“Identity politics”

One of the most unproductive things you can have in political discourse is the situation where people polarize around a poorly defined piece of terminology; people will talk past one another, people will misrepresent one another (willingly or unwillingly), and people will just plain not argue their case, regarding their conclusions as obvious because argument to the contrary has been made semantically inaccessible.

Argue about “identity politics” on Twitter, and you’ll likely receive a shit-storm in response, impugning your character in ways determined by which caricature you can be most closely associated with. Woke, with-it hot-takes abound on pseudo-leftist media start-ups, decrying the use of the word, while angry white men quiver on YouTube, simultaneously treating their own use of the term as rigorous and unequivocal, all while not bothering to even define it.

***

To give you an idea of the vista of confusion I’m seeing, here’s a few different definitions of “identity politics” I’ve seen in play. (This list of meanings is non-exhaustive, and for even more confusion, there’s probably more overlap than I’m indicating here.)

The Bubba/Brexit/One Nation Definition: “Identity politics is wot those uppity blacks used to humiliate me for loosin’ my job after they dun stole it with the immigrunts.”

The ‘Bert Definition: “Identity politics separates us all into fictional boxes – but we’re all the same: I don’t see race! There’s no wage gap! All lives matter!”

The Brocialist Definition: “Racism is bad, but identity politics – arguing about race and sex – is a wedge strategy to stop us talking about class, so stop talking about racism and sexism and be my wingman at the next Marxism convention! #Solidarity”

The Identarian Definition: “All oppression is leveled against intrinsic identities, and “identity politics” is a derisive term used by people who seek to engage in said oppression by denying who we are on the inside!”

The Anti-Identarian Definition: “Not all oppression is leveled against “intrinsic identities”, and a good deal of identity is not intrinsic to begin with. Identity politics moves the focus of debate away from the material living conditions experienced by various social groups – the distribution of wealth, and control over the means of production – towards demands for often trivial (or epistemologically impossible) acceptance of other people’s internal accounts of themselves. It is solipsistic, narcissistic and regressive.”

***

I think it’s pretty obvious by way of my giving it the final word, which meaning I’m most sympathetic with, but it’s not really my point right now to promote any given definition. Rather, it’s my point that these commonly circulating meanings for “identity politics” are quite at odds with one another, and yet people will go on arguing as if we’re all talking about the same thing; arguing and achieving nothing.

When YouTube Atheists or Skeptic Douches prattle on about “identity politics”, too often it’ll be a case of the Bubba objection masquerading as the pseudo-enlightened ‘Bert objection, which basically guarantees that you’ll never be able to pin them down to an unequivocal statement without drawing their motives out first; motives which they’re not apt to self-examine in the first place. Good luck with that.

The ubiquitous Internet ‘Berts will often have the broadest definition of “identity politics”; engaging in hyper-skepticism of statistically meaningful social groups in order to further denialism about the living conditions of said social groups, to whatever extent is needed for them to feel comfortable with their own fortunes. And you’ll be the racist or sexist for contradicting them.

The Brocialists, if they’re your standard variety, will at least have the good manners to stick with their objection, even if it does make if difficult to have a conversation with them (not that you’d necessarily want to).

Identarians, I’ve often found, will deploy the confusion of the inverse fallacy; that they’ve seen a number of Brocialists/’Berts/Bubbas use the term “identity politics”, before noting that you’ve used it, and are hence therefore a Brocialist, ‘Bert or Bubba, or hybrid of all three or more. Aside from being logically invalid, and not-infrequently factually wrong, when people take this kind of non-argument on-board they’re internalizing a shit-tonne of confusion. Confused? Yes, well that’s to be expected.

(I get that this fallacy can serve as a heuristic to ward off racist/sexist trolls, but still, it’s one that generates a lot of confusion/signal degradation).

The mistake I think anti-identarians make, when they make it, is a simple case of taking their own assumptions for granted and subsequently talking past interlocutors. This may not generate as much confusion or conflict as the practices of the other camps, but it doesn’t help to inform readers either, nor does it cut through any of the confusion generated by the other takes on the topic.

***

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read that people who have a problem with identity politics were all opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. This struck me as weird because all the people I’ve known who’ve had articulated objections to identity politics – old Trots from some time back – I’d expect would be Black Lives Matter supporters.

The message I get from this confusion is that people – particularly people who get published writing about politics – aren’t examining their own lexicons, instead passively adopting definitions from their own social bubble.

To some extent, at lower levels or in private spaces this isn’t a problem, and we all do it. But if you aren’t familiar with a set of perspectives – if you didn’t know who was voicing a vague term or where they were coming from when using it – you could be forgiven for not having a fucking clue what they were on about.

Public participation in discussion of politics shouldn’t be confined to select in-groups, as much as certain groups may benefit from such insularity.

I’m not going to get all Bolshi and demand that everyone closely police their semantics in their own personal spaces, but I think it wouldn’t hurt for writers with some modicum of political responsibility to reconsider how clearly they’re getting their points across, and whether or not they want to do more than just preach to the choir.

It wouldn’t hurt the public for such writers to tie themselves down to a definition or two.

~ Bruce

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