What’s unique about “identity politics”?

I’m really too distressed to write much today, but here’s an expansion of some notes I made yesterday.

It’s been said that there’s no difference between “identity politics” and “politics”, given the old trope that “the personal is political.” And of course even if you’re supporting the Democratic or Republican party, that can be seen as “identity politics,” for, after all, you’re adhering to the values of a group. What do I mean by identity politics? It’s this: the emphasis on your own personal aggrievement rather than the suffering of your entire group. 

When I listened to the “Hijab Debate” at the Art Institute in early May, in which Asra Nomai debated a University of Chicago student, Hoda Katebi, I was struck at the difference in how they were framing the debate. While both agreed that it should be a woman’s choice whether to wear the hijab, Nomani dwelt on the oppression of women in countries where it’s not a choice, and that we shouldn’t have a “celebrate the hijab” day because that simply celebrates the vast number of women who are forced to cover themselves. In contrast, Katebi largely ignored the oppression of women in Muslim countries (she admitted that Iranian dress codes were oppressive only when pressed by a questioner), and went on at length about her own oppression: how she was spat upon, criticized, and reviled for wearing a hijab. After a while, I realized that Katebi was almost obsessed with her own victimization, and not so concerned by the oppression of the many.

This is what I mean by “identity politics”: the view that “we have to change society because I personally don’t want to be oppressed/reviled/uncomfortable.” And there’s a valid way to construe that: group rights perforce confer rights on its members. But it also seems to me that much of the difference between the civil rights movements of the Sixties versus those of today involve invoking personal narratives rather than the immorality of oppressing an entire group. Maybe I’ve forgotten those days, but when I think of the things said by Dr. King, other civil rights activists, or even the Black Panthers, the emphasis was on the oppression of a group rather than of the speaker.  That, of course, carries more moral force than does a personal narrative.

Why, then, do “identity politicians” continue to emphasize their personal victimhood above the immorality of victimizing an entire group? I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with making yourself stand out: of validating your existence—even through your ill treatment by others. One gets the idea that some of the protesting college students are even delighted to assume victimhood, which of course is the opposite of what they profess to believe. Without the ability to cry personal oppression, you don’t differ from anyone else. With it, you’re special: you’ve acquired the privilege of speaking without fear of contradiction, for you can then accuse your interlocutors of bigotry. You can say, “I am a member of group X, and therefore I am unimpeachable.” That will shut up almost anybody, especially on the Left.

And of course it can work the other way: we all know of people who haven’t suffered much—or any—oppression (they are, in the argot, “privileged”), but will claim membership in a group so that they can appropriate a share of oppression. We shouldn’t underestimate the desire of all people to stand out as individuals, to be special.

Finally, both individual and group issues can work together: you can be genuinely concerned about injustices while at the same time trying opportunistically to raise your own status.

There are of course very real problems of racism, of xenophobia, of the marginalization of women and gays. My point here is that they might be better addressed through the moral argument based on group treatment than on a personal narrative based on victimhood. To me, that’s the relevant difference between identity politics and normal politics.

I’ll close with a quote from a nice article by Helen Razer in Daily Review: “Writers and artists—your personal pain is not a blow for justice“. (By the way, I wrote the above before I read her piece, just to note that I didn’t steal her idea!)

There is nothing particularly wrong with intimate published accounts of one’s personal struggle per se. There is nothing particularly wrong with making money from these personal accounts. But, there is something wrong with the uncritical acceptance of the idea that a description of personal trauma or hardship is also a blow for justice.

Once, the personal was political. Once, first-person disclosure was a radical attack on history’s objective man of reason. In certain contexts—particularly academic and literary ones where the man of reason identifiably persists—it’s still possible to challenge dominant order with a personal account. But, in most mass contexts—and we would do well to remember that the consciousness raising group to which contemporary first-person trauma writing can trace its origin was not a mass exercise, but a private one undertaken with trusted friends—these stories of trauma or of difficult experience have now outlived their political usefulness.

. . . When we write only the self, what is eclipsed are the very broad conditions that create that self. If we write, and in this era we do, chiefly of the experience of inhabiting a personal identity category, we necessarily have less time for focus on those broad systems that form those identity categories. Whether we are celebrating or mourning our identities—or, if you prefer, as I often do, our social class—we are turning away from the big stuff that made them. When our individual trauma, or our courage, is recognised, what then? What does the necessarily inspiring first-person account of this indignity or pain achieve? Perhaps just the assurance to the reader that they too can one day write about their indignity and pain, no matter how many multiple subjugated identity categories they inhabit.

I suggest that this is not a very practical program of social reform.


  1. Posted July 15, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Maajid Nawaz on the Nice attacks:

    “Please stop staying the Nice attacks aren’t about Islam”


    “So please stop denying the nature of jihadism. Please stop ignoring the narratives which drive these attacks. Instead of aiding extremists who insist Islam today is perfect, perhaps you should aid us beleaguered reformist Muslims who are attempting to address this crisis within Islam against all the odds.”


  2. Scott Draper
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Your definition of identity politics is different from the way the expression is conventionally understood. When people tell personal stories, I think they’re trying to say that their stories apply to their entire political group.

    I agree that personal stories should not be the primary way of trying to change society; during a recent “race and equity” retreat for my organization, the majority of the time was spent eliciting personal stories from both black and white members. I argued that the time would have been better spent discussing evidence and statics regarding racial discrimination.

    Interesting point about the possible lack of distinction between politics and identity politics. I suggest it’s a matter of degree, rather than of kind. I’ve never identified with a political group, so the concept is alien to me.

    I have a proposal for a new type of political structure. Let’s have citizens vote to prioritize a list of political objectives, and then vote for a group to implement them. Maybe this could lead us away from having a political identity.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      The problem with an idea like that is that all people aren’t equally informed or able to assess data they’re presented with properly, and many will never be interested in doing that whether or not they’re capable of it. It results in things like Brexit and the populist policies of Trump.

      I’d like to see US government made truly representative. Even if the gerrymandering that is such a significant part of the US electoral system was replaced by something like the independent electoral commissions other countries use it would make a huge difference. Politicians would be required to appeal to a broader base of people to get elected which would force less partisanship.

      • Scott Draper
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Well, if people don’t bother to inform themselves, it’s difficult to see that any form of democracy would work very well.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          That’s true. Remember though that half of the population is below average intelligence so many will not have the capacity to be fully informed no matter how hard they try. The best most of us can do is identify a person we trust to make good political decisions on our behalf and, if we have the time, do what we can to help them get elected in whatever capacity we’re best suited to.

          • Scott Draper
            Posted July 15, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            “not have the capacity to be fully informed no matter how hard they try. ”

            Then why do they keep running for Congress??

            • keith cook + / -
              Posted July 15, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps they think they do have the capacity but actually lack the capacity to self evaluate which makes them possibly delusional leading to, a bunch of try hards…
              but it seems that is what we get and not only in the US.
              All that said, it is the quality of leadership that is lacking to my mind.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted July 15, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

              🙂 – another excellent point!!!

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        It results in things like Brexit

        That’s an assertion. To paraphrase the title of the article mentioned “Your personal pain is not necessarily a blow for reason.”

  3. Posted July 15, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I have the feeling that many today want to set themselves up as some kind of loner, or marginal, as the French say. Could this be partially a result of the celebration of such types in films and literature?

    I have an idea of my identity, therefore I am.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Every snowflake is unique.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Outstanding topic for our time and very important to understanding what has gone wrong with out society in American, as least. In the political sense, identity politics is the common attitude today that says – It’s all about me. It seems to be everywhere in the conversation, whether about your dress, your food or your offense at past historic individual that you think should not be named on a building at my college.

    It is a shallow and particularly strange mindset that has taken over much of our society, the, what’s in it for me idea and you must feel my pain or I won’t come out and play with you.

    If you have ever entered a conversation with a person of this type, you soon learn that a conversation is going nowhere.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      It’s something that annoys me a lot, and I think it comes from greater selfishness instead of less. Everyone thinks their problems are worse than everyone else’s. I don’t like it when individuals or anecdotes are used. I think decisions should be made on data, and people talking about their personal issues almost always makes it look like the squeaky wheel is getting the oil. If you don’t have a problem that plays well in the media, you don’t get help.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        It is classic self-serving, self-absorbed mindset. Not really generational either. My older sister is a perfect example and by older I mean – really old.

  5. Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have a wee thinky on this and comment when I’ve had an opportunity to organize my thinking. I will say that id politics didn’t really become a “problem” problem until there was a level of “issue fatigue” with liberals. It was exacerbated IMO with a segment of society who linked their identity politics with what I call “professional victimhood” which reasonable people find very off putting.

    • Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Here’s my opinion, for what its worth on “what’s unique about identity politics”. [I’ll try and keep it short.]
      It is a direct response to the social dynamic of hostile”othering” often as a result of undue religious influence.

      It uses core ideas like:
      Please see me as a human being.
      I’m like you in a million ways, and I’m different in this other way and it’s ok to accept me the way I am.
      I deserve to live my life with the same dignity and respect as you.

      The “identity” part is integral and first in the order of things. “This is who I am”. It’s done specifically to promote social change by humanizing a minority both as individuals and as a group. This is different than people who band together in the pursuit of a common goal or interest who often benefit from a spectrum of components across many cultural demographics. “Politics” is the big tent that identity politics is a minority member of.

      In my opinion identity politics are necessary. It often starts with confrontation. Power is never given without demand. The conflict is always finding a balance between what Michael Tomasky decried the “million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics” and stated that “citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.”

  6. rickflick
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I think there may be a bit of guilt involved in the identity position. Guilt from not being sure about how racist or bigoted one might actually be. Thus, to become a victim signals that you are not to be suspected of bigotry. Perhaps these folks are hiding from something they cannot accept in themselves.

  7. Adrian Calderon
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt that you know the difference between a leftist and a liberal, but the way the entire left seems to be lumped together by you and those you believe to be smart on the subject, such as Rubin et al., is curious. I recently listened to Josh Zepps’ We the People Live podcast because his guest was Dave Rubin, and to be quite honest, it did not seem like they knew any of the differences between factions of the left. Rubin was using a pedantic definition of the type of liberal he identified as when an easier description is what most mainstream socially liberal people today are, and that is a neoliberal in the same vein as Obama, that before were known as Rockefeller Republicans. You, leftists, Rubin, etc. are dismayed at how identity politics has been weaponized, and that neoliberals throw away/ignore the group (Marx would call it class) struggle aspect of IP, so that it is incomplete and selfish. You yourself brought up MLK and the Black Panthers, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that both were genuine socialist movements, and it would be wrong to call them “liberal.” This is not about purity or radicalism, it’s about a distinction that is important to make because while no group is perfect, the leftist part of the left is not on the wrong side of this identity politics/political correctness argument and that fact gets lost when people say the left is eating itself when really it’s neoliberals who are eating themselves. To realize that doesn’t make you some sort of centrist by default. The truth is not just “somewhere in the middle.” Even self-styled centrist Jonathan Haidt says Scandinavian style social democracy is the best way forward and neoliberals who criticized the watered down FDR Democrat Sanders believe that’s too “radical.” Nuance matters, we can’t yell “purity” at the leftists while not acknowledging our cognitive dissonance in the “center.”

    • Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Get back to me after you put your comment in English and eliminate the snark. As far as I can determine, your complaint is that I confuse socialism with Leftism (horrors!), that Socialism is Good, and that I misuses the term “liberal.” Otherwise, it seems like gibberish to me. If there’s a substantive rather than a semantic point here, I don’t see it.

      But ditch the snark; it’s a Roolz violation.

      • Adrian Calderon
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry if you detected snark, that honestly wasn’t my intention. You confuse neoliberalism with leftism/socialism. That’s the difference that gets left out when talking about the ills of the left whether it’s criticism from the right-wing or even other people on the left side of the political spectrum. I’m not claiming socialism is good or bad, I’m just pointing out that even so called rational centrist people can have blind spots, ignore the evidence, and suffer from cognitive dissonance. It isn’t unique to radical leftists or even reactionaries.

  8. CB
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I agree that identity politics most often comes across as whining or sooky as people say around here. And it is easiest to respond to it from that point of view.But there is also in it, often,a genuine effort to point out on a personal level how it feels on a personal level how painful it is to live in an environment where small or large insults are pointed at one every day.Some comments in various columns indicate that the writers have no sense whatsoever of that, ignore it-so whining could be seen as an attempt to wake those people up a bit and that simply making a law saying ‘equal rights’ hasn’t solved the problem.
    That would be a more generous interpretation. Plus you can’t fix whiny people by telling them to toughen up, grow a thicker skin etc. Some people do manage to do that, some not.and in either case prejudice is all too alive and well and damaging.And that is what needs fixing. Maybe it is impossible.
    There is always this confusion between what is meant is a general statement. A version of the truth-kind of academic, and what is expressed personally. Both seem to me to have some validity.

    • Posted July 15, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Often, however, it doesn’t go beyond the personal, and the students don’t want it to. Who can forget this statement from a Yale student at Silliman College during the Great Halloween Costume Kerfuffle?

      • CB
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        We seem to agree that both motivations can be being expressed. The question for me is-what is the most helpful response. And for our privileged selves, not really knowing in any particular case which motivation or family of motivations is at work how can we respond without either buying into whininess or simply criticizing-neither of which seem very useful to me.Better to assume a more noble intent. I tend, and most people do,respond badly to both criticism and false sympathy. These are kids for the most part. I was awful at that age-no experience, no perspective. If you confirm their worst expectations that adults just give knee jerk and rule bound responses and the situation is not workable then further alienation ensues.JMPOV It seems that you go to university not only to learn a particular topic to get a job but also to encounter a more enlightened way of conducting oneself.
        I very much enjoy your posts and website.

  9. Stephen Barnard
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I see identity politics as putting the aims and desires of one’s particular group ahead of all other political considerations. That’s how it differs from politics writ large.

    • Historian
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      You define identity politics as “putting the aims and desires of one’s particular group ahead of all other political considerations.” In the U.S. at least, however, this situation is politics writ large. There really is no difference. The American party system is based is based on coalitions of different interest groups, i.e., identity groups, each advocating specific agendas. Individuals may identify with multiple identity groups. For example, a senior citizen who is an evangelical would probably identify with groups that support pro-religious legislation while simultaneously identifying with groups that oppose the weakening of Medicare.

      This type of person faces a dilemma since the former group is in the Republican coalition while the latter is in the Democratic. This person has to decide which group to support, probably the Republicans. If this were the case, the person’s desire for “religious freedom” is more important than his health. For him, cultural issues trump (you can take this as a pun) health or economic issues. Liberals may not understand why he is voting against his economic best interest, but the reason becomes clear when one understands the power and influence of cultural elements in most people’s lives.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Major problem happening with identity politics is they always find it necessary to park the identity under the larger tent of – either democrat or republican parties. Therefore, the religious, pro-big business, big military, anti-government, against civil rights all park with the republican brand. After too many groups glue themselves together for the power of the big group, the big one starts to eat itself and no longer makes sense. This Trump and Pence merger is a perfect example. Bringing tea party into the Trump tent is not likely to work well.

    Trump can believe all that junk for the convenience of more votes but that will end very soon if they win. Trump is as phony as a three dollar bill and evangelical? He would only show up in church for image. Even the idea that the republicans accept him at the top of their party is too big a pill to swallow. The choking will start next week.

  11. Dean Booth
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Excellent analysis. Identity politics is what you get by combining the self-centered individualism of the Libertarian with the ideals of social justice.

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