debate isn’t trash, but “identity politics” might be

So-called “identity politics” have been on the rise for some years. Growing scholarship and discussion of systemic disadvantages against demographic groups has led to a rising and justified righteous anger against those forces. But especially in recent years this has resulted in a tendency for every social issue to be framed with a racist or sexist lens. The most outspoken purveyors of this framing are so sure of their analysis that their righteous anger has turned into self-righteous anger. Their quest to unite the disadvantaged through aggressive inclusion has actually backfired in division, an idea explored by the Guardian just last week.

My own sense of the perilousness of this approach has been growing slowly, but it crystallized in part while I was recently reading Tracy Kidder’s now-15-year-old book Mountains Beyond Mountains. While debating whether to write a full review of that work in the style of my previous book reviews, several editorials emerged which highlighted for me the most important takeaway: “identity politics” — which militantly reject debate and elevate tribalist and personal “truth” at the expense of individual liberty — at best waste time and at worst threaten the foundational principle of open debate in a free and progressive society.

Paul Farmer

Mountains Beyond Mountains is essentially a biography of Paul Farmer, an eccentric Harvard-educated physician who specializes in infectious diseases — in particular tuberculosis and AIDS. Much of the book focuses on the charity organization Farmer co-founded, Partners in Health, which to hear Kidder describe it is doing heroic worth to eradicate infectious diseases in the poorest countries in the world. The book is well-written and entertaining — I recommend it — and I found perhaps the most engaging aspect to be the exploration of Farmer’s personality.

Kidder tells how Farmer fell in love with Haiti when he was young and has since dedicated much of his life to providing standout healthcare to poor Haitians. Partners In Health began there as Farmer undertook to build a hospital that wouldn’t turn away patients if they couldn’t pay for services. This was in a direct response to the status quo where payment was a precondition for treatment, and that frustrated Farmer for two main reasons:

  • The bible was very explicit about a mandate to serve what formed PIH’s “special constituency” of the hungry, the poor, and those in prison — “the Gospels said so; you could look it up, in Matthew 25.”
  • Global wealth allocation was such that a little American money in Haiti could go a long way, so why force the most crushingly poor people on earth to pay for basic health services when the international community should in principle be so easily rallied?

The heartbreaking reality of health outcomes on the wrong side of what Farmer called “the great epidemiological divide” — a divide that roughly correlates with income and access to effective drugs against known infectious diseases — motivates much of Farmer’s politics, which is the relevant aspect here.

Over the years, PIHers have developed an interesting vocabulary and set of acronyms as shorthand. Take WL for “White Liberal”, an ally in fact but not often in practice: “I love WLs to death, they’re on our side. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We [PIH] don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity.” WL’s love their political correctness, or “a well-crafted tool to distract us… so you can show everybody you have the social capital of having been in circles where these things are talked about on a regular basis.” An example: “academic types” would ask why Farmer calls his patients ‘poor people’ when they don’t call themselves that, and Farmer “would reply: ‘Okay, how about soon-dead people?’ … WL’s were forever saying ‘Things aren’t that black and white.’ But some things were plenty black and white… where what ought to be done seemed perfectly clear.” Such situations, while rare in the world, are AMC’s — Areas of Moral Clarity.

Farmer’s coworkers in PIH knew that Haiti abounded with AMC’s. They didn’t waste time dancing around it:

Impolite terms, used intramurally, were meant as philosophical rebukes to the misplaced preoccupations of those who believed in “identity politics,” in the idea that all members of an oppressed minority were equally oppressed, which all too conveniently obscured the fact that there were real differences in the “shaftedness,” also sometimes called the “degrees of hose-edness,” that people of the same race or gender suffered. “All suffering isn’t equal” was an article of the PIH faith, generated in reaction to the many times when they had tried to raise money and instead had been offered lectures about the universality of suffering, or simply lines like “The rich have problems, too.”

Farmer even had terminology for sardonically emphasizing the simplicity of some AMCs: “use of the word comma, placed at the end of the sentence… stood for the word which would follow the comma, which was asshole.” For example, when asked how Farmer could be so compassionate to strangers when he had his own family to worry about, he said, “All the great religious traditions in of the world say ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ My answer [to ‘how can you do that?’] is I’m sorry, I can’t, but I’m gonna keep on trying. Comma.” But Farmer was “almost invariably courteous. Comma was always directed at third parties, at those who felt comfortable with the current distribution of money and medicine in the world. And the implication, of course, was that you weren’t one of those. Were you?”

Bill Maher

This “identity politics” refusal of the reality of “degrees of hose-edness” even within objectively terrible situations was recently the subject, in so many words, of Bill Maher’s return monologue after a season break:

If you can wince through the bits about his penis, Maher is essentially right: a significant portion of “the left” has ceded some intellectual and pragmatic capital with no-tolerance rhetoric that ignores clear differences of degree. No one can dispute that the Senator’s assault “line in the sand” is a good aspirational goal, but is that line attainable at reasonable cost? Is our energy best spent pursuing it? What about other competing sand lines? Can we discuss them?

Living in the real world demands a discussion and a prioritization of offenses, both real and imagined: if everything is highest priority then nothing is. Reckoning with the fact that not all valid concerns are the most important ones is hard work because it requires aggressive fact-finding, incessant public debate, and determined collective will to execute on the result. But this is hard work that the left is apparently unwilling to undertake or even to consider.

Instead, the left seems determined to double down on internal dissension. Maher coins a dubious phrase in “MeCarthyism,” but I also see a double standard when one individual’s personal “truth” is accepted as fact to be celebrated when it advances the developing dogma, while another individual’s personal disagreement — not even necessarily with the broad themes of the dogma, but perhaps simply about particular assertions elaborating it — is met with harsh rejection and personal attacks.

Katie Herzog

A striking example of this was documented recently in Seattle’s only newspaper by Katie Herzog. She describes some of the hate mail she’s received over her editorial writing wherein she’s essentially castigated for not being sufficiently “woke” and as a result she and her opinions are “trash.” I don’t agree with her in every particular, but I think she well expresses the dysfunction of this aggressive “call-out culture”:

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile… This atmosphere makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dissent… Progressives used to be able to handle dissent. The Democrats were the party of free speech and free thought. No more. Among far too many leftists, if you disagree, you are wrong. And if you are wrong, you are bad, and if you are bad, you are trash.

What explains this fierce bitterness? One of the downsides of the rise of social media is the emphasis that it naturally places on social competitiveness. The left have found a good thing in fighting to correct social injustices, and now more than ever there are cheap avenues for being seen to be on the right side of history. That’s an attractive angle for a vocal minority that believes it has discovered social capital from being the wokest in the room. Now it appears that considerable effort is being invested in winning that contest.

But, taking a page out of Paul Farmer’s book, perhaps Jesus criticized this approach best in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 6:

When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward.

Recall that Farmer all but called WLs hypocrites. Those of us who actually believe that a better world is possible should take a dim view of the vicious conformism of Herzog’s “leftists.” Their common approach is a fierce adherence to their ideologies, a refusal to debate or compromise them, and harsh social punishments for those who disagree. Such blatant self-aggrandizement is likely to alienate people who would otherwise find common cause but who prioritize actual progress over popularity contests and high fives.

In fact, the harshness and absoluteness of these purity tests represent the very opposite of coalition building. It’s difficult to understand how meaningful social change will come about through such a process. So the real risk with the call-out approach is losing time and ground on important social issues that we otherwise mostly agree about. And the difficulty in figuring out which of those issues deserve the most attention and how best to address them is why we need to encourage robust debate in sympathetic groups about questions of degree and priority.

Andrew Sullivan

Longtime opinion author Andrew Sullivan states this argument in even more stark terms. I haven’t often agreed with him in the past as I find him to be a neoliberal apologist, and in fact I think he appeals to those sentiments too much for my taste in his latest piece for New York Magazine. But parts of his broadside against identity politics stand on their merits and help to bookend my own thoughts.

Sullivan’s argument is essentially that the safe space identity politics of some college campuses are increasingly and dangerously becoming the politics of the left at large. Group identification and call-out culture are honing their tools to eliminate dissent:

…the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect… untrammeled free speech, due process, [and] individual (rather than group) rights… are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites… and anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself.

In particular, Sullivan sees the drift toward identity politics to be correlated with a loss of objective truth and the ability to have rational and open debate about ideas. He laments that “the culture is now saturated with the concept of ‘your own truth’ — based usually on your experience of race and gender.” And the bullying and silencing that Herzog experienced is certainly not lost on him:

…the impulse to intimidate, vilify, ruin, and abuse a writer for her opinions chills open debate… if voicing an “incorrect” opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet… [compounding that is] the idea that only a member of a minority group can speak about racism or homophobia, or that only women can discuss sexual harassment. The only reason this should be the case is if we think someone’s identity is more important than the argument they might want to make.

I understand why group identification is becoming an increasingly popular trend. Better articulation of group dynamics can organize discourse by focusing and amplifying similar voices. Who better than systemically oppressed people themselves to offer up evidence of their oppression to help hone theories which explain their oppression? But weaponization of those theories seems, frankly, bad; and one would hope the goal of the theorizing is the liberation of the oppressed. Sullivan concludes otherwise:

The goal of our culture now is not the emancipation of the individual from the group, but the permanent definition of the individual by the group. We used to call this bigotry. Now we call it being woke.

Identity is about individuals

Paul Farmer did tremendous work to raise funds, build hospitals, and improve statistical outcomes; but he was at his happiest treating individual patients, to the point that he craved “actual doctoring” after long bouts of activism travel. He bemoaned the “goofiness of radicals thinking they have to dress in Guatemalan peasant clothes. The poor don’t want you to look like them. They want you to dress in a suit and go get them some food and water. Comma.”

Note what identity actually means: “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” A person has an identity, and a group identification is ultimately in service to the individual. Categorizing individuals into groups is immensely valuable: it allows statistical trends to be calculated and it helps elaborate theories to explain individual outcomes in the context of larger currents. Ideally it even helps to author or justify policy prescriptions to alleviate systemic ills. But as with any tool, its use should be judicious.

Instead, the popular explosion of identity politics has been abused to end debate and punish dissenters. Talk of witch hunts and McCarthyism may be hyperbolic now, but if left unchecked, there’s a real risk of aggressive conformism actually harming policy outcomes in the long term. If there’s any “trash” we ought to take out, it’s the self-righteous abuse of identity politics that divide more than they unite and steal time that could be spent in the hard work of fostering individual and systemic progress.

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