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.