Talking past each other on identity politics

The debate about whether ‘identity politics’ is crucial or dangerous to liberalism is on. And it is frustrating.

Jacob Levy came out swinging yesterday in defence of the crucial role of identity politics in liberalism, against arguments about the role of identity politics in the rise of illiberalism (and Trumpism) in the U.S., such as those presented by Reason’s Robby Soave and in Mark Lilla’s recent NYT piece. Jason Kuznicki has responded to Levy. Elsewhere, Tom Palmer names identity politics as a danger to liberalism in his fabulous essay on the three fronts of growing anti-libertarianism.

The first order of business seems to be to decide what, exactly, we mean by ‘identity politics’. Jason Kuznicki agrees:

“An equivocation is occurring here, between good and bad, both claiming to be “identity politics.” In cases like that, it’s morally imperative to differentiate rather than to lump together.”

I am concerned about identity politics as it’s represented by Tom Palmer and Jason Kuznicki, so I’ll draw from them as I take a stab at nailing down a definition of the ‘identity politics’ that worries me.

From Jason Kuznicki’s piece:

“The idea behind much though not all of identity politics is that no actions of the out-group are ever innocent in principle.”

In a Facebook comment, Tom Palmer clarified what, exactly, he means when he uses the term:

“By “identity politics” I had in mind something quite different from being attentive to, say, rape as mainly targeting women. That needs a response that includes law enforcement, but it is not asserting an incommensurability of rights, or creation of taxpayer funded zones from which members of some races are excluded, or always privileging testimony from one kind of person over another, etc., etc. It [being attentive to issues such as rape mainly targeting women] does not assert radical polylogism or the primacy of an abstract group over its members, any dissidents among whom are derided as traitors or crushed as “inauthentic.””

This definition (I’ll call it definition A) of identity politics presents it as a reduction of politics to identity. Identity-based tribes, whether formed along lines of race, nations, or anything else, reduce the contributions of others in society to their perceived agreement with (or dissent from) the group. Tired of persuasion, those who practice this brand of identity politics accumulate the social and political capital needed to bludgeon dissenters, and emphasize differences between groups to steel themselves to the task.

There’s good reason to worry about this kind of ingroup/outgroup thinking if we’re concerned about liberal tolerance. Writes Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate:

“The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it… We have also seen how the circle can shrink. Recall that Jonathan Glover showed that atrocities are often accompanied by tactics of dehumanization such as the use of pejorative names, degrading conditions, humiliating dress, and “cold jokes” that make light of suffering. These tactics can flip a mental switch and reclassify an individual from “person” to “nonperson,” making it as easy for someone to torture or kill him as it is for us to boil a lobster alive. (Those who poke fun at politically correct names for ethnic minorities, including me, should keep in mind that they originally had a humane rationale.)”

Jacob Levy’s appeal makes the case for something completely different. He doesn’t present an explicit definition, but my reading is that he’s arguing for an inclusion of identity in politics (which I’ll call definition B) That is, to acknowledge the importance of shared and particular experiences of people who share an identity and the effectiveness of those groups mobilized to pursue political goals.

Acknowledging that the groups in which people find themselves are important to their interactions both with the state and with outgroups seems eminently reasonable. If that’s identity politics, sign me up! I suspect we can sign up Tom Palmer, Mark Lilla, Robby Soave, and Jason Kuznicki while we’re at it.

Some libertarians, conservatives, and real liberals act as though group experiences don’t and can’t matter in a society where we ought to be concerned with individuals, and this is a mistake. But this is not a mistake that Soave, Lilla, Palmer, or Kuznicki are making.

That leaves me feeling that Levy’s defence sailed right by me. I am concerned with A, and read a defence of B. I don’t want to come across as complaining that Jacob didn’t write the post I would have liked him to write, which is an annoying thing to do. Rather, I hope to illustrate a problem that’s plaguing the whole debate – we’re talking past each other by attacking A on one side and defending B on the other.

I am on board with B. It seems obvious that human ‘groupishness’ matters. But what political events around the world are revealing seems less an abandoning of groups, with which A seems concerned, than an abandoning of individuals. Perhaps I can be convinced that ‘identity politics’ doesn’t mean what Tom Palmer, Jason Kuznicki, and I mean by it. But regardless of whether we’re convinced that we ought to adopt another term to describe the danger we see, that danger needs addressing.

2 thoughts on “Talking past each other on identity politics

  • December 15, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Most of us do talk politics in sound-bites, in which we don’t define important terms, which promotes talking-past one another. But in order to form political alliances among diverse ideologies we intentionally don’t define terms in order to increase our numbers. There seems then to be an optimal amount of such vagueness, beyond with the internal difference become apparent and subgroups then split off. “Libertarians” are just one example.

    • December 15, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      I think that’s right – and we certainly don’t need bright-line definitions of every concept to talk about them. But we’ve got to dial back on the vagueness if we want a wholesale endorsement or condemnation.

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