In 2015, identity politics are meaningless, stupid and malicious. So much so, in fact, that I see teenagers thinking that identity politics not just are but always were stupid. But that is not the case, and it is important to say so. Identity politics used to make a lot of sense, and the reason they are meaningless nowadays is actually because they have achieved their goals and thus became obsolete. So this is a good moment to look back and remind ourselves what they were about, and how they changed our world. And through this observation, hopefully, see how they control our discourse today and understand why and how we can ditch them.
Identity politics came about because modern Western civilization is committed to the ideal of creating a society that guarantees equal rights and opportunities for all, but failed to achieve it for certain groups because they were perceived as the ‘other’. Being the ‘other’ means not just being different, like a new group of immigrants that take some time getting used to but we know they will eventually be assimilated. No, the ‘other’ is someone whose presence in a certain society negates the way that society perceives its own identity, so to maintain that identity this society must exclude him. There is no chance that a society will ever accept this ‘other’ unless the logic of that society changes, unless it learns to perceive itself in a different way that is inclusive of this ‘other’ identity. The struggle to achieve this change is what became known as identity politics.
Let’s do a short recap of the identities that were considered ‘other’ in the 20th century, and why they were considered as such.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, as mentioned, Western civilization was committed to create a society that lives up to the ideas of Enlightenment: freedom, equality and justice for all. This included changing the social systems and ridding them of inequalities, but it also had another part: humanity had to “mature”, to overcome prejudices and manners that were unenlightened. After Darwin, it started to be articulated in terms of “getting out of the jungle” and creating a human society that is in control of its original animalistic urges. Western society started to regard itself as advancing towards the creation of a civilized and enlightened Man, one who has completely left the jungle behind and behaves in a wholly rational and moral way. And this perception created the first ‘other’ that we will discuss: Black people. With their physicality, sexuality and rhythmic music, blacks were perceived as people who are still mostly in the jungle, the representatives of that part of us we should leave behind. Thus, they became the ‘other’ to the logic of Western society, and associating with their culture was seen as a going in the opposite direction to the direction we should be going in. Whenever a new popular African-American musical style was born, such as jazz or rock’n’roll, it was called “jungle music” by the Western culture guardian, and when it turned out white kids were drawn to this music is caused a moral panic since the whole ideal of progress was presumably in danger.
Part of this project of creating an enlightened society also involved “fixing” human sexuality, and civilized Man was supposed to learn to have sex in ways that were productive and not harmful to society. Thus, anyone who deviated from what was considered “normal” sexuality was branded a sick deviant, the ‘other’ that is a threat to the health of the human race. Essentially, anyone who wasn’t a heterosexual or did not behave according to their gender sexual role was considered a deviant. In such a reality, all these deviants had to congregate together and create an underground gay culture, where they could be accepted by their peers. Just like black people, the gays were actually Western in their way of thinking and their culture adhered to the same basic Enlightenment values as the society around them, but since they were considered as ‘other’ they could not be accepted into that society. Thus, the options for gays and blacks within society were limited and their chances of upward mobility were slim to none, unless they gave up on their identity: a gay person had to remain closeted, a black person had to be an “Uncle Tom”. Black and gay identities were an anathema to the prevailing logic, and had to be excluded from society.
Then, there was the woman. The progress was focused on ‘Man’, but women were of course considered part of it as well. The Woman, then, was not seen so much as the ‘other’, but as the ‘other half’. Unlike blacks and gays, the women were not exactly discriminated: they were always seen as different but equal. But it was always the perception of ‘Man’ that changed, and the perception of ‘Woman’ was then changed to create a new balance. Man was the driving force, Woman just the companion, the reward or the thing holding him back. While men were allowed to rebel against the ruling perception on ‘Man’ and try to change it in the name of progress women were relegated to a secondary role, expected to always follow the role assigned to their gender at the time, and for free-thinking individual women this was an oppressive situation. Just like blacks and gays, then, women had to rebel against the entire logic behind the idea of ‘Man’ if they wanted to ever end the discrimination they suffered.
The country that was the main arena for these struggles in the last century was the United States, and in the US we can talk about a couple more groups that were ‘other’: Catholics and Jews. Both groups were suspected of not being loyal to the society they were part of: Catholics were blamed that their ultimate alliance is given to the Pope, whereas Jews were blamed for being loyal only to themselves. But it was more than that. The idea of enlightened society in America was a society made of free individuals, a society that overcame the tribalism of humanity’s past and gave every human individual the freedom to live out their particular nature. Individualism came very naturally to Protestants, but Catholic (mainly those who were Irish or Italian) and Jewish cultures were more communal and were therefore the ‘other’ to this strongly individualistic perception of Man. Thus, they also found it hard to fit in American society, and had to prove that they are just as American in spirit as the WASPs.
By the 1960s, Catholics and Jews were largely accepted into American society. That doesn’t mean that they did not suffer discrimination, but that the prevailing logic of society was now ready to accept the Italian-American or Jewish-American as 100% American, no longer the ‘other’. They still suffered from lingering prejudices, but not on a systematic scale. You could now maintain your Jewish, Irish or Italian customs without fearing it will harm your chances of upward mobility. Blacks, gays and independent women, on the other hand, still had to fight for their place, and this is when identity politics really came to fruition.
The aim of identity politics was to expand the concept of ‘Enlightened Man’ to include blacks and gays and to give women equal power to shape it. The way to do so was by criticizing the prevailing logic and demonstrating that it doesn’t live up to Enlightenment ideals when it excludes minority groups, prodding it to feel ashamed and want to change. Slowly, the effect of identity politics (and more so of pop culture, through which these ‘other’ cultures could express themselves and win hearts and minds) changed Western logic and made it more inclusive, until it learned to accept these groups. But something else happened in the process: the idea of ‘Man’ collapsed. We stopped believing that there is such a thing as an “ideal Man” we should all aspire to become, and started believing in a diverse and pluralistic society. The new overarching ideal of Western civilization is the creation of a society where every group is free to create its own culture and ideals, and they all live together in peace. In this new logic, blacks, gays and independent women were no longer the ‘other’.
I was part of this struggle, and doing my best to change my mind and the minds of those around me, rejoicing in every prejudice we managed to overcome. The moment when I knew we’ve achieved full victory was the 2012 US Presidential elections. It started with the Republican primaries, where it became apparent that being woman or black was no longer an obstacle that might prevent you from becoming a forerunner even among conservatives. It continued in the general elections, when among the four candidates for President and VP there was not one who was a WASP (Obama is African-American, Romney a Mormon, Biden and Ryan both Catholics), and where any signs of sexism among Republican candidates for Congress was enough to cost them the election (with the Democrats attacking them with the highly effective “war on women” slogan). And it reached its peak on election night, when all gay-related issues in the ballots were won by the liberals and when America reelected a black President despite its lukewarm view on his first term. It was a complete victory, and everything that happened since then only enhanced it.
Again, that does not mean that there is no more discrimination. What it does mean is that the logic ruling our society is no longer the basis of the discrimination, but rather the opposite: it is committed to ending it. In such a society, identity politics become unnecessary – regular politics are now enough to fight inequalities.
Which means that liberals need to rethink our tactics, to find other causes to fight for, to redefine what constitutes a liberal. Not the basic tenets of liberalism, of course – those are fine. But identity politics no longer adhere to those basic tenets, and should therefore be ditched and replaced with something else. To begin this process, let’s start by asking ourselves: who is the ‘other’ now?
Well, I see two groups in today’s Western society that can be defined as ‘other’. The obvious one are the Muslims, and they do indeed suffer discrimination that we should fight against. However, the old rules of identity politics do not apply in this case. The aforementioned groups all wanted to become part of the Western society according to the ideals of Enlightenment, and were regarded as ‘other’ because of prejudices in society which only made them seem as if they were unenlightened: it was Western society that projected on blacks the perception that they were savages and on gays the perception that they were diseased. Therefore, the job of the liberal was to criticize the ruling logic and detox it from these prejudices. Those liberals who are still trapped in the logic of identity politics believe that the same applies to Muslims, i.e. that all we have to do is change our own minds, be inclusive of Muslim culture, and all the problems we currently have with Muslims will end. What they ignore is that In the case of the Muslims, their otherness comes mainly from the fact that parts of their Muslim worldview is incompatible with the ideals of Enlightenment themselves. To be inclusive of Islam, as it is currently interpreted by a significant part of its adherents, would mean to give up on the very ideals we do it all for. The liberal approach, then, should be different: it should try to open up Western society to be more inclusive of Muslims in the places where it does not encroach our ideals, but at the same time it should criticize Islam and demand of Muslims to interpret it in ways that are compatible with Enlightenment values. Identity politics, at the moment, stand in the way of developing such as approach.
The other ‘other’ in today’s Western society is, surprise surprise, the heterosexual white male. And he became the ‘other’ due to, that’s right, identity politics. Actually, identity politics that have gone out of control. All those years of criticizing a society were straight white males were the dominant force have caused some nitwits to think that the problem is the straight white males themselves, that they are the ones who stand in the way of progress. Instead of criticizing the paradigms that rule our lives, and which are the result of the public discourse which we all take part in creating, those identity politics idiots are busy demonizing straight white males and demanding that they change their bad ways or be ostracized. Identity politics, which were once an instrument of tolerance and liberation, are now an instrument of hate and oppression. If you are a true liberal, you must leave them behind.