The notion of identity has become so hugely important in contemporary political discourse that no conversation on social issues would be complete without it.
Identity politics is when people of a particular race, ethnicity, gender, or religion form alliances and organize politically to defend their group’s interests. The feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay liberation movement are all examples of this kind of political organizing.
Identity politics seems to be experiencing a surge in recent times, which has led some people to decry this approach to politics, calling it divisive. Critics of identity politics claim that it only deepens the divides that exist between different groups in society—black versus white, straight versus gay, Jew versus Arab, Sunni versus Shia, Protestant versus Catholic, and so on.
Instead of focusing on our differences, the critics say, we should recognize our common humanity. We should strive to do what Rodney King had in mind when he asked, “Can we all get along?” That was King’s response after being beaten up by four cops, an incident that was caught on videotape by a citizen witness, and which led to the 1992 LA Riots.
Sadly, over two decades later, we keep seeing more stories like that, which highlight the depths of institutionalized racism in this country, especially when black people have encounters with law enforcement, which is why we now have movements like Black Lives Matter. So long as some people are marginalized, victimized, or oppressed because of their identities, we will need identity politics.
The mere wish that we could all just get along can do nothing to combat sexism, homophobia, or white supremacy. In an unjust world, where certain segments of society are oppressed by others, simply trying to transcend our identities is not the answer. As Hannah Arendt said, “One can resist [oppression] only in terms of the identity that is under attack.” The idea that the oppressed can resist or escape their oppression by denying their own identities is a fiction.
Yet there is a worry that the obsession with identity politics could turn out to be a recipe for endless struggle and division. Take somewhere like Palestine and Israel, where intense identity politics rule the day. Can there ever be peace in that troubled region if the people there can’t transcend their narrow identities and embrace their common humanity? When both sides become so deeply entrenched in their respective religious identities and enduring sense of victimhood, it’s hard to be optimistic that there will be a solution.
But we might still hold out some home for the Israel Palestine confict. Consider a parallel situation in Europe—Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics seemed stuck in an intractable conflict with one another over a small part of a small island. As someone who grew up during “The Troubles,” though in Dublin, far removed from the conflict, it seemed like there would never be peace in Northern Ireland. Each side was too entrenched in their respective religious and political identities to find any kind of common ground. Despite this, there is now peace there, though post-Brexit, that peace is looking quite fragile.
Brexit itself could be thought of as an example of identity politics gone mad. Those who voted for Brexit, want England to be for the English, which in their minds often means only the white, non-immigrant population of the country. Being “English” is an identity they wish to exclude certain segments of the population from, so they can deny them rights that are reserved only for the “true” English.
Indeed right wing nationalism seems to be taking over Europe. And, of course, we have our own ugly white supremacist, xenophobic, nationalist movements here in the US.
Nationalist movements, like Brexit, are not what people normally think about when they hear “identity politics,” but the fact is that nationalism is also based on an idea of a shared ethnic identity. Nationalists organize politically to serve the exclusive interests of their group. If we include this kind of political movement under the umbrella of identity politics, then we can see that identity politics is a bit of a mixed bag. In some contexts, it seems necessary to fight oppression. In others, it seems like it can be used as a license for oppression or discrimination.
There is also the philosophical worry that identity politics relies on a suspect idea, namely, that there is something called a “shared identity” amongst people in a particular group. It appeals to a kind of essentialism, and ignores heterogeneity within the group.
As a white, well-educated, middle class woman, working a salaried job and living a relatively privileged life, I cannot assume that, simply in virtue of my gender identity, there’s something essential I share with, say, a black single mom who lives in a dangerous neighborhood and struggles to make ends meet working three low-paying jobs. I can only imagine the challenges she faces in her daily life.
Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance" might be a useful way to escape troubling appeals to essentialism in this context. He explained that concept with the example of games, which can have one player—or several—can be competitive—or cooperative—and so on.
The point is that there’s no essential feature all games have in common. However, they do share a “family resemblance” with one another. Individual games have some things in common with some other games, but there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for gamehood. A similar argument could be made for both race and gender, especially given our current understanding of those notions not being reducible to biology or biological facts.
But even loosening the notion of “identity” to avoid appealing to essentialism, we might still wonder whether the single mom I imagined would not be better served by a strong labor movement that fought for higher wages and better working conditions, thus improving her material conditions and her lot in life. What does she gain from being in solidarity with a privileged white woman like me?
This is a kind of worry critics have of Sheryl Sandberg style lean-in feminism—it assumes that the problems women face are the problems faced by mostly white, privileged, middle class women who are trying to break the glass ceiling by becoming the CEO of a big corporation, or something like that. That particular kind of feminism, it strikes me, does nothing to address the problems of poor women, especially poor women of color.
That’s not to say that there aren’t feminist movements concerned with the plight of women who are not middle class white women. The whole intersectionality movement within identity politics is an attempt to address these kinds of concerns. And it’s not that we have to choose between being part of a labor movement and being part of feminist movement or a Black Lives Matter movement, though if you’re working three jobs, you may not have the time or the energy to be part of any political movement.