Will Everyone Complaining About “Identity Politics” Please Shut Up

I don’t understand how white intellectuals are so dense on the subject of “identity politics.”

Sam Harris was the first to frustrate me (he’s done it again recently), and a little while ago I read this whole piece at Brain Pickings on the tragedy of “imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.” How, how do they fail to understand that the cultural phase we’re in is still that of unraveling centuries of oppression based exclusively on these identities?

What they call “identity politics” is not about saying, “This part of myself is the whole of who I am.” It is not about choosing a side. It is about banding together with others who share that identity, because only with numbers can you demand change. It is about discovering shared experiences because you’ve never had anyone to share them with, and because that’s how you find out that a problem is systemic rather than individual. It is about saying, “This facet of humanity that has been denigrated by society is not going to be used against us anymore.”

It is about reorganizing a society that was structured around your subjugation, based on that facet of your identity.

How could any of this be changed without “identity politics?” Seriously, how? What is their actual suggestion for accomplishing this change in our societal structure without referencing what made the change needed in the first place?

Sam Harris says that instead of talking about identities, we should talk about issues (such as trade, guns, and immigration). He could not be declaring more clearly, “I am a white man who doesn’t understand systemic oppression.” Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses this belief in We Were Eight Years in Power:

In substituting a broad class struggle for an anti-racist struggle, progressives hope to assemble a coalition by changing the subject . . . To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the “achievement gap” will do nothing to close the “injury gap,” in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.

“If you’re reasoning honestly about facts,” Harris naively claims,

then the color of your skin is irrelevant. The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character can’t be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality . . . The facts are whatever they are. How many people got shot? How many died? What was the color of their skin? Who shot them? Getting a handle on these facts doesn’t require one to say, “as a __, I know __.”

Except that it does, because people’s worldviews and experiences have an overwhelmingly significant impact on their perception of things, including facts—and the thing is that we can’t actually interact with facts themselves; we encounter them through the filter of human consciousness, both our own and others’. When multiple eyewitnesses can see and remember different versions of an event that happened that same day, no, we can’t really get a handle on the facts without encountering people’s identities. The constant police shootings of unarmed black men demonstrate how much a person’s perception, experiences, and biases can affect “the facts.” And where Harris’s white male privilege comes in most strongly is in his lack of understanding that, as a white cis heterosexual man, there are situations and experiences and social structures he has no access to, and he is therefore entirely unqualified to be able to say what information is or is not relevant.

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What Harris, like most white people, seems not to have noticed is that the entirety of the United States of America has been a struggle in identity politics—namely, who gets to be considered people. From the beginning, white men were declaring that theirs was the only valuable identity. Donald Trump just became president not because of the “working class,” but because of people who identify as white. People didn’t vote for him out of economic hardship; Hillary Clinton won voters who make less than $50,000 a year. They voted for him because “make America great again” means “we really want white patriarchy back.”

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From the Atlantic article linked above, also written by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.

This is pretty simple information.

Lili Loofbourow has written an exceptional piece on the phenomenon she names “the male glance“—that thing throughout our culture wherein, essentially, male creators are seen as far more important than they are, and female creators far less. (This has a racial counterpart as well, in the concept of black excellence vs. white mediocrity.) Lorraine Berry continues the discussion:

Men’s work is assumed to address the universal human condition, while work by women is seen as specific to women. Further analysis has shown that this sense of a work being universal is also affected by race; by and large, it is the work of white men that is seen as reflective of the human condition. Those of us who are not white and male are just writing about our own subjective understanding of the world, being somehow incapable of escaping our identities, identities that are not an iron cage for white men.

We live in a society which places white cishet maleness at the baseline, as the default version of humanity, and therefore not “an identity.” They see others as filtering reality through their own experiences, and cannot comprehend that they are doing the same thing. Even knowing what we know about the history of the entire planet, this is a shocking amount of arrogance on display.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    That Brain Pickings article is great, thanks for the link. My best friend gave me pause for thought while we were away. We were talking about politics, and particularly the increasing polarity of politics in the UK and the potential that we will become a two party state like the US. She spoke about one of her friends who has felt unable to say that she is a Conservative in recent times because her circle of friends is broadly left of centre, and those firmly on the left treat those firmly on the right or even slightly on the right as pariahs. It made me pause, because I do that. While I don’t think that all socialists are paragons, I do have a tendency to think all conservatives are irredeemably awful. My friend also spoke about people not being polarised, but being a rich mix of things that are constantly changing and that shutting down conversation with people you disagree with stops you gaining any understanding of their position, cuts off your opportunity to persuade them otherwise, and loses you the chance to check your own position. We agreed that we hate the way the internet, social media, news media, etc has fostered a hostile environment and shut down the conversations we used to have. Keep expressing your beautiful, clever thoughts, Miri. I enjoy reading them.

    Like

  2. John says:

    I want to say a few words about this from your post — “How, how do they fail to understand that the cultural phase we’re in is still that of unraveling centuries of oppression based exclusively on these identities?” —- I do not believe it is possible to unravel centuries of oppression based on identities because as demographics and political perspectives change (as they inevitably always do) the identity perception changes along with the trend and we end up with a constant stream of newly-minted oppressions.

    Like

    1. Miri says:

      This has historically been true, and I am continually frustrated by people who care only about the discrimination that affects them personally. But a significant part of our battle for equality is putting barriers in place that apply to all kinds of oppression and discrimination, and I don’t think that’s an impossible task—just an arduous one.

      Liked by 1 person

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