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Hey, hey, ho, ho, identity politics have got to go!

This article about the political divide on college campuses got me thinking.

About 13 years ago I arrived at the University of Chicago and promptly got involved with a neo-fascist Catholic triumphalist rag called the Chicago Crucible.

Just that spring I had given a pro-environmentalist speech at my high school graduation ceremony that any tree-hugger could be proud of.

What happened?

Intellectual curiosity is, unfortunately, only a small part of the explanation. A far larger part is that the Crucible looked so much more professional than any of its liberal counterparts, thanks in part to outside funding by conservative groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

Another reason was that the liberal magazines on campus turned me off. I couldn't articulate it very well back then, but now I think I know why: identity politics. The reason I don't like college-level leftist activism is its obsession with identity politics. I think this obsession weakens the Left by fracturing it into a million little camps whose only reason for cohesion seems to be the politically-correct requirement that membership in any of them means you can't criticize any of the others.

Contrast this with the college Right, who (for good reason) feel incapable of dissipating their energy in identity politics. The Right doesn't seem eager to form White Men's groups, or Wealthy Trust Fund Kids groups, or Insensitive Sexist Frat Boys Who Think Rape is Acceptable groups.

My opinion is that the success of the college Right--and they have been successful, elevating many of their leaders into national prominence after graduation--is in part because of their inability or refusal to waste their time with the identity politics so beloved of the Left.

Please answer this question, if you can: Why do we need a black women's group on campus, as distinct from a College Progressive group that advances the cause of mutual respect for all human beings?

I'll tell you: because these groups are really about helping their members to feel more comfortable in an environment where there aren't many of them. They're probably very good at this. But they aren't very good at anything else. Specifically, they aren't good at matching the success of the right-wing groups on campus when success is measured by their impact upon real policies, both on campus and nationally.

This country is being run by neoconservatives. I'd like to see that change. One way to do it is to study what they've been doing, and ask ourselves if there's anything we can learn from it. That's not an admission of weakness; it's a winning strategy.

A good place to start would be with a re-examination of the Left's infatuation with identity politics.

Comments

Why do we need a black woman's group, rather than focusing on what we should be doing as decent human beings?

Problem: Most decent human beings, who are not black women, do not know what it's like to be a black woman. We don't know what they want, what they face, or how to solve their problems. When they tell us what they want, what they face, and what they think their problems are, they are often not taken seriously.

The issue is not the existence of groups for black women. The issue is getting groups of black women to communicate with the left in general, and vice versa.

It is very valuable to have a group where black women work together, from a base of common understanding, to try and achieve mutual goals by building relationships and societal structures for support. It can be destructive when what they try and do is tear down pre-existing relationships and societal structures.

But black women's groups started forming in a time when many feminist organizations were racist, many civil rights leaders were homophobic, and many homosexuals were sexist. Identity politics happened because nobody is "decent" about everything, and it wasn't until they established a voice of their own that some of these groups on the so-called Left started paying attention.

The problem isn't identity politics; it's the way the identity card gets played.

A long time ago, I made the haphazard comment to a friend that I didn't know why everyone made such a big deal about being able to have a female mentor in the sciences. It shouldn't matter, I said, what the gender of a person is. What matters is that they're supportive and a good scientist. Right?

Maybe. But it does matter. People care about that sort of thing. When students had a choice, more women chose to be in my section and more men chose to be in the section of a male colleague. I don't really think I understand why this happens, but it does. It matters; saying that it doesn't is foolish.

Like flows to like. At heart, there's nothing inherently dangerous or damaging about this. It's only when you use the identity you identify most with as a weapon to distance yourself from people who are not so dissimilar that you do yourself--and the Left--a disservice.

Thank you for your challenging response. I don't doubt that you're mostly right, but I remain critical of identity politics per se, and not merely with the current behavior of some groups. I'll try to explain why...

Problem: Most decent human beings, who are not black women, do not know what it's like to be a black woman. We don't know what they want, what they face, or how to solve their problems. When they tell us what they want, what they face, and what they think their problems are, they are often not taken seriously.

Barring reincarnation, I'll never know "what it's like" to be a black woman; that's true. This begs the question, though: how important is it to "know what it's like" to "be" any of the various "types" of people who have organized themselves into identity groups? How much overlap of common experience is enough? Obviously, we all share one thing in common: our humanity. Equally obviously, and at the other extreme, each of us is individually unique and as such will never understand what it's like to "be" anyone else at all.

The question is: when is our common humanity sufficient for mutual respect, fairness, and justice (despite our differences), and when do our differences preclude sufficient understanding and condemn us to mistreating each other?

That's the issue. I don't know the answer to the question. But I think that a general commitment to mutual respect, which includes the admission that different people mean different things by "respect" and that therefore one must always listen and empathize with other people, is sufficient in most cases to actually bring about a fair, just, and respectful society for everyone.

In other words, I don't think you need identity politics to achieve this goal.

However, the goal of many identity groups may be different. It may be, as I suggested, to help its members feel comfortable in a place where there aren't many people "like them."

I suspect that the identity-group remedy for this problem is costlier than the Left admits.

I think it can lead to increased division and an institutionalization of the very alienation the groups are trying to remedy. At the least, I think they divert energy that could be better-used elsewhere (for such things as permanently getting rid of the racism or economic oppression that the Right's agenda would tolerate).

Your point about the value of mentors with whom you can identify, or that people enjoy interacting with others with whom they share things in common, is well-taken.

I don't think, however, that identity groups have much to do with this at all. Recognizing that it matters whether or not there are blacks or latinos or females in important positions in our society is not the same thing as saying the Left ought to embrace indentity groups as a strategic matter.

Thanks again for your comments... I've got to go to class now. Adios until later.

Barring reincarnation, I'll never know "what it's like" to be a black woman; that's true. This begs the question, though: how important is it to "know what it's like" to "be" any of the various "types" of people who have organized themselves into identity groups? How much overlap of common experience is enough? Obviously, we all share one thing in common: our humanity. Equally obviously, and at the other extreme, each of us is individually unique and as such will never understand what it's like to "be" anyone else at all.

Okay, this much is true. But I think it's something more than "being comfortable" and something less than "you'll never be able to understand me."

It's more like this. If you're a minority (and I use this in the generalized sense) with a particular view of the world, you get have this recurring sensation that you are insane. You say, "I see the world this way!" and everyone thinks you're crazy. The easy example is racism. If 1% of people are racist, and you interact with 100 people a day, you'll experience racism on a daily basis. On the other hand, the experience of a non-racial minority is that 1% of a racist population isn't very significant, and what are you whining about?

Now, part of having an identity group is really comfort. It's about having people around that say, "No, you're not crazy. The world really is like this." And another part is just having enough of you in one space that when you say to the rest of the well-meaning liberal world, "This is a problem, and I mean it," you have enough legitimacy to be believed.

I have a serious problem with your statements, because it sounds to me like you're saying that groups that engage in identity politics are divisive at the expense of reasonable human contact and communication. Sure. Some of them are. But a sweeping statement along those lines sounds a little bit like you're blaming the victim. It sounds to me like you're saying that their experience is so far out of the norm, that when it is expressed, it repels regular reasonable decent human beings.

And that sounds to me even more divisive, and less reasonable, than identity politics themselves.