Identities, Democracy, and Priorities

Identities, Democracy, and Priorities May 24, 2019

Eboo Patel wrote a while back:

The key argument for identity politics on the progressive side is redress of historical marginalization. In other words, because so many groups in American history were excluded because of their identity (blacks, women, gays, immigrants), it is high time that we create both cultural and policy solutions that tip the scales in their favor.

The key argument for identity politics on the conservative side is that religion shapes the lives and communities of traditionally-minded Christians in ways that ought to be protected by a nation that has a Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Religion. It is noteworthy that significant numbers of traditionally-minded Muslims and Jews have found a home in conservative identity politics, although that has been complicated by the overt bigotry of Trump…

It makes no sense to say that race and gender are wonderful reasons to support certain candidates and policies for me, but religion is an illegitimate basis for identity politics for you. I don’t get to tell you what identities matter to you, or how to interpret those identities into political positions, especially if I am the one making the case that identities matter in politics.

Does this set up conflict? Absolutely it does. We shouldn’t be surprised when women, based on their gender, support pro-choice politics, and Christians, based on their religion, support pro-life politics. That is all entirely legitimate. And so are the women who say they are pro-life because they are women, and those who say they are pro-choice, because they are Christian.

This is the rough and tumble of living in a diverse democracy, that most remarkable form of human society where we are constantly faced with the differences we like, and the differences we don’t.

This connects quite directly with my work on algorithms and what we can learn about ethics in conversation with computer science. In recent months, Inside Higher Ed has featured numerous articles on navigating balance between freedom of speech and inclusivity, which are well worth reading and reflecting on if one is interested in this topic. It is good to see that there is increasing engagement with these matters in a way that doesn’t oversimplify things, and/or pretend that one can always preserve two values equally without ever having them come into conflict in a way that requires difficult decisions to be made.

Patel has been writing about these topics a lot, and while I don’t always agree with his stance or his recommendations (when he offers such), I consistently find his perspective insightful and helpfully provocative. Here is another more recent example:

Carney presents study after study that shows that the places that lack basic community institutions are the same ones that exhibit high levels of human dysfunction and destruction – and the same ones that were all in for Trump early.

He also offers a creative theory on a fascinating question: why would places where the volunteer fire department no longer has volunteers grab on to a wrecking ball like Trump?

Because, Carney says, national elections are the most visible layer of our politics. Community institutions are the water that human beings swim in, and when they evaporate we’re like beached fish that don’t know what happened. We are so accustomed to patterns of community that it feels absolutely alien when they disappear.

Also, it’s slow, painstaking, unsexy work to relaunch the annual basketball tournament and set up practices for your team. Much easier to grab on to the rocket ship that flies by, blames people darker than you (yes, of course that’s racist and wrong) and promises to take you to the moon.

It’s interesting to think about the role of higher education in all of this.

There are a million wonderful things that college does, of course, but here’s one of the less wonderful things as it relates to geography: many colleges are set up to attract the most talented and driven young people from the Uniontown’s of the nation, educate them to sneer at the norms of where they’re from, encourage them to connect and mate with people who are similarly smart and driven, and then deposit them in cities where the knowledge-and-service economy is booming. It’s great for the cities, great for those individuals, great for the economy at a macro level, and terrible for their hometowns. The people who went off to college were likely the same ones who would run for mayor or volunteer to direct the school play.

(All of this makes me realize just how crucial a role regional colleges and universities play in the American landscape. We need more institutions that educate people who return to and enrich the places they are from rather than encouraging them to leave.)

A separate question: Should campus diversity progressives pay attention to geography in the way that we pay attention to race, gender and sexuality?

Just as we are – rightly – proactive about hiring people of color and women, should we be equally proactive about hiring people from towns where the economic base has eroded and the community institutions have disappeared?

See also Shadi Hamid’s recent article responding to Patel and reflecting on Muslims in American pluralism, as well as Sheila Kennedy on criticizing behavior versus hating an identity. Also important is the article that appeared in New Scientist about the social dimensions of radicalized hate. St. Eutychus blogged about whether voters for any given candidate feel welcome at your church. Inside Higher Ed explored identity politics on campus. Foreign Affairs looked at the connections between nationalism and the brains of primates.

See too the call for papers for a conference on religious identities and peacemaking in EuropeKeith Giles on healing our political divide, and Larry Hurtado on ethnicity and religious identities ancient and modern.

Also, Valerie Tarico on the psychology of outrage:

One Psychological Reason Democratic Primaries May Serve as a Trump Re-Election Campaign


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  • arcseconds

    The St. Eutychus piece asks “is there room for a ___ voter in your church? would they feel welcome?”. It’s a long and rambly post and discusses several different ideas, and it doesn’t really focus on the question in the title precisely, but the vibe is generally against partisanship. So the position seems to be that there’s a problem if a ___ voter doesn’t feel welcome at your church.

    I see the problems with partinsanship, dehumanizing the other, and seeing disputes in society as an all-out, winner takes everything war with an evil enemy where nothing except complete extermination will do, with treating anyone not taking a side as “you’re either with us or against us”, sure. If we don’t find ways of cutting across partisan divides and finding ways of communicating with people we disagree with that aren’t just openly hostile, then the Western world (and in all probability the whole world) is going to descend into a political cold civil war, and things have already gone a long way in that direction.

    But should a holder of any political view feel welcome? I don’t think so: if a community can meaningfully claim to be a moral community, particularly one that especially cares for the oppressed, then (just to take a clear example) a white nationalist should feel profoundly uncomfortable. And with that example, we can also see that it’s not actually possible for everyone to feel welcome. If white nationalists can turn up and openly complain about immigrants, then immigrants are not going to feel welcome, so one has to make a choice:do you enable immigrants, or enable white nationalists?

    I suppose Trump gives enough lip-service to not being a white nationalist that we have to give some lip-service back and say a Trump supporter isn’t necessarily in this category, but, you know, Trump had white nationalists on his staff, white nationalists thought his presidency was a victory for them…. and he’s also likes to make fun of disabled people, joke about sexually assualting women, is obviously corrupt, incompetent, etc…

    St. Eutychus is written in an Australian setting, and Scott Morrison isn’t Trump to be sure, but there is a political party which is capable of winning seats that is basically barely fig-leafed white nationalism: One Nation. Plus any Australian with a working moral compass who can see beyond the end of their nose should be pretty concerned with how their country has been treating refugees. And any who can think a few years ahead and aren’t drowning in denial should be very concerned about climate change — they don’t even need to be moral for that, enlightened self-interest will do. The Liberal-National party isn’t exactly a party of climate change denial, but it does harbour denialists, it has a markedly weaker approach than Labor, and drumming up fear of Labor’s approach was a big part of their campaign.

    • Great points and very well put. Often being welcoming to all is used as an excuse to not challenge specific views, especially political ones. Yet if we are truly committed to inclusivity, then that will involve taking a stand against politicians and their supporters who are all about exclusion and marginalization of those who are most vulnerable and most need our welcome.

      • arcseconds

        I get that ‘politics’ is frequently a nasty business and that it can seem easier and ‘nicer’ in some sense to remove it from civil discussion, and to think maybe it has no place in church.

        But I wonder whether this is a comfortable position for comfortable members of a dominant group to have, where ‘politics’ is something like a hobby. If you’re a middle-class white cis-hetero male person, it might be OK for you to be championing the rights of the underdog, but please do this during the week and on Saturdays, on Sundays we aren’t ‘political’, we’re in the serious business of praising Jesus, which has nothing to do with championing the rights of the underdog, so you mus’n’t upset your fellow middle-class white cis-hetero male persons about it.

        For other people, ‘politics’ is a struggle to e.g. get one’s rights respected by the law, or to get people to stop telling hateful lies about you (which don’t just result in hurt feelings, but continual exclusion and the occasional piece of violence), or to allow one’s children to have a shot at living at something above abject poverty. I don’t think one should aim at being ‘above politics’ if it means ignoring this.

      • arcseconds

        However, I see the problem – if your community is pro-immigrant and LGBTQ+ friendly, you can’t fail to be effectively anti-Trump, and (given how it panned out at least) you’d be walking a difficult line if you were also pro-Brexit (or indifferent to Brexit).

        And in a partisan environment, that’s going to be seen as ‘being political’ (which is correct, of course) and as being excluding to a large portion of the population.

        Moreover, much as we might be tempted otherwise, a scorched-earth policy wrt. our political foes isn’t going to work out very well for anyone.

        What can we do about this? It’s all very well saying ‘listen to their perspective’, but when so much of their perspective is barely-concealed bigotry and uncritical belief in lies, and they don’t show any inclination to listen to anyone else’s perspective, it’s a bit hard to do this with any degree of empathy.

        E.g. Patel’s example of ‘conservative marginalization’ is a school refusing to play sports matches with a school that enforces cis-heterosexuality on its students and parents, on the basis that their LBTQ+ students don’t feel safe. David French thinks this is ridiculous as he never felt unsafe when he went to other schools, which is a great example of a middle-class cis-hetero conservative white man thinking his experience is normative for everyone. If we thought about this for a second, we might start thinking of other instances that have banned minorities, and see that actually we are fine with marginalizing and even outlawing segregation, sorry conservatives.

  • swbarnes2

    should we be equally proactive about hiring people from towns where the economic base has eroded and the community institutions have disappeared?

    An employer who has women, people of color, foreign workers, gay people, etc, working for them needs to ensure that their hires will respect all their colleagues. Are small town Americans ready to do that? Was, say, Kim Davis ready for that?