Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Problems with Identity Politics

I discussed identity politics a while back in a comment on this Feminist Current article. This blog post elaborate on some of the issues brought up in the comment.

In high school, I took philosophy as an elective. I only studied it for a semester (that was about as much idealist, navel-gazing as my rationalist, materialist brain could take), but it helped me work out my political and philosophical views. It thus contributed to me becoming the snarky, revolutionary leftist, radical feminism supporter that I am today, though I do not think anyone in the class (including myself) intended for things to turn out that way.
One day, the topic for the lesson was self reflection (or if you want to use the somewhat pretentious terminology employed by the teacher, “know thyself”). A student, when asked to describe himself, stated that he was a fifteen year old, Caucasian male. From the perspective of those who promote identity politics, this was a fine answer. In fact, all he would have to do to be labelled a brilliant, progressive thinker by identity obsessed liberals is toss in a few references to privilege, along with more information than any us need to know about his sexual preferences or activities.

The teacher on the other hand was not impressed. If you understand why, you probably know what some of the problems with identity politics are. If not, well that is what this post is for, though be warned that this blog is not the place for philosophical navel-gazing.
What is Identity Politics?

For a long time I had an instinctive dislike of something called “identity politics”. I heard the term being used derogatorily by radical leftists (including some radical feminists), though to my confusion some liberals proudly identified with it. It was not easy to pin down exactly what the term meant, but here is the answer I came up with.

Identity politics consists of turning either superficial traits (such as sexual preferences and unhealthy lifestyle choices) or hierarchical social categories (especially race, sex and class) into “identities”, which are then meant to form a basis for political movements. Some say that identity politics began with Karl Marx, who claimed that capitalism divided people into economic classes and that the exploited working class needed to overthrow the ruling class. However, not all political discussions of race, sex and class promote identity politics. 

What distinguishes Marx from identity politics proponents is that he envisioned the abolition of class divisions. To endorse identity politics is to claim that the class, sex and race of a person (along with similar categories) combine to create their “identity”. Thus those who adhere to identity politics either cannot imagine the end of such categories or view efforts to eliminate them as oppressive.

For example, revolutionary socialism (especially Marxism) is condemned, by liberals and conservative alike, for supposedly seeking to destroy human individuality. Similar arguments are made against radical feminists (who aim to abolish masculinity and femininity, just as radical leftists seek to abolish economic class), though with more modern buzzwords, like “diversity”. In both cases, oppressive social orders are reinforced. If someone believes that their identity is dependent on being assigned positions within hierarchies (which is what the various class and gender categories really are) they will support such systems and harshly denounce those opposed to them, while claiming to be the true defenders of equality.

However, not all identity politics proponents view themselves as progressive or feminist. White supremacy and male supremacy can also be expressions of identity politics. Such thinking is often based on stereotypes regarding the supposed intelligence, productivity, ambition and “bravery” (or rather brutal aggression towards designated enemies) of white males. It stands to reason that the more a person thinks of himself as a “white male” rather than a human being, the more likely he is to be offended by criticisms of white people or males as a whole (or the roles pushed onto them), causing him to accept reactionary viewpoints.

However, identity politics is not a genuinely progressive force, regardless of which group adheres to it. Whenever we encourage someone to feel attached to either a dominant or a subordinate role within an oppressive order, we reinforce that order. Thus those who favour an egalitarian society should oppose identity politics in all its forms. 

Identity Politics and Liberalism

As I stated above, reactionaries do sometimes promote identity politics (while hypocritically accusing their opponents of doing so). However it makes sense that identity politics is usually associated with liberalism (the belief that all actions are morally permissible if there is consent), since the former is often used to justify controversial behaviours. Those who practice a harmful behaviour can protect it from criticism by implying that the behaviour is “who they are”. Any opposition to it is then perceived as a personal attack.

Liberals typically use identity politics to defend sexual practices (both benign ones, like gay relationships, and harmful ones, like sadomasochism), but recently I have seen it used in reference to other activities. The label “gamers” (a category which seems to only include obsessive video game players who favour violent games and enjoy, or at least tolerate, the misogyny in them) is a convenient excuse to silence critics of the industry who are accused of not being “real gamers”. Then there is the argument that “gamers” are being persecuted, because some people disapprove of certain games. I do not know of anyone who argues that video games are inherently evil and should be abolished, but the “gamer” label sure is an effective means of suppressing political disagreements.

The term “smokers” is used in a similar way to defend tobacco consumption. Those who create policies aimed at discouraging smoking may be denounced for discriminating against “smokers”. By replacing the verb, “smoking”, with the noun “smoker”, one can obscure the fact that a bad habit is being targeted rather than a set of people. Nobody is inherently a “smoker” (or a “gamer” for that matter, let alone a player of violent games), nor is anyone destined to remain one (however difficult quitting may be). Those who smoke are not in the same position as those born with female genitalia or dark skin. The former have the option of giving up their dangerous habit (which is, after all, the objective of the policies) and escaping any perceived discrimination. The latter do not.

However, as harmful as smoking is, it is not directly contrary to the aim of creating an egalitarian world. The behaviours I am most concerned about are those which strengthen hierarchies, in addition to harming physical health. Liberal feminists promote such behaviours through the belief that to be a woman is to adhere to some form of femininity (this can mean anything from using lipstick to getting cosmetic surgery to behaving in an overly sweet and gentle way, which makes one vulnerable to abuse). Combine this with identity politics (specifically, the claim that womanhood is an aspect of identity) and you arrive at the conclusion that feminine behaviours make women “who they are” and thus are only opposed by those with a personal hatred for women. 

Similar reasoning is employed by anti-feminists to defend behaviours that society associates with men, including sexual aggression, along with the consumption of pornography and other violent media (including violent video games). Thus identity politics is used to excuse harmful behaviours on both sides of the gender hierarchy. 

An Alternative to Identity Politics

It is possible to recognise that one has particular attributes or behaviours while rejecting the view that such traits constitute your “identity”. This can be an important step towards self improvement, since it is psychologically easier to give up a harmful habit than it is to give up a behaviour which is supposedly part of “who you are”. However, people would generally prefer to have some sense of identity. Those who dismiss identity politics should therefore propose an alternative way to respond to the “describe yourself” prompt discussed earlier.

Humans have the ability to think rationally, experience emotions, express opinions, tell stories, develop ambitions and imagine other worlds. These characteristics are specific to humans (and perhaps some mammals), yet identity politics barely acknowledges them. Sex obsessed liberals should note that brief bursts of sexual arousal (and other forms of temporary, mostly physical pleasure) do not fall within my definition of “emotions”, only deeper, lasting feelings, like sadness, fear, anger, happiness and genuine love do (though it is possible to express deep, positive feelings through sex). Asking someone what would make them angry or bring them permanent happiness is a far more effective means of getting to know them then asking for a list of things which cause pleasurable physical responses from their genitals.

The traits liberals obsess over, such as appearances, habits, social roles and sexual preferences are superficial. They may enable survival and reproduction (though some habits, like smoking, impair survival) but being human means doing more than that. If the traits you list when describing yourself are not specific to intelligent life or are external, physical traits which society uses to assign roles to you (such as your race and sex), you might want to rethink your notion of identity.

However, even a sense of identity based on deeper traits should not command blind respect. My political and philosophical views are an important part of my identity and they do not usually receive such respect, nor do I think they should. Disagreements and debates, including fierce ones, can be an important source of growth. The thoughts, feelings, ambitions and stories of humans should all be open to critique. These characteristics differ from the superficial ones liberals focus on in that they can be used to determine the true nature of a person, good or bad.

That said, traits like race, sex and economic class should not be completely ignored, for doing so leads to the reactionary delusion that such categories no longer have political importance. Instead we should be conscious of the roles that society pushes onto us (whether they involve dominance or submission) without accepting the claim that these roles are our “identities”.

For example, biological males who wish to be decent human beings (while rejecting identity politics) must recognise that social forces (like the pornography, mainstream media and gendered toys) are encouraging them into behaving in aggressive, dominating ways. They must then consciously fight that indoctrination, every step of the way, instead of incorporating such behaviours into their sense of self. It is not acceptable to simply assert that society does not influence you. You must acknowledge that a problem exists in order to fight it. Otherwise you leave your mind vulnerable to influence. It is also important to learn to think critically, for acknowledging the existence of indoctrination without knowing how to combat it, leads right back to relativism and identity politics.

In past decades, revolutionary leftists and radical feminism often spoke of “raising consciousness” with regard to class and gender. Nowadays liberals think they can substitute the term “identity” in place of “consciousness”. In reality, the two are not interchangeable, for “consciousness” (when used in both political and apolitical contexts) refers to an awareness of the real world and the place one occupies within it, while “identity” refers to the beliefs people have about themselves (which can still be wrong). While we need identities (preferably ones that are not based on hierarchical roles), the term “consciousness” needs to be brought back into political discourse. This would enable radicals to reintroduce materialist thinking in opposition to the idealism of identity politics.


Opponents of social hierarchies, like capitalism and male dominance, must recognise that we are more than the roles society shoves down our throats. We must encourage consciousness with regard to class, race and gender, in place of the belief that such categories are our “identities”. Radicals seek an awareness of reality so that we can change it. We should avoid getting so caught up in hierarchical roles that we lose the ability to see beyond them. The term “identity” should be reserved for characteristics that truly capture our unique selves. While nobody can hope to fully fulfil the “describe yourself” instruction in few words, here is how I would respond to it.

I am an intelligent, creative, stubborn, critical, often angry human being, who values equality, liberty, reason and collective resistance to domination. I envision a socialist revolution, which enables the working masses to do away with class, gender, religion, consumerism and other institutions or practices which reinforce hierarchies. Notice how my response did not include references to the social categories I belong to?
I hope that those of you in the Northern Hemisphere enjoyed your summers and that this post has given readers from all over the world something to think about (and comment on).


  1. I've been thinking about "nounism"- the transformation of verbs into nouns as a way to turn actions into identity. I know that wasn't the main topic of this entry, but your point about identity politics turns attacking an action into attacking people. I feel like this is obviously connected to anti-radicalism (people who always accuse radicals of attacking their "choices" instead of the truth, which is that they attack a system which guides behavior), but I haven't quite formulated it all yet.

  2. Wow! This was an eye-opener. You are amazing! I am going to include this in my life from now on.

  3. I agree with this. I would add the over-emphasizing of ethnic identities as part of identity politics. For instance, Western media in general and US media in particular love to talk about such benighted peoples like the Kurds in the Middle East, and its pretty obvious that they don't really care about this ethnic groups, they are only exploiting their real grievances to advance political agendas and keep perpetuating modes of oppression, while also promoting conservative and inegalitarian ideas (like Kurd supremacy in this case).