What is identity politics? The term is prevalent in Western intellectual discourse or what counts as such these days, but the profuse use of it has not much clarified the meaning of the term. Let’s try to throw some clarity and distinctions into the mix.
The first trap one might walk into when assessing identity politics is to do the work of the proponents (or rather: users) of identity politics for them. ‘If you’re so against identity politics, why don’t you tell us what it means?’ This is the indignant response one might expect from opposition that consists mostly of people that have been schooled in what remains of the humanities ― an education that once upon a time required students to know the meaning of ‘Roncesvalles’, Russell’s theory of descriptions or New Criticism.
However, as much as it is might be a trap to try to come up with a definition, we have to shed some light on the concept of identity politics. We should not approach it as a doctrine, because that would require obedience to consistency. It might be a mistake to judge identity politics as a phenomenon that requires itself to be consistent.
One would think that while we might not be able to produce a robust definition of identity politics, there are some characteristics that most if not all forms of identity politics share. These are 1) a peculiar relationship between the self and the collective, 2) a tendency to measure marginalisation, 3) a strong focus on the concept of power and 4) the lack of some utopian vision. Let’s go through these characteristics one by one.
The sacrifice of the self
Sacrificing the self is a very old temptation. The self on its own might not be much, so trading the self for the strength of a collective seems alluring. But what if you get to keep your selfhood – your identity – and use it to wield power for the greater good? This is one of the temptations of identity politics; aligning your very own self, or at least your personal dispositions, with a collective that is on your side. And why not? Firstly, a lot of people that engage in politics are members of a party and, secondly, what could be better than a political party or movement that is specifically tailored to your identity?
However, there are several reasons why one shouldn’t do this: all this biblical talk of temptations serves to illustrate the human condition. It is a temptation exactly because it seems attractive to inflate the self beyond its merely individual realm, especially if it’s supposedly for the common good. This, however, is not possible. You either cherish the self and are content with modesty, or you give in to the idea that sacrificing a little by way of espousing a collective that is ‘like you’ is a good trade-off. It, sadly, never is.
Identity politics is often used in such a way that it is supposed to give a voice to minorities that have until now been silenced by some oppressive force. However, the basis of identity politics can be said to be a radical recognition of a specific self. After all, what is the self besides a specific set of properties that can only be attributed to that self? After careful introspection, a person can self-describe as such-and-such. But this focus on the self seems to have almost completely vanished when entering into discourse.
Because at that moment we are reminded of the very collective natures of all these selves. Then we are being lectured on the ‘LGBT community’, the ‘trans-community’, minority x and marginalised group y. What unites these collectives is no longer likeness in personal identity, but likeness in identifying with a particular group – and a common enemy.
True, other people engage in party politics in a similar way, but these people don’t see the party or some other collective as a function of themselves. They don’t see this collective as a means to express or enforce their individual identity, for them, it is an expression of their beliefs. Bringing one’s beliefs to the fore is not the same as making one’s identity productive in a political context. To the point of a political party or movement tailored to your identity: this either leads to a personality cult (we have seen those before) or a movement that prescribes what it is to be you.
Looking for the needle
Many identity politics ideologues seem to think that marginalisation can be measured by adding up as many characteristics that ‘deviate’ from the perceived dominant group when describing a certain person. A man that does not identify as a heterosexual is, generally speaking, not as marginalised as someone who is a woman and not heterosexual. Of course, the terms that grant and measure marginalisation can be altered every day and are expanded every day. A homosexual might be marginalised, but if it is decided that he or she is white, it sort of softens the blow. And although we still can’t figure out if it’s satire or not, there’s even a test to calculate your marginalisation, or lack of privilege, which boils down to the same thing.
To borrow an insight from arithmetic: the terms to ascribe and measure marginalisation can be either positive or negative. Being white at least partly cancels the negative effects a person suffers from being gay. To put it more bluntly: there is always someone worse off than you – and usually you can tell that is the case if this person has more terms than you in their marginalisation equation. The non-white person of color who identifies as transsexual, is disabled and Muslim is not just a bad joke. Maybe we should call these kinds of exercises ‘grievance scholastics’.
Two things should be noted here. Firstly, no matter how marginalised a specific individual is deemed to be, it does not cancel the collectivist tendency in identity politics. You are still a member of a group, a collective. This is where ‘allies’ come in: people from different groups that align themselves with you and your identity and therefore – because of the nature of identity politics – your cause.
Secondly, regarding this alignment, we must briefly pay attention to a term that is rife in identity politics; ‘intersectionality’. This is a frame in which social categories, such as race, gender and class, are not regarded as independent, but as intertwined. Whatever the interesting implications of this frame, the term is mostly used as a rhetorical tool to call for alignment. Being an ‘intersectional feminist’ not only means you are a feminist and thus supposedly support women’s causes, but that you also acknowledge racism and the specific plight of, for instance, women of colour. In any case and to summarise: however much identity politicians might want to find the individual needles, in the end, they will only find the heap that is the collective.
The powerless professor
Anyone who has ever read something written by the French philosopher Michel Foucault on power, knows his work is very intricate and yet very vague. Notions such as ‘power’ or ‘discipline’ seem to be autonomous categories that are just as real and pervasive as, say, gravity. Because of a very remarkable reading of Foucault, the term is now used much more crudely. Power as a concept in identity politics is now used to describe a relation between the ones who have power and the ones who don’t. There are ones who rule and ones who suffer; victors and victims.
Having power is an infraction in itself, because it is the source from which all oppression emanates and it seems to be the birthright of the aforementioned common enemy. That is: white heterosexual males. Hitler was a white male and so was Stalin, so the plot thickens. It is worth noting that power is the enforcer of evil if used by this common enemy. Only through power do sexism, racism, classism and almost every all other -isms manifest themselves. Interestingly: an individual or group that is said to have no power (i.e. is marginalised), cannot be racist. Thus speaks the identity politician.
There is some irony to this, by the way. The proponents of identity politics are by and large academically trained. This is a peculiar trait of identity politics: you can be a mason and a socialist, but an intersectional feminist almost always has (had) access to the highest levels of education. Having a university degree must surely count as less of a marginalisation in the equation of oppression. It’s unlikely a lot of people buy the sad story of the powerless intersectional professor of gender studies.
Here’s why: one of the essential interpretations of power by Foucault is that it is not oppressive, it is creative. Power creates, for instance, knowledge. And it goes the other way around: by controlling you know and by knowing you control. This may seem more trivial than it is: Foucault implies that power creates knowledge. We only have to look at the academic staff of social science faculties to see this rings true. They (however much they may deny this because of ‘neoliberalism’ and other buzzwords) have power. They teach, publish, grade papers and thus have the capacity to mould the supposedly eager young minds of tomorrow in their ideological image. And – whether intentionally or not – they do.
We know that it is not desirable to strive for the utopian vistas totalitarian regimes bombard you with. Every century teaches lessons and this is what the 20th century taught. One of the great challenges of the 21st century is how to deal with an aggressive ideology that is bordering on the militant and does not offer a final destination. We can point out the failed attempts at a workers’ paradise and the millions of lives the idea of the racially pure nation demanded. We cannot point out why such-and-such a society with a perfectly equal distribution of social justice will not work. The most important reason for this are the constant changes to the conditions. What seems right today, is a hate crime tomorrow.
This does not seem to matter to the currently revered identity politicians and they might have a very good reason for this. Yes, there possibly is a strategic reason for the wilfulness with which it wants to find fault, demand inquiry and scream indignantly. This is the lifeblood of identity politics – and this is where it differs from many utopian and totalitarian ideas – there is no nirvana. Eternal opposition is the only way to survive on the ‘body politick’. There is merely a perpetual struggle between marginalised collectives and the force that marginalises these groups. Nobody has a clue how it will end, because there is no fixed goal, from what we have seen, there is only opposition per se, only ‘calling out’ ordinary people for their never-ending stream of infractions and even crimes against marginalised groups of every sort. Contempt for everyday practices is key, even if utopia has still to be found.
Let’s not harbour the illusion this critique will hit home with the identity politician. You might think this is merely because this person disagrees with the above. But you will be disappointed to learn that that is just part of the reason. You see, freedom of speech, expression and thought are largely relinquished by the hardliners of identity politics. Identity politicians declare the set of utterances that you are allowed to utter dependant on one’s gene pool and marginalisation equation. What we are allowed to say, is a function of our bloodline and the oppression we suffer or supposedly inflict. There is a set of sentences we are free to speak, given the composition of your DNA and marginalisation. Ironically, free speech – with all its idiotic non-racially charged permissions – apparently is the ultimate tool for marginalisation. Therefore, we should remain silent; criticism is a hate crime.