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The Poison of Identity Politics

Posted by Curt on Monday, 7 June 2010

(Just a warning in advance, I’m going to go back and edit through this post later, links included – I had to rush it as I have work in like 15 minutes!)

Casting such a negative light on identity politics is hardly original of me.  You will notice that, as much as I generally dislike these broad labels, right wingers often do it to left wingers (or at least criticize them for it).  They’ll portray democrats as a whole and liberals as essentially being what is a combination of various and separate groups who embrace certain attributes (such as their race, gender, sexuality, etc.).  This is of course a bit hypocritical as republicans and a number of conservatives will do the same with religion (and hell, even their own political label as “republican” or “conservative”), however, that is a bit different in its being based on beliefs of the individual rather than characteristics they were born with, which ultimately has the consequence of making their identity more dynamic (although no less hypocritical, mind you; it just appears differently to all involved).  But both criticisms hold a degree of truth, and feminism, at least the kind you see in academia and on the blogs, is generally a left wing ideology overall; thus identity politics are hardly exclusive to it, though they are quite pervasive in it.

Identity politics is simple enough as first glance; it’s all about assuming an identity under a broader label, such as your race, your class, your gender, your sexuality, whether or not you’re able-bodied, and all of that.  If I were to do so and embrace such labels, I’d be a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied (though type 1 diabetic) male.  The reason feminists would identify with each of these as it applies to them is because, given the model of oppression they base their idea around, all of these intersect and where you are in each is said to determine your place in the social hierarchy.  The proper term for this intersection would be kyriarchy, where essentially it is my identifications that would put me at the top of the social hierarchy, although I suppose my being a type 1 diabetic wouldn’t have me at the very top.  That’s a little complicated because I still live my life as coherently and normally as any individual so nothing feels different, though the disease does present a set of unique challenges to me which would bar me from doing something like serving in the military.  That all said, I don’t tend to identify with any of these, not even my type 1 diabetes, because I simply view that as a state of my being rather than a way of identifying myself.

This was too cute to not show.

Of course, that can be argued to be a “privilege” and it is said that it’s quite typical of those who are considered to be of the dominant group to not identify with their identities as such privileges appear invisible to them.  I’ve already stated my skepticism on that notion (at least as far as gender goes), but this is the position most feminists are coming from.  Those who are not in power and thus those who face discrimination based on their identity are made to be fully aware of their identity through those everyday reminders of being denied of those privileges.  Thus to empower those individuals not in power, they would come to take those identities they believe themselves to be discriminated against for and embrace them – essentially taking it back.  The idea is that it is the groups who are in power who created the social construct (or, at least in the case of disability, made it something to be shamed for), so to take it back in such a manner is to define it on their own terms.  Success in doing so is just one manifestation in empowerment.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is pivotal in feminism, which goes beyond just gender but hits so many other attributes given that they all intersect and are interrelated.  It fits right in with their conception of the intersecting layout of the social hierarchy – kyriarchy.  Therefore it should be no surprise to see feminists embrace identity politics and do so quite enthusiastically.


I’ve always viewed race, gender, and all of that simply as a state of our being rather than something to really identify ourselves, and consequently our lives, with.  I can see how it comes to impact our experiences and even how we’re treated on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time, as stated in a post prior, how all this does so is extremely dynamic.  I may be a white, heterosexual, type 1 diabetic, middle class male, but how alike are my experiences going to be with so many others who share those same exact attributes?

Perhaps that’s a strawman because when we speak of general tendencies, as is the case when talking about anything in regards to those social dynamics (even if they are unquantifiable), they’re not always going to reflect the same on every individual who share the same attributes; and indeed, nobody is claiming that they will.  Feminists will almost all readily admit that these structures are extremely flexible and dynamic.

So what’s the use?  I’ll admit, those who conceive such things may well be onto something.  A gender equality movement does seek to end any and all inequalities in regards to gender (and I would assume racial and other ones as well), thus to point these out is good.  Of course, how are they framed?  Who gets blamed for an inequality?

Those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, or somehow displaced by the group “in power”, are the victims by this framing.  Those who are in power are seemingly to blame.  I’ll speak more on this in my next post, but I think this setup is faulty to the core.  For one, they produce vast divides between these different groups, including in feminism itself – one example being a little over two years ago where one white feminist was accused of not appropriating the remarks a non-white feminist had made in regards to illegal immigration being a feminist issue.  The result?  It was claimed that this is an example where white feminists gain fame off of the ideas originally created by non-white feminists, while the non-white feminists are relegated to a submissive role to white feminists.  Thus a lot of drama ensued.

Another issue is where a few feminists claim that men should not call themselves feminists, but rather, consider themselves “male allies” to feminists.  The idea is that because feminism is for the empowerment of women, it should be a group by women for women, and therefore for men to be “feminists” it would take that away, making it less about women.  The idea is that if a man speaks about feminism, he will gain the fame and credibility while a woman who speaks about it will not so easily, thus it will be as if the man hijacked the whole movement with women serving in the submissive role to men in feminism.

Personally, I think a lot of this is all nonsense.  Few people are dismissed merely on the basis of their being a woman.  Few people are dismissed merely on the basis of their being non-white.  I’d challenge somebody to find a clear cut example within the last 10 years that would represent the general population which contradicts what I’ve said.  Generally what will occur is that a female feminist will be accused of overstating something like the detrimental effects something like the glass ceiling will have on a woman’s promotion, and then to explain the exaggeration they perceive, they may call her bitter for doing so (thus not necessarily dismissing her outright, but explaining what they believe is her exaggeration, as presumptuous as doing so may be).

In any case, such divisions alienate quite significantly.  People get defensive if you call them racist and with good reason – does anybody think racism shouldn’t be looked down upon?  Sexism, ableism, and all that as well.  If you exclude males from considering themselves feminists, what’s the risk of alienating him?  These create controversies that are for the most part unique to feminism and other left wing movements and what I think are poisonous to them.  They can flare up and tear them all apart.  It’s good to recognize how such attributes of an individual can have an impact on their experiences and treatment in society and how they may influence inequalities, which I think we all want to end.  But when you have a few take it too far and risk tearing everybody apart?  When you do so to the extent that individual variations appear not to matter nearly as much?  This is where it gets risky and what I think is what any gender equality movement should avoid.  And more importantly, it needs to avoid the victimization and victimizer framing of it all, which I will get into in my next post.


One Response to “The Poison of Identity Politics”

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