As University students, we are called upon to evaluate the epistemological merit of contending claims. Interrogation of one another’s assertions, we are told, makes for a more robust and vibrant dialogue, one in which we can thrive individually and collectively as scholars and as citizens. This process of systematic investigation, while there is much to be said in its favor, is not without its flaws: For a great many reasons, conclusions are all too often drawn and articulated that are not the most defensible ones based on the available evidence.
To acknowledge this defect is elementary. How we choose to address the gap between what we should conclude and what narratives we choose to advance constitutes the foundation of the problem at hand. Identity politics, among the proposed resolutions to this problem, is well-intentioned but unsustainable and undesirable.
When addressing so volatile a topic as this one, it is helpful to lay out some disclaimers, so as to reduce misapprehensions as to what I might be referring to. It seems to me that identity politics contends a great many things, yet it is only the boldest among these assertions that distinguish it and cause me to question its efficacy. I would not dream of disputing, for instance, the premise that our personal experiences inform our impressions, judgments, and opinions of the world around us, nor would I claim these insights to be in any sense bankrupt or unworthy.
Furthermore, I am keenly aware that individuals have, through no fault of their own and in spite of their best efforts at resistance, been forcibly lumped into groups that, on the basis of one trait or another, have been systematically invalidated and marginalized. The justification for this state of affairs, carefully formulated in professorial prose, illustrates the need to respond, since the interests of those who benefit from social inequality inform the fallacious, merit-obsessed orthodoxy that rationalizes the status quo.
Identity politics manifests in a fashion very differently from how I’ve depicted it so far. In my explanation of this dynamic, I want to be expeditious in my descriptions: I am very far from relishing the thought that I might be misconstrued as an ideological stalwart of the political and cultural right wing. Rather, it is through my critique of identity politics that I hope to fortify the rhetorical armaments that are to be mobilized in opposition to a tide of reactionary activity.
Identity politics is ineffectual because it divides and fragments us. Disagreement is inevitable in political discourse, yet the presuppositions that underpin the particular logic of identity-based thinking demonstrate it to be a discursive wilderness. This is seen, first and foremost, in the dismissal of another’s views based on an evaluation of how oppressed they are by the system that, in the context of the conversation, is on the chopping block. The suggestion that a white male has nothing worthwhile to say about politics by virtue of his “privilege,” for instance, invalidates the participation of an otherwise heterogeneous group and fails to address the actual argument at hand.
As intersectional critics are correct in pointing out, being part of the least oppressed group insofar as concerns one vector of experience does not imply that one is not marginalized along some other dimension of life, as it is constrained under a system of multifaceted oppression. To cement this proposition into place, we need only refer back to the ostensible mansplaining colonialist that can be caricatured on the exclusive basis of his race and gender.
I fall into both categories, yet I am neither contemptuous of women nor indifferent to the suffering imposed on much of the world by the infiltration of Western, and particularly American, capital and control. This may be because I have other means of accumulating brownie points in the desperate frenzy of the oppression Olympics; I am, after all, part of other communities whose members are, collectively, at significant cultural and institutional disadvantages. A more likely scenario, though, is that people’s points of view are not predicated solely on the parts of their identities that their opponents choose to exploit in order to silence them.
In the same way that the dismissals described above have virtually nothing to do with the actual argument, so too is the elevation of other contributors inadequate to the task of establishing a durable claim about whatever is discussed. Their voices are introduced because of credentials assigned to them on the basis of acceptable impressions of their group experiences. In the elucidation of this point, I’ll take a less standard route. Rather than making an epistemological case as to the lack of an obligation on the part of an individual to consider the words of another as gospel, I’d like to assume the claim of the marginalized participant to be utterly unpalatable, anywhere to the left of center.
Every woman who opposes abortion, every African American who is an apologist for slavery and its institutional successors, and every young person who buys into the ideology of their own inadequacy and disempowerment helps to prove that people are allowed to speak not for their identities, but for their opinions. Whom do we cite when discussing the affairs of another group? The people we agree with, of course, just so we don’t have to take the primary responsibility for the position.
Identity politics manifests on and off campus and is utilized across the political spectrum. Liberals, and anyone to their left, do so at our peril. I have no interest in the electoral success of the Democratic Party, the organizational expression of the liberal approach. Yet, I cannot help but observe that the pursuit of identity politics is counterproductive for them, since it alienates many constituents. What concerns me far more than that, though, is the potential for identity-based thinking to infect the left (specifically, the academic left).
Let’s strive not to dismiss others based on identity, but rather to engage with their arguments. Let’s not assert our own entitlement through an arbitrary hierarchy of historical injustice. Rather, we should make the effort to conceptualize one another in the full complexity of our being, which cannot be done through a narrow assessment of our marginality bona fides. This will, admittedly, be difficult. But it has the virtue that it just might work.
Braden Flax is a sophomore from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.