Saturday, 3 December 2016
Identity Politics: Pro Social Justice, Anti SJW
I am not a fan of identity politics, by and large. But I think it's important to clear up exactly what I think identity politics are and my opinion of the role I think identity politics should play in a reformed progressive left.
To be a progressive leftist is to be concerned first and foremost with social justice. Now this is a loaded term these days. I do not refer to the monstrously bastardized form of "social justice" that we've all come to know and ridicule on the internet over the last ten years or so. This isn't about some blue haired lolcow on tumblr with her own pronouns and made up sexual orientation posting about how all cishet white males need to go die. I'm referring to what the term has actually meant throughout the millennia over which the concept has existed and the century and a half that the phrase itself has been in use: a belief in the essential worth and dignity of all people and that the social order should reflect this. In light of this, the recent mutations of identity politics exemplified by what's happened on tumblr has, in fact, been a glaring blow the concept of social justice has taken in living memory.
So, identity politics (IdPol) then. To be an honest and meaningful concept, social justice cannot blind itself to those instances where there is unfair treatment of people based on some arbitrary characteristic like race, gender and so on. The defenders of IdPol would object that history is replete with such instances and that their effects continue to be felt in unequal opportunities suffered by members of the victim-groups to this day. To say nothing of the fact that racism, misogyny, homophobia and so forth are by no means confined to the ash heap of history. And that there is nothing wrong with pointing any or all of this out. This is true. To redress the grievances of people who have been discriminated against due to some aspect or another of their identity requires a political activism that can, with but little exaggeration, be described as identity politics, and that it would be morally and intellectually disingenuous of any self described leftist people or groups to disregard these politics merely for their identitarian character.
None of the above is what most critics of identity politics object to. Only the far right fringe would object to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that we be judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin. What the critics of IdPol object to is the deterministic and Manichean character that such politics can, at times, take on. In these instances, logic becomes distorted and what began as a push for social justice can become its polar opposite.
What seems to drive this is the IdPol activist seeing not instances of discrimination and oppression of her group here and there throughout history, but rather seeing discrimination and oppression of her group as being the motive force in history. The totality of all history, at least of a certain culture or definable era, is the oppression of her people at the hands of a broader society characterized by no other quality than hatred for the oppressed group. What is therefore felt needed to liberate her people and secure justice for them is therefore not equal status within the society, but the root and branch destruction, or at least radical transformation, of that society. From there, much discourse involves the ongoing process of shoehorning events and issues into that narrative.
Once accepted, if not consciously and intellectually at least subconsciously and instinctively, the IdPol activist has opened the door to the acceptance of all the most detestable features of regressive leftism or right wing extremism, as the case may be.
When one is locked in a winner take all death-grapple against the ultimate evil oppressor, one cannot afford to be bothered with the niceties of civil discourse or even political give and take. When the stakes are nothing less than the freedom or even the very survival of your people, one does not negotiate with evil without compromising one's own goodness. To even consider the possibility that the "dark side" might actually make some good points or have some legitimacy of any kind is to open the door to temptation and eventual heresy and treachery. Such misgivings cannot be entertained, even a bit! Only complete victory will suffice. And it must be achieved by whatever means are necessary.
In such a struggle, the ends justify all means. Double standards when they serve the ends of the "good" side are not merely acceptable, but necessary. So too is censorship and repression of members of the "bad" side, even if they're not acting bad in that particular instance. In fact, the good side cannot afford to be lulled into believing that the bad side, both individually and collectively, can do anything that isn't bad, at least in the long run. Any act of good faith or charity done by any member of the oppressor group or class is done only to lull the marginalized side into false complacency. All arguments made by the oppressor groups are done with nothing other than the sole intention of betrussing their privilege and reinforcing the marginalized status of oppressed groups. Pointing out that one belongs to the oppressor class is therefore more than sufficient to shut down any argument they make. Only the utmost of unwavering vigilance at all times is a fair and acceptable means of dealing with any member of the oppressor group.
The dangers of this kind of thinking should be obvious. It lends itself to precisely the kind of self righteousness that ends up enabling the very kinds of oppressive and attrocious actions that give rise to later variations of IdPol. Ironically, it tends to devolve into the IdPol movements coming to resemble their opponents at their very worst. When we identify ourselves by who we oppose, we have a funny way of coming to imitate them. So we end up with feminists who police even non-coercive sexual expression and mandate gender roles, men's groups that advocate the wholesale sexual and romantic rejection of women, POC groups that insist upon "safe spaces" that amount to de-facto racial segregation, and white nationalist advocates appealing to multi-culturalist sentiment.
Bear in mind that the attrocities that most incense western progressives these days were motivated, at least in part, by similar kinds of dualistic, Manichean thinking. Adolf Hitler believed the Jews to be so malignant that to even share the same world with them was a risk not worth taking. The European Christian powers colonized other parts of the world in part due to a desire to save the indiginous peoples of the colonized regions from the damnation they'd suffer as a result of not being Christianized, and to bring the light of European rationalism to the uncivilized savages. The very definition of the White Man's burden. Of course, they made a tidy profit while doing so, but one is entitled to material comfort for doing God's work, is he not?
Once the attrocity has been commited, after that, it is too late. Restitution is slow and costly. The ends only rarely justify the means. This kind of Manichean self righteousness has a powerful way of blinding people to their own potential moral failings. Those who see the world entirely in pure good vs. ultimate evil terms put themselves at great risk of ending up in the latter rather than the former category.
What I've described here is the most extreme and quintessential form of IdPol. Most feminists, MRAs, Black Lives Matter supporters or white nationalists would not go this far. But some do. Think of IdPol as a continuum. To be totally anti IdPol is reductionist, and usually done for self serving reasons. Reasonable concerns with IdPol should not serve as a shield against all allegations of racism, sexism or the like. Such allegations should be looked at objectively and accepted - or not based on their merits.
But the tendency to take such an assertion as itself an act of racism or sexism - common in today's hypersensitive social justice spaces, is an equally dangerous extreme, and usually done with equally self serving intent. It is tempting and flattering to view oneself and one's identity as being a stalwart force for good against an onslaught of pure evil. Not to mention that it gives our humdrum everyday lives a sense of meaning and purpose. It taps into what I believe is an instinctual desire to be heroic. We are drawn to heroic mythology, be it the quest of the Argonauts to claim the golden fleece or the Fellowship of the Ring's mission to destroy the one ring, and quite often we are drawn to the politics we embrace for similar underlying reasons.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it must always be tempered by self reflection. Such thinking can be quite ego stroking and therefore addictive. Thus, support or opposition to IdPol must be tempered by self reflection and a capacity to see ourselves as being a potential force for the very kinds of evils we set out to conquer.