Identity Politics

What is it

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 typically focuses on how to empower individuals from marginalized groups so that they can achieve greater equality and representation. But why should anyone mobilize behind a banner of identity rather than ideology? Why is it important have a diversity of identities in political representation? And does politicizing identities genuinely empower communities or just further divide them? John and Ken empower Tommie Shelby from Harvard University, author of We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity.

Listening Notes

John and Ken open up this episode of Philosophy Talk by asking the question: should we accept or reject the politics of identity? Does its emphasis on differences in identity really help progress society, or does it divide us further? Ken seems to think that this emphasis only exacerbates the issues and ignores the things that unite us beyond them. John, on the other hand, suggests that this form of politics might be necessary to solve issues that undeniably involve these identities.

To help shed some light on the issue, John and Ken welcome Harvard Professor Tommie Shelby to the show. Shelby explains how although identity politics focuses on more narrow identities than the humanity we all share, it can be useful in helping members of a marginalized social group rally together for change. Ken brings up a concern: if marginalized peoples are forced to accept an identity in order to combat that identity’s oppression, are they not being forced to operate under the terms of the very oppression they intend to oppose? Shelby proposes a more complex account. The discussion then turns to the future of identity politics, and whether it becomes obsolete once the oppression of an identity is removed.

To add more thoughts to the conversation, callers are welcomed onto the show. One caller suggests that identity politics is merely an example of tribalism, which sparks a discussion on the divisions that have separated humans throughout history. The question of how one can reconcile ostensibly conflicting identities is brought up when another caller shares their experience with multiple identities.  The episode closes with a discussion on challenging the legitimacy of someone’s identity and the possibility of irreconcilable identities.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 7:08): Shuka Kalantari speaks to a black Muslim lesbian woman about her difficulties juggling her various identities and communities.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:25): Ian Shoales shares his thoughts and grievances on the rise of “identity police” within recent American history. 

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Tommie Shelby, Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy, Harvard University

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