Identity Politics and Zero-Sum Games

Identity Politics and Zero-Sum Games November 30, 2018
Tiebreaker; Wikimedia Commons

We hear a lot today about identity politics. To many, it suggests a zero-sum game, where the winner ultimately takes all. The Economist provides a very helpful video reflection on identity politics and how to guard against negative dynamics. The video is titled “Are Identity Politics Dangerous?”

The Economist argues that it is not a matter of whether identity politics should exist, but what is the best form in which it should operate. The answer includes the following emphases: inclusive over exclusive, open and inviting, not closed and negating.

In a world where the fear of scarcity always exists, it is very easy for someone to think that there can only be one winner and that exclusion must win out. Moreover, if one is at the top of the social-economic ladder, it is very difficult to consider the idea that changes are needed. We are all tribal people, and we tend to favor our own, especially when we experience a real or perceived threat. So, it takes considerable effort from all parties (especially those on top) to navigate the conversation and structures in a way that benefits all parties, including minority groups, not just the dominant culture or those with the most votes.

In addition to this Economist piece’s emphasis on inclusion over exclusion, mystery, and depth must also be accounted for when dealing with identity politics. By mystery, I mean that people are more than their bumper stickers, voting patterns, and check lists. We easily tend to reduce people to certain statements they make and label them as racist, baby-killer, misogynist, or traitor based on this or that association. Of course, our comments and bumper stickers, voting patters and check lists do say something. However, they do not tell the whole story. We need to account for people in terms of their total narratives and perspectives. Most if not all of us are inconsistent and conflicted, as well as multi-faceted and complex. The movie Crash, which deals with racial objectification and fragmentation in the city of Los Angeles, illustrates this point well through its character development of many individuals of diverse backgrounds. Atticus Finch instructs us not to minimize others, sum them up quickly and reduce them to this action or that soundbite. As he says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Beyond Crash and To Kill a Mockingbird, attending to mystery can help us move beyond partisan alliances to seek common ground on issues. The Evangelical Immigration Table is one example of people searching for bipartisan solutions involving various moral intutions on the subject of immigration reform (Refer here to their core principles). Speaking of  moral intuitions, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations and his Ted-Talk call to cultivate empathy in a culture of disgust also helps us move forward beyond zero-sum game ways of thinking and acting.

Not only must we guard against exclusion and minimization, but also we must guard against surface level engagement of deep structural problems in our society. My friend and colleague Tom Krattenmaker makes an important point along these lines in a USA Today article on racism. The article is titled “White progressives shouldn’t be smug about racism. We could be doing much more to end it.” Krattenmaker, who identifies himself as a white progressive, issues a challenge to his own community and asks a question: “Our mouths, hearts and votes are generally in the right place. But our money often isn’t. What are we willing to risk to undo systemic racism?” Later he offers such recommendations as the following:

Most people are not ready to sell their house, pull their kids out of school, and move to a predominantly black neighborhood. But there are other ways to achieve this kind of proximity, such as: attending racially segregated churches, joining volunteer projects in nonwhite parts of town or activist efforts for racial justice, and having conversations and forming friendships with people of different races.

Conservatives are certainly not off the hook in Krattenmaker’s estimation on the need to address racial problems in the U.S., nor in mine. No matter where we are on the cultural spectrum, we need to go deep in addressing such problems as racialization, not discounting identity politics, but moving toward greater inclusivity that takes us beyond zero-sum game types of social calculations.

Going deeper in pursuit of greater inclusivity will involve depth of struggle, not surface solutions. It will also require patient endurance, which entails accounting for people’s complexity and the mystery of our humanity: people with whom we agree and disagree will surprise us in negative as well as positive ways at various times. While there is a need for discernment, we should also hope to be surprised when we encounter the better angels of our nature in one another, balancing between the extremes of naive optimism and cynicism. Only as we pursue inclusivity, mystery and depth of solutions can we move beyond zero-sum games in identity politics for the greater good of all.

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