a vacuum, free from the existence and promotion of any particular identity. The success of these movements was as much about how each identity group related to the other (white to black, gay to straight) as it was about how each group related to the rights at stake. There was and is no way to accomplish this without adding identity politics to the mix. There is no way to perceive and remedy problems without identifying them through comparison, even if that sometimes leads us to define them as if they were monoliths.
Arguing that the miscellaneous rights movements were advocating for equality for the identities concerned on the basis of shared human rights, rather than on the basis of identity, also presumes that human rights are a standalone, foundational issue. In The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch attacks the philosophical idea of foundationalism: “the false idea that the most important thing in any system of knowledge is the foundation from which it is either derived, or justified, or both.” Deutsch argues that there are no absolute foundations to anything because foundations only exist in response to problems. In other words, no theory of physics exists independent of the universe it is trying to explain. Similarly, universal rights do not emerge separate and distinct from the problems of particular identity groups who do not have them. The Civil Rights Movement, Gay Pride and first-wave feminism could not pursue these rights in a vacuum. It makes no sense to say that the remedies for oppression have to focus on identity, but that the problem cannot be stated authoritatively in terms of shared identity. We conceptualize the idea of universal human rights because of identity. A planet on which no human has experienced the deprivation of life, liberty or property because of her skin color has no reason to identify any human as black or white in relation to those issues (they might choose to identify that way, but their skin colors would be of no significance in the understanding of their rights). You cannot break with identity to address the problems that stem from it. Regardless of what justifies the social theory, the core of identity politics (identity) serves the necessary function of expanding our understanding of the problems specific groups face.
One could argue that the voices of the marginalized are not necessary to root out the problems that face them, since anyone capable of observation could pinpoint the problem, cause and remedy. This brings us to the practical significance of experience as it relates to identity and politics—identity groups have a particular, intimate understanding of the issues they confront. If we discovered tomorrow that a population of Caucasians had been enslaved for hundreds of years, were treated as a racially inferior people, and incarcerated by the state in disproportionate numbers, they would have a lot in common with many other oppressed peoples around the globe, including people of color in the US. And they should be able to talk about oppression on an equal footing, even if you take the most aggressive social constructivist view, i.e. that experience equals authority. Experience plays a role in how authoritative one is, regardless of the topic.
The question, then, is where does an outsider to that experience fit in? Can an outsider arrive at the same conclusions and remedies that an insider can? No. Probably not. When it comes to unravelling and attempting to remedy the subjective elements of human suffering, we are necessarily reliant on the experience of others when we have not experienced something ourselves. Otherwise, we are confronted by the problem, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb has put it, of “lecturing birds on how to fly.” We have developed intricate theories and maths to explain birds’ flight, but birds require none of this knowlege to actually fly; nor are our theories a substitute for their intimate understanding of flight. In Antifragile, Taleb argues at length that knowledge is not equally dependent on practical experience and theory—in fact, the latter is no substitute for the former. We were capable of discovering flight ourselves, but we cannot help birds improve on their flying. Amidst the constant ideological assaults, we have conflated the practical reality of identity politics with the theory of it. Identity politics is an expression of experience, which is crucial to understanding the challenges that historically oppressed and marginalized people face. Theoretical understanding alone cannot resolve problems: it must be tied to practical experience. We must listen to the voices of the marginalized, who demand engagement with them, rather than speculations about them.
Of course, there are legitimate concerns about identity politics taken too far. To the extent that those within an identity group advocate for a different set of moral rules than those applicable to other groups, there will be contradictions to contend with and bad ideas to cast out. No one, irrespective of his identity, is infallible or should be free from criticism. Under Obama, immigrant families were detained, and, at least at the time of this writing, he deported more people than any other president. I have yet to see anyone even attempt to defend those policies across identity lines. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, long before Cosby’s conviction, that he believed Cosby to be a rapist—even as he acknowledged Cosby as one the loudest black voices of our time. He remains incredibly critical of Kanye West and his choice to support Trump. What these examples demonstrate is that the monolithic view of identity politics lacks nuance compared to the views people actually express. There is a profound difference between the statements the system is never fair to a person of color and a person of color is incapable of committing wrongdoing. If there are indeed people who argue in favour of the latter proposition, the inherent contradiction in their view will lead them to run into trouble very quickly, probably in a conflict with another identity group. In order to vindicate Bill Cosby across identity lines, one would also have to marginalize women and their voices. Identity politics can be self-feeding, but it can also be self-purifying.
Critics are also right to be concerned about the possibility of a growing empathy gap if identity serves as a separator. Research has demonstrated that we care less when observing pain inflicted on people of other races. A lack of empathy led to centuries of prejudicial behavior towards people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and others. It still does. But the solution is not to demand that people no longer congregate within identity groups. Research also demonstrates that people of color show greater empathy towards other people of color than Caucasians do towards other Caucasians. The empathy we experience towards our ingroup is neurally distinct from that which we feel towards the rest of mankind. Bridging the empathy gap is not as simple as seeking out our shared humanity, without regard for identity. While identity politics has the ability to exacerbate this divide, it also can provide the beginnings of a solution. The problem (as this and other studies show) is not the existence of the us/them dichotomy, but rather the implicit biases associated with each category. We cannot begin to break down those biases by appealing to our shared humanity: first, we need to correct our latent (and obvious) misperceptions. Identity politics can serve as a spotlight that brings those disparities into vivid focus. Empathy is not born of a reductionist approach, stripping away identities to try to arrive at a common humanity, but of learning to acknowledge that our differences do not make us less human. The solution lies in expanding our understanding of what human means. This is the difference between gay people are still human beings—an appeal to the humanity hidden beneath the identity—and humans can also be gay—an acknowledgment that gay people’s identities are inextricable from their humanity and acceptable regardless.
Identity politics emerged not as tyranny, but as a response to tyranny. Before we can broaden and amplify universal rights, we must first fully understand where marginalized identities stand in relation to those rights. We cannot do that in a way separate and distinct from either our own identities or those of others. Whether you decide that the terminology needs changing or are willing to adjust your understanding of its meaning, the identity of identity politics is here to stay. The identities that inspired the Civil Rights Movement, first-wave feminism, indigenous rights and many many other liberal projects, sought first to simply gather enough strength as an identity group to gain a seat at the table. Rather than lecture the many identity groups on how to fly, we should embrace the nuanced, unique perspectives they bring to the liberal project of advancing universal human rights. We cannot receive that knowledge free from identity, nor should we want to.