Sunday, June 08, 2008

Identity Politics

I had a epiphany years ago when a friend of mine was expounding on the enormity of the Holocaust and I felt I had to ask him to clarify that: "it's the fact that so many people were exterminated that made it so awful, right, not the fact that they were predominately Jews? i.e. it would have been just as horrible if the victims had been some other group?"

More recently, in conversation with another friend who was actively and passionately involved (with me and many others) in a particular political issue, I made the point that I was in complete agreement with him on this issue because it was yet another example of corruption: decisions being made to benefit a few friends of those whose responsibility and obligation it was to do what was best for the whole group. He seemed stunned at first because (it seemed to me), this was his big issue, perhaps his only political issue and therefore (at least implicitly) more important than other (people's) issues.

I was not trying to take anything away from this issue but, rather, I was trying to make the point that it was one of many examples of a more general issue. I hate injustice, not just injustice that negatively affects me and mine. I am in support of resistance to all injustice but, as anyone who has scarce resources to allocate, I have to make choices. The fact that I focus on some issues or causes more than others doesn't mean that I think the others are less valid. But it's easy for people to lose sight of this truth in the heat of the moment. On this topic, Barbara O’Brien at the Mahablog makes a really good point about what she calls "identity politics".
The Wiki definition of “identity politics” is “political action to advance the interests of members of a group supposed to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological wiring).” That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a critical aspect of IP that this definition leaves out. And that is the tendency of IP activists to care and work passionately only on behalf of the marginalized group with which they share identity (hence the name, “identity politics”).

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because the end result is a balkanization of advocacy groups that compete with each other for donations and attention and sometimes even work against each other. And that end result is one of the reasons the Right has been able to dominate American political discourse for the past quarter century or so.


As I wrote a couple of days ago, equality by definition has no preferences.

I intensely dislike “identity politics.”

Identity politics are not about “fighting for one’s equality.” They are ultimately about celebrating inequality and responding to divisiveness with more divisiveness. They are about attaching one’s ego and self-identity to a partisan group and favoring that group at the expense of other groups.

“Fighting for equality” is fighting for equality. Equality by definition has no preferences. If you are fighting for equality only for your particular slice of the demographic pie, then you aren’t fighting for equality but for favoritism.


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