Note: I wrote this before the events of Charlottesville. But I think it is especially relevant due to those events. I hope you agree with me as we look for a way forward.
After the 60s countercultural revolution, we began to see the rise of different studies programs for people of color, women, sexual minorities etc. These programs represented a variety of marginalized groups. Members of these groups had been locked out of opportunities to have power in our society and thus political movements developed to overcome these barriers. And with that, we took our first step towards identity politics.
So what is identity politics? Dictionary.com defines the term as “political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.” I think that will work for a general definition of identity politics. But the rubber really hits the road when we look at the results of identity politics. Those results are that individuals are making their political decisions based on what is best for their particular group as the major, and perhaps only, criteria.
The natural consequence of such a priority is that individuals are free to promote what is good for their group regardless of how it may affect other groups. At the extreme, this would mean that slavery of others can be advocated if it benefits the in-group. Of course no one would support that kind of policy in modern society, but to a lesser extent much of our political conversation revolves around how to gain resources for one’s group without considering the needs of other groups. In today’s society this is usually done by claiming a victim’s status. When one is seen as a victim, one has limited responsibilities and can make demands quite easily on others. Little wonder groups are often eager to claim victim status.
This is problematic because even if a group has a legitimate claim of victimhood, there are other people who will be impacted by that claim. For example, blacks have legitimate concerns about the policing in their communities. But I find some of the activism misguided. Calls for the police to disarm does not seem wise in light of the chaos that’s certain to follow in the black community. Such calls are likely to result in more deaths of police officers, if we can still recruit police officers into those communities. The fact that some activists have so little concern about how police have to deal with dangerous situations indicates a priority of their concerns over all other concerns. That is not how problems get fixed.
If that implication of identity politics is not worrisome enough, there is the issue of exclusion. It is one thing if one supports a certain set of policies because they benefit one’s group. It is an additional issue if one believes that only people with the right skin color, religion, sexual habits, sex etc. are able to serve one’s in-group. And that is precisely what we are seeing happening.
For example, CNN recently did an online article about how there were too many white men at a celebration of House legislation about Obamacare. The implication is that there should be people of color involved. On the one hand, as a man of color, I understand the feeling of exclusion from this celebration. It would be nice to see more African-Americans in such a photo-op. But I have to ask what difference would it make if we had more men of color in it? Putting in some black conservatives would not change the effect of the legislation. In reality it is merely a symbolic gesture. But such a symbolic gesture is a foundation on which the ideas connected to identity politics are built.
Until last year talking about identity politics was talking about some variation of progressive politics. Then Trump happened. His campaign tapped into a yearning some whites had to play the identity politics game. White nationalism did not arise out of nowhere. While there is not, to my knowledge, a definitive explanation for his white support, whatever explanation will have to include a component about the attraction of white nationalism. And white nationalism is nothing if not identity politics.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing that all of Trump supporters come to him because of white nationalism. I am well aware that many individuals reluctantly voted for Trump because they feared a Clinton presidency. Others may have been attracted to other parts of his agenda – such as a desire to end Obamacare or for conservative Supreme Court judges. But Trump’s hawkish immigration stance and anti-Muslim rhetoric appeal to those espousing the superiority of a western civilization model. It is naïve to assume that he did not benefit from this appeal in certain quarters of our society.
Much has been written about the alt-right. What people mean when they talk about the alt-right can vary. To be fair, there are various motivations and goals of those who consider themselves members of the alt-right. But much of it, in one way or another, revolves around the preservation of either white culture or whites themselves. It is a focus on the interest of European-Americans as a group. It is the manifestation of identity politics for white people.
I have not seen a good estimate of the number of individuals who would directly consider themselves part of the alt-right. I doubt it is enough individuals to have swayed the election last year. But I suspect that there are many more whites who, while not directly part of the alt-right, are happy to see a direction towards the preservation of their culture and their group. While they may not have academic programs dedicated to fighting for their culture, these whites still want to gain the sort of power that can come from identity politics. They want to claim victimhood to escape responsibility and gain rights. Trump offered this, and whites in the Midwest bought it. That is why he is president.
In the past, identity politics was used to support groups widely recognized as marginalized. The use of identity politics for majority group members does not fit the rationale given in the past whereby lower status groups had to stick together to prevent themselves from being taken advantage of by the majority. How can we say that whites have been taken advantage of in a culture that they have been allowed to create? But it matters less whether the members of the group have actually been victimized than that they feel victimized. I could write another entire essay on why whites feel victimized, but I would rather concentrate on the fact that identity politics for whites is here, and we have to deal with that reality.
So identity politics is not only played out by progressive groups, but now we are seeing the use of identity politics develop among more traditional groups. Is this a good development for our society? I have already mentioned the propensity to look out for the interest of the group rather than our general society. There is a tendency to neglect the interest of other groups entirely. So clearly identity politics can be detrimental to us. But identity politics also remind us of the need to hear from different voices. Groups that do not look after their own interest may not get a seat at the table to voice their concerns. We need to develop a well rounded perspective due to multiple groups interjecting their perspectives into the public conversation. So one can make the argument one way or the other on whether identity politics is beneficial to society.
I believe that my work in race relations may provide a possible answer to that question. In my last academic book on race – Transcending Racial Barriers – Michael Emerson and I outlined a model for improving race relations that I think is applicable. The purpose of the model was to help find ways so that members of different races could learn how to communicate with each other and find solutions that work for everybody. I believe that healthy communication is the key element of how we can begin to move beyond simply identity politics to find win-win, instead of win-lose solutions.
The key to implementing my suggested solutions in race relations is active listening. I have written about it online before. If we are becoming a culture of competing interest groups, then we have to find ways for those groups to work together for the common good. That means listening to the concerns of others so that we can take them into account as well as our own needs. That is where active listening can become useful. We actively listen when we can accurately describe the desires of those communicating with us. The judge of our accuracy are those very people with whom we are having the discussion. If we cannot put in our own words what they want, then we do not understand what they want.
Here is what it would look like in a one-on-one situation. Let’s pretend I have a disagreement with a co-worker about his, in my opinion, inappropriate jokes. So I would sit down with him and tell him why they make me feel uncomfortable. He would have to put my feelings in his own words. Only when I am certain he understands how I feel, and how I feel that way, could we move on. We move on to him telling me why he may feel stifled by not being able to tell certain jokes. I would then have the responsibility of putting in my own words why he feels he should be able to tell those jokes. When he feels heard we are now in a position to work towards a solution. We would try to figure what how much latitude he can have that minimizes his feeling stifled, but I am still comfortable. Are there certain times when the joke really get on my nerves? Are there certain jokes that cause the problems? Are there alternative ways he can express himself, besides the jokes, where he will not feel stifled? We have a chance to find a solution that we both can live with.
But in the real world what would happen is that either I would get our employer to force him to stop the jokes altogether or he would get some lawyer to fight for his right to tell the jokes. One of us would win completely, and the other would lose. The loser will feel hurt and be less willing to work with the other person. We would see a similar type of alienation we see today in our climate of identity politics. Because that is how we operate with our identity politics today. We get our groups and their resources together and try to crush the other groups. We want to win and make sure they lose. And in the end we create a toxic environment for our society.
So how would active listening look if we did this with groups and not just individuals? What about the next time there is a police shooting of an African-American that black activists, representing certain interest groups, sit down with representatives of police unions, representing other interest groups, to discuss policy changes. Black activists can outline the policies and practices that they object to and the representatives of the police unions will have to demonstrate they understand their concerns. The police union representatives can discuss concerns for their safety as they work in the neighborhoods of blacks and the black activists will have to demonstrate they understand those concerns. Once there is understanding by those on both sides of the issue, then they can find solutions that get buy-in from both parties since those solutions will take into consideration the needs of all parties involved. It seems to me that this can work if we are willing to listen to others.
But we are not really willing to listen to others are we? To do that is to acknowledge that others have legitimate concerns and it does not serve our ends in identity politics to recognize the concerns of others. And so we are stuck in our current trap where we do everything we can to make sure that our group wins, even at the expense of other groups. I believe there are solutions to be found if we are willing to work to craft them. But there are too many powerful people with a vested interest in making sure we stay polarized. And there are too many people, across the political spectrum, who are eager to be led by these people as long as they get to keep demonizing members of the out-group.
Winning a total victory often comes at the cost of living together in peace. And often that is too great a cost. Have you ever won an argument and it cost you more than what you got? For example, let’s say you are planning a date with your significant other. And you convince her to go to that action movie instead of a chick flick. Then the rest of the evening you have to hear her complaining about the movie and it ruins the evening. You got your way temporarily, but it poisoned the entire evening. The better approach would have been to find a third movie you both enjoyed. You may have liked that action flick more than the third option but that extra bit of enjoyment is not worth having a surly date the rest of the evening. Likewise if you are invested in identity politics, consider working to find solutions for everyone even when you temporarily have the power to win everything you want. You may not get everything you want, but you will help create the social environment where we all can benefit and help each other.
With the rise of whites playing identity politics, we are going to see more fighting between the groups in the coming years. I fear that fighting and demonizing each other will become our new political norm, if it has not already done so. It is a shame really, because we have got to learn how to live with one another. It is perfectly fine and honorable to battle for your group and for policies that benefit them. But we must also learn if our victory weakens the rest of society, then it may not be a victory worth having.