Identity Politics – A Critical Examination
Identity politics necessitates the acceptance of not a few transparently contradictory ideas. First and foremost, it inextricably ties identity to experience. When I say identity I am referring to both biologically established identities, such as being dark-skinned or female, and abstract or political identities, such as being spiritual or Marxist.
This kind of politics relies most heavily on phenotype however, which comprises physical characteristics determined by genetics and epigenetics. Examples can be seen in the phrases and nomenclature of social justice groups, feminists being the primary example. Blithe references to entire swathes of people, united only by skin tone, gender, or sexuality, are not uncommon and are indeed inevitable, since the whole logic behind identity politics’ theory is invested in the idea that physical identity shapes experience and thus reality – which extends to virtually every member of the arbitrarily designated group.
The second premise, equally bizarre and spurious, is that objective truth of any kind does not exist. This is important to the first premise since it reinforces the notion that truth is defined by how one perceives it as opposed to how closely the facts of a situation cohere to reality. In other words, for the identity politicker, reality is defined by perception which in the nomenclature is called ‘narrative’. It is a fitting name since narratives are highly personalized and often fictional. So, for example, if I am a black woman and I feel unduly observed at a Target while shopping, the reality of the situation is not defined by what I can prove but rather by what I think is the case, regardless of the facts.
The new ‘guilty until proven innocent’ populist trend supported by many feminists in rape cases, offers us a supremely apt example. The feminist ‘narrative’ is that women absolutely, categorically, do not lie about rape and thus, any woman claiming rape should be taken at her word. To do otherwise is to ‘marginalize’ her experience by ‘invalidating’ it. If she fingers the wrong culprit or her story fails utterly to cohere, it is only because the trauma of the event has crippled her but this by no means impugns her story.
The rights of the accused become secondary to the accuser in rape cases in particular, all because feminist narratives define women as always right in the case of sexual assault. If men are falsely accused and socially pilloried in the process, this pales in comparison to even meek attempts at clarification on the part of the constabulary or public. This is justified by the claim that to question the victim does more harm than falsely accusing and socially alienating the accused. Asking for evidence, holding the victim accountable for their claims, and indeed, investigating the matter at all in any way that burdens the victim, is just more proof that we live in a patriarchal rape culture.
Rape cases are an interesting study since they highlight the contempt identity politickers have for evidence and truth seeking. They also highlight the practical cultural and legal implications of such an ideology being taken seriously. Investigation into any claim is often defined as a kind of attack, silencing at best, and violence at worst. This is quite simply because ‘narratives’ are considered truisms despite the overwhelming cornucopia of evidence that proves not only that witness testimony is colossally unreliable, proving that we should always buttress our stories with facts, but that individual interpretations of the same events can vary as widely as the individuals that experience them.
Instead of accepting that rape cases are difficult to try for numerous reasons, feminists and others have simply taken the unnuanced position that women cannot lie about rape and that there is a self-evident patriarchal conspiracy to codify it. This double-edged stance, that feminist orthodoxy can never be wrong, and that a coordinated global white-hetero-patriarchal conspiracy exists, can be found underpinning almost every argument a proponent of identity politics will make.
So far, we have the concept of collective experience and the belief that truth is entirely subject to one’s identity and that no objective metric can be reliably trusted. It should be noted here and now that already we have a contradiction.
If we can only know our own group’s experiences, how can we expect understanding from people who do not share our identity? The often quoted line, check your privilege, seems utterly pointless if in fact we cannot understand the perspectives of others without living them. And since identity politickers have rejected objectivity and its metrics, there can be no way to understand what is meant by any other person’s concept of privilege. Indeed, the command, check your privilege assumes an absolute truth through a lens that denies any such thing exists.
This is not to say agent and target groups do not exist. But it is to say that through identity politics no such thing can be reliably identified.
The third premise of identity politics is the concept of ownership, both of guilt and culture.
In the case of agent groups, such as men, heterosexuals, and white people, you must own a collective and generational guilt that spans the vast desert of humanity’s sins. In the case of oppressed groups such as gay people or black Americans, you own any and all aspects of a given culture or subculture, which you are free to police at will.
How anyone can own a culture or way of being is inexplicable, especially when we consider that no culture in existence today is at all the sole creation of one cohesive group of people. Ideas and cultures defy ownership by their very nature. Being nonmaterial they can be possessed by anyone and altered at will to fit changing contexts of existence.
The assumption that when supposed ‘non-owners’ engage foreign ideas or practices it automatically becomes a form of oppressive mockery is as paranoid and cynical as it is dismissive of intention. Again we see in identity politics an attempt to place an absolute judgement on how something should be done and yet it’s through a theory that by its very description claims nothing like an objective reality exists.
The fourth and final premise, and maybe the most risible of all, is the hierarchy of victimhood that identity politics and its adherents wallow in. Group capital and authority are defined not by the merit of your arguments or character, but again, by your identity. The more oppressed identities one possesses, the more currency you have in the economy of victimhood.
All other things being equal, if you can stack your minorityships, you are in a better position to socially police others with your identity credentials. This is yet another key factor in warding off truly critical debate in which evidence must be forth coming. By making oppressed identities the primary force behind an argument, you not only render logic and numbers toothless, but entirely sideline every privileged group you claim grievance against. Should any minority member challenge this orthodoxy they are immediately labeled an inculcated shill of the white-hetero-patriarchy. And should a privileged individual challenge it, they will be pilloried as a bigot and accused of silencing the victim in question.
Despite identity politics’ inherent claim to solipsism, it consistently wields a hermeneutic double standard against its perceived enemies, demanding that they and only they hold the key to what is true or false as far as existential claims go. The ultimate conflict here, which we see occur increasingly, is that in such a diffuse movement with no identifiable keeper of doctrine, everyone and their mother holds that key.