A (Cautious) Defense of Identity Politics
Identity politics has never wielded more power than it does today, and has never been more fervently opposed.
This paradox is particularly evident in the United States, where ongoing protests and riots over racial injustice have rent the urban landscape and with it the social fabric of the world’s most powerful nation. At the same time, the rise of “cancel culture” has rent the American mind, with even speech once thought innocuous resulting in the ostracization, silencing and professional decimation of those who offend the sensibilities of particular identity groups.
On college campuses especially, in the form of the vaguely totalitarian and clearly self-contradictory doctrine of “intersectionality,” identity politics has become a church, complete with catechisms, heresies, and auto-da-fes. One sometimes wonders if the burning of witches is not far behind.
It seems clear, then, that identity politics is becoming one of the defining ideologies of 21st‐century America, and is likely to remain so, if only because of the furious emotions it arouses among supporters and detractors.
For supporters, of course, this is not a bad thing. They believe that identity politics is both a necessary corrective and a moral imperative. It is a means of empowerment for minority groups ‐‐ racial, ethnic, sexual, religious ‐‐ that have been historically marginalized and unfairly dominated by the majority. The majority in this case being, to use the language of the movement: white, cisgender, heterosexual males. Without identity politics, these groups, so it is claimed, would go unrepresented and often brutally oppressed. Identity politics, then, is the righteous uprising of the wretched of the earth, and carries a moral weight that vitiates all other considerations.
Their critics, naturally, see identity politics quite differently. To them, identity politics is, at best, a balkanization of society, turning it into a chaotic battleground of competing power groups. In liberal democracies, they hold, this leads to a fracturing of the social contract, and with it the gradual but nonetheless very real erosion of some of the most basic liberal and democratic values, most especially that of free speech. On a practical level, moreover, the critics charge that the methods employed by identity politics, such as bullying, mob intimidation, censorship, silencing of dissident voices and sometimes outright violence are a clear and present danger to those values.
Whatever its shortcomings, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that identity politics are here to stay, and while one’s first instinct, especially if one works in professions like journalism in which free speech is an existential necessity, is to embrace the critics’ argument, this is not enough. Identity politics exist for reasons, and if we are to restrain its worst excesses, it is worth trying to understand it.
It seems undeniable, for example, that identity politics is natural and, probably, inevitable. The human tendency to form groups is likely determined by millions of years of evolution. And the creation of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” from which we derive self-definition ‐‐ that is “identity” ‐‐ appears to be hardwired into our very being. It is an existential necessity. Put simply, human beings cannot live without identity. To be an absolute individual is impossible for us. To know we exist, we require other people in whom we can, at least partially, see ourselves.
Indeed, the great 20th‐century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas saw this “face-to-face” relationship, in which we apprehend the other and see in him our own existence, as the origin of the ethical relationship itself: The means by which we begin to understand our responsibility to one another.
The sudden eruption of identity politics and its enormous appeal, moreover, should not surprise us. It is most likely a reaction to the darker aspects of today’s globalized world. Today, we are richer, healthier and more entertained than ever before in human history. But we are also alienated and atomized. Our material needs are usually met, but the fabric of modern society can be terrifyingly isolating. In a society that worships the individual, human connection and empathy often dies, particularly under the ruthless financial imperatives of globalized capitalism.
In the United States, as least from the vantage point of one who is now a foreigner, this malaise seems particularly acute. Divorce is ubiquitous, extended families are often separated by thousands of miles, people communicate through screens and apps, and empathy often seems in despairingly short supply.
Identity politics clearly fills this existential need. It gives people that existentially‐necessary sense of belonging, that sense that they are more than an individual adrift in the void, without which we cannot live. Critics should not belittle this as a purely negative phenomenon. It fills a need that must be filled, and if it is not to be filled by identity politics, it will be filled by something else, perhaps something much uglier.
There is also no question that the political claims of identity politics are by no means meritless. Yes, identity politics pits different groups against each other, but this is not always unjustified. Often, these groups are already pitted against each other, and identity politics simply admits to this reality and acts upon it.
Whether we like to believe it or not, even in enlightened societies groups inevitably dominate other groups, usually because they are simply more numerous, and minorities tend to have to fight in order to secure their dignity and their rights. Moreover, even in the absence of outright oppression, the basic interests of groups quite often diverge in sometimes profound ways. Indeed, on the most basic level, the interests of a minority are often inherently different from those of a majority, whose interest is usually to maintain its status as a majority. These differences are concrete and sometimes absolute, and there is no way of avoiding them. A balance must be struck between them, and this is usually difficult; the strife is often considerable, but it cannot be helped.
To take America’s most burning identity conflict as an example, Black Americans have needed an identity politics because they have been forced into it by the majority’s historical rejection and oppression of them. The Black community could not possibly have summoned up the psychological, moral and ultimately political energies required to defy and combat that rejection without a strong sense of who they are. Consciousness of their identity has been essential to their ability to both survive and progress under the worst of conditions. Without it, they would long since have been crushed in body and spirit.
Closer to home, the same is true for the Jews. While the Jewish experience in the US is far less dire than that of Black Americans, it is highly unlikely that we could have survived and even thrived during centuries of exile, dislocation and crushing oppression without a very, very strong sense of who we are. Indeed, Jewish identity politics is in some ways the most ancient surviving identity politics. From our inception, we have been a “people who dwells apart” and have made no apologies for that. Because if we had surrendered at any point, we would have ceased to exist. And today, the bulwarks against us being simply swept away by the vast gentile world ‐‐ Zionism, religion, peoplehood, etc. ‐‐ are all forms of identity politics writ large.
Nonetheless, there is no question that today’s identity politics has a very dark side. It is indeed often violent, censorious and deceptive in its claims and demands. The problem, however, does not seem to be identity politics per se. The problem is the pathological form of identity politics that becomes nothing more than a means of leveraging power, because it sees the mosaic of identities as nothing more than means of leveraging power.
At its extreme, this attitude leads to the creation of a mass movement that in its moral arrogance becomes a mob that imposes itself through intimidation, emotional blackmail, deceit and, in the end, violence. What this creates is unquestionably a threat to liberal democracy, as it constitutes a totalitarian movement, one in which the individual is not just connected to others through a sense of identity, but crushed by that identity so that the possibilities of critical thinking, dissent and idiosyncrasy are destroyed completely. The individual needs a collective identity, but a collective identity also needs the individual, or it ultimately destroys itself.
The question, then, is not how we can oppose and overcome identity politics, but to identify the point at which it becomes pathological — the moment when it refuses to apprehend the other and thus destroys the face-to-face encounter that is the origin of the ethical relationship. It is at this moment that identity politics does indeed become an existential threat to our freedom. And it is at this moment that we must say: this far, no further.
Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel Correspondent for The Algemeiner.