Monday 20 February 2017

How Does Identity Politics Infuse Political Discourse?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Chameleon – Image acknowledgement: National Geographic
The great English political philosopher, John Locke, observed:
“We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the colour of our moral character, from those who are around us.”
Locke’s insight into human tendencies and the effects of relationships applies as much to identity politics — and the behaviours, aspirations, and goals of group affiliation — as to society as a whole.

Identity politics has been making increasingly recurrent global appearances, announced with bold headlines: In the United States, legal and constitutional grappling over a ban on incoming travelers from select countries; in the United Kingdom, a vote to leave the European Union, at least in part inspired by unrest over borders and immigration; in the Netherlands, calls heard for those who do not ‘agree with us’ to leave. The examples are plenty; the social and political lines are clearly and often-fervidly drawn.

This brand of politics typically pulls in groups whose allied members self-identify on the basis of assorted social identifiers and causes — race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, social background, disability, religion, economic class, generational cohort, education, indigenous provenance, language, and others. Identity politics also pulls in policymakers disposed sympathetically to reach out to, understand, and advocate on behalf of these groups’ interests — as well as policymakers who, rooted in their own conviction, don’t and won’t. The glue that binds members of self-identified alliances is wariness over the specter of coercion and disapproval, as seen to be normalised by the dominant demographic of society.

‘Identity politics’ is a loaded term, fraught with powerful emotions and symbols. Members of these subgroups, apprehensive of diminished power in their personal and public lives, share the belief that clear-cut identifiers set them up for potential distrust and discrimination. Those reactions by ‘outsiders’, whose judgement may at times be tinged with nativism, fuel a sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. The distinctive ‘otherness’ of these self-identified subgroups may prove a handicap not just to acceptance by the mainstream, but to opportunities to fully partake of the benefits that society routinely offers to the majority—or, perhaps more often, that the majority offers to itself.

Group constituents feel deprived of opportunities to determine — at their own discretion, undiminished by reactionary elements — even the larger, existential contours of their lives: their role, their purpose, their future. Through group consciousness and identity, the groups’ struggle has a cosmopolitan ring: communities with shared values, sometimes philosophically disagreeing with one another as ideas churn and contradictions slowly get untangled through a healthy dialectic, often subsequently guided by a written or at least implied platform. Moreover, collaboration across groups may be seen as a viable strategy to amplify their individual voices. Good ideas, after all, are not a zero-sum currency, so aggregating ideas across groups is to their collective advantage.

Perhaps it’s too easy to shoehorn people into social categories with their own demographic markers, but that seems the reality — with the potential for wedge issues to spur spirited differences of opinion about leadership, principles, and methods. The latter being a beneficial dynamic, however. Identity politics serves as a force multiplier in burnishing the groups’ philosophy and ideology, and in the process taking it public. This includes their grievances, their claim to rights and redress, and their petitions to political representatives for systemic, institutional change. Like-minded political representatives may act as the advance guard, taking to the bully pulpit, as well as legislating to replace discriminatory policy with positive policy — practical, actionable policy, not just feel-good nostrums.

Collective action and voice are aimed at repudiating and pushing back against recursive incidents of stereotyping and stigmatizing. Such action and voice provide the bedrock for defying what arguably bodes the worst for members of these subgroups: that is, the threat of irrelevance. And they are aimed at harnessing the energy to successfully counter the narratives that deepen the social fissures and attempt not only to carve out a lesser status in society for group members, but also deprive people of undiminished expression of their equality and value in an otherwise often heterogeneous society.

Identify politics is neither a conservative nor a liberal phenomenon; it falls on both sides of that (reductive) divide. Populism, for example, comes in both political flavors — as continues to be seen in countries around the world. One category that fits under either the liberal or conservative rubric is ‘social background’ — where a sense of victimhood is more important to group members than is simple demographic labeling. People resorting to a crude, reflexive branding of groups may wield any ideology on the political continuum, from the far left to the far right. It’s whatever proves handy in the moment, however one may be philosophically predisposed — where actions, not just reimagined theory, matter, serving as an accelerant for change.

Accordingly, those who disapprove of what they see and hear may seize upon both conservative and liberal identifiers as a framework and animating principles for their cause. Social groups that fall into either category must reclaim their history and draft their own narrative, shouldering how they wish to be defined — outside the orbit of cultural hegemony, accepted non-judgementally for who and what they are and for what they want to become. Societies benefit by allowing room for both conservative and liberal identities to thrive, serving as a bulwark for the best of democracy and its organising principles, even as the balance between the two ideologies might shift back and forth in turns.

Whether identity politics — largely unmoored from mainstream politics — is an effective strategy for politicians campaigning and legislating is an ongoing debate. Legislators, strategists, political pundits, academics, and the public have weighed in. Concerns include, at the core, whether the focus on identity politics atomises audiences with very different identities and needs, and in so doing risks diluting broader-based political messaging.

Those opposed to identity politics argue that messaging would be more effective if the targeted audience is only ever all society — hoping to hit the broader themes of greatest concern to the greatest number of people for the greatest return. Preferably as much outside of a partisan framework as possible, notwithstanding policymakers’ predisposition toward political expediency. Yet, an ambitiously inclusive message risks misfiring in the minds of many self-identified groups, whose platforms, expectations, and anxieties need to be spoken to in a tailored way in order to resonate most productively. Ideally, the greatest effectiveness would emerge from a fusion of both identity messaging and mainstream messaging. Coffers and personnel permitting, it doesn’t have to be either-or.

As the contemporary political philosopher, Sonia Kruks, puts it, how today’s identity politics steers a materially different path from earlier forms of the politics of recognition is the “demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied” — race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth.

This key, enabling ‘demand’ goes beyond the mere superficialities of unsatisfying, insufficient protectionism. Rather, it conjures proactivity, self-assuredness, articulateness, and an embrace of the legitimacy of one’s identity through shared experiences. Locke’s enlightened spirit fits this endeavour, valuing everyone (irrespective of ‘social tribe’) as “equal and independent,” free from “harm” — where the restorative powers of human and civil liberties take an ever-firm hold.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I would think the danger of identity politics is that, instead of being driven by public sector ethics, one is awash with identity interests, and driven by these interests – which themselves are driven (or not) by anything at all. Public sector ethics are thus masked, or eclipsed – which is the major criticism and major debate surrounding identity politics.

On a philosophical level, while it is useful to think on identity politics, it needs to be noted that it is ‘hopelessly outmoded’ (Stanford). It was not only the philosophical debate which did this, but identity politics was arguably shown to be a failure – even if it keeps on going. What we do need, which I think you are saying, is thoughtfulness in messaging.

Keith said...

I thank you for these informative observations, Thomas. If I may briefly add to one — “even if [identity politics] keeps on going” — I would suggest that one apparent takeaway from today’s avid public discourse is that ‘identity politics’ indeed has full sails. Arguably, identity politics is not only not going away anytime soon (pardon the double negative), it seems to be gaining traction. The origins of that are undoubtedly many, the parsing of which is fodder for, among others, the political and social scientists, and eventually the historians. Certainly, tinder for the ongoing public debate is the diverse venues, from legislative bodies, to the streets, to online social media, to punditry in 'traditional' media, to public forums like town-hall meetings. Thucydides’ words presciently resonate in the context of today’s identity politics: “Justice will not come . . . until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.” More than two millennia later, the struggle for hearts and minds continues.

docmartincohen said...

There's a touch of pathos to Locke's comment, I think. Here's someone who participated in the stripping of rights from 'slaves' - and even the children of slaves - in America, yet later wrote some of the most powerful words ever on the subject of inalienable, fundamental rights.

I'm nost sure quite what your closing expert is saying. If rights depend on divisions and distinctions, then surely they can only become weaker and more easily disputed.

Keith said...

Your evoking the word ‘inalienable’ and allusion to Locke’s notions surrounding the protections of one’s life, health, liberty, and possessions reminds us of Locke’s unsubtle influence on Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson similarly struggled with the push-pull dynamic between human rights, on the one hand, and the perpetuation of human slavery, on the other. One accomplishment that etched Jefferson’s legacy in history was, of course, his drafting of America’s Declaration of Independence, among whose most-quotable words, an echo of Locke’s, were that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed . . . with certain unalienable [sic] rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, Jefferson owned more than six hundred slaves during the course of his life—notwithstanding his expressed abhorrence of the “moral depravity” of slavery.

Clearly, for both Locke and Jefferson—factoring into account, Martin, reasons for the “pathos” you refer to in the context of Locke and slavery—there was a two-way, oppositional dynamic between the towering rhetoric of liberty and the harsh realities of institutionalised slavery. They of course weren’t in any way alone among their generations in this push-pull dynamic—both men, likely, an unresolved product of their moments in history. Still, in many ways this period in history proved a turning point, the beginning of a slow, creaking, learn-along-the-way journey away from Aristotle’s proclamation that “some men are marked out [at birth] for subjection, others for rule” and toward a more enlightened social philosophy. Fast-forwarding to the twenty-first century, we see Locke’s notion of ‘inalienable’ rights setting the social, political, and philosophical footing for the debates over equality and justice playing out today, and the subject of the essay.

Keith said...

As for your point, Martin, about the closing quote in the essay, it’s certainly well-taken! Perhaps I’m utterly wrong, but the way I interpreted the quote was that self-identified subgroups within society are no longer seeking fairness, rights, equality, and justice if, in the getting, the precondition is submission and the diminution of their unique identity. The latter, arguably, having been the ‘old normal’, and not the model for today. As such, they celebrate their uniquely defining markers and are no longer compliant in, say, caving to pressure to somehow come over to the demographic majority — their considering, in today's environment, that such wheedling is a price too high. As well as it’s being perceived as contrived, unrealistic, and perhaps entirely undoable. To those extents, they see strength, not vulnerability or weakness, in their unique identity and approach to rights. All that said, I appreciate your raising a very fair question about how to interpret intent behind the quote.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin' ...
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction

--Barry McGuire.

Keith said...

Thanks, Thomas, for the link to the informative article you cite, which appears to focus on methods, experiences, and outcomes in South Africa. My observations in the United States over recent years differ, I believe, in appreciable ways. That is, the many kinds of subgroups listed toward the beginning of my essay have made their substantive gains by using adeptly structured, well-strategized, highly targeted, politically informed means to petition powerbrokers for what I’ll call the subgroups’ three R’s — recognition, representation, and rights. The recent history of results — changes in foundational policy, legal redress, shifting customs, moral compasses, constitutional interpretations, social protections, and ultimately cultural perceptions and acceptance — has underscored the effectiveness, I would contend, of the well-crafted means resorted to.

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