The Inevitable Self-Destruction of Identity Politics

The Women’s March (photo from CBS News website)

During a drive through New England last year, Kristi and I stopped at an old gas station to refuel and use the restroom. The bathrooms were unisex facilities. When we got back to the car, Kristi lamented how nasty her stall was. At that point we joked that the greatest opponents to the transgender push for “bathroom equality” will eventually be feminists. Women are not going to tolerate using the same public bathrooms as men for very long!

Feminism and transgenderism are two examples of “identity politics” – political activism that revolves around social/racial/sexual identity. And right now the liberal political landscape is dominated by the politics of identity: the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the LGBTQI movement, the feminist movement, and so on. To be fair, identity politics are not exclusively leftist – on the Right there are efforts like the white nationalist movement. But identity politics are primarily a liberal  phenomena.

The problem with identity politics, as David Brooks recently observed, is that “identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place.” By its very nature, identity politics is reductive and factional. It reduces personal identity to the merely racial or social or sexual. With this reduction inevitably comes factionalism, as the narrow interests of the various identity movements eventually come into conflict with each other.

Case in point – the recent “Women’s Marches” around the country. Hundreds of thousands of protestors poured into cities to protest on behalf of the rights of women. To make their point (and to express defiance toward the new president’s vulgar comments in the past about women), many of these protestors wore hats in the shape of female genitalia.

But wait – what about those who identify as women but do not have female sexual organs? What about the transgender community? What about their rights? Didn’t this emphasis on female physiology exclude those who identify as female but do not have the corresponding anatomy? This is precisely how many who identify as transgender felt (as a headline in the Advocate complained, “The Women’s March Left Trans Women Behind”).

But then, the feminist movement – by definition – is concerned with the rights of women. If those hard-won rights can be claimed by those who are structurally male, then what will the women’s movement have to show for itself? What will have been the point of advocating (for example) that women’s athletics should have the same footing on college campuses as men’s when a group of men who identify as women could claim to be the women’s basketball team?

Or, what will have been gained by the Black Lives Matter movement if any white person can simply identify as African-American? Indeed, in our age of “expressive individualism” (to quote David Brooks again), there is no limit to the possibilities here. A straight white male could identify as a gay black female (if you think this is far-fetched, check this out).

The only way the practitioners of identity politics can prevent this sort of thing from happening is by sharply distinguishing the lines of identity  – in other words, by heightening divisions between people. No wonder the liberal author Mark Lilla lamented recently that:

 In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

A “house divided against itself cannot stand.” The current liberal fixation on identity politics can only lead to the eventual cannibalization of itself as competing identity groups clash with each other.

What is the solution? Those of us on the Right have a lot of work to do in opposing the rising tide of “white nationalism” – i.e., racism. Whether liberals are partly to blame for the growing white identity movement (as Lilla suggests) is irrelevant. And those of us who are Christians have a special responsibility to declare the message that  in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). In other words, we must define ourselves by the only identity that counts – being in Christ.

To my friends on the Left, I offer the counsel of Professor Lilla.

I want to get to a point where a white working-class guy in Flint, Michigan, with his lousy water, sees a black man being beaten by police on the television and says to himself, “That could be me.” I want him to sympathize.

If you drive home the point that we’re all citizens, we’ve got a chance of doing that. But if you make this into a story of black America and white America and ask people to accept this identity or this version of history, you are giving them countless ways to not [care]…

The only way to reach over that and get people to sympathize with each other is to make them believe that we share something.

1 Comment

  1. Shane,

    I’m enjoying your blog. We are almost political twins along with being brothers in Christ.

    Have you seen the the Black Jeopardy SNL skit with Tom Hanks. I found it amusing and insightful–unlike most of SNL’s sycophantic and sopmoric attempts at humor.

    I think Lilla is incorrect that working class whites don’t already share some of the same feelings toward government that many blacks have. I believe it is the leaders of movements like BLM that have created a wide rift where a bridge already existed. This was also one of my criticisms of former President Obama: he was uniquely situated to rally the black community and create closer relations with working class whites. Instead, he engaged in the same identity politics you decry in your short essay.

    Keep going, my friend–your reasoned approach is the best way to persuade.

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