Hitchens on “identity politics”

Reader John S. called my attention to this addendum to chapter 15 of Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I haven’t read in a long time.  It’s fifteen years old now, but rings especially true these days—a time when the Left is divided into mutually carnivorous factions, feasting on the “small differences” Hitchens mentions.

PS: Since this often seems to come up in discussions of the radical style, I’ll mention one other gleaning from my voyages. Beware of identity politics. I’ll re-phrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying “The Personal Is Political.” It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of the small difference, because each identity group begat its subgroups and “specificities.” This tendency has often been satirised—the overweight caucus of the Cherokee trans-gender disabled lesbian faction demands a hearing on its needs—but never satirised enough. You have to have seen it really happen. From a way of being radical it very swiftly became a way of being reactionary; the Clarence Thomas hearings demonstrated this to all but the most dense and boring and selfish, but then, it was the dense and boring and selfish who had always seen identity politics as their big chance.

Anyway, what you swiftly realise if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighborhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first, that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that “humanity” (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way.

I’m not sure exactly what Hitchens is saying in that last paragraph, unless he means that people are so wedded to their ethnic, religious, or other personal status that they make it the centerpiece of all discourse, demanding not just the right to feel offended, but to tell others what is offensive, and therefore what should not be said. And maybe he means that such people are unable to transcend their own identity to deal with issues affecting other groups—or humanity as a whole. Perhaps he’s referring to the kind of people who, deeply wedded to being thought of as anti-bigotry liberals, are willing to throw Middle Eastern women under the bus since they’re oppressed by Muslim people of color.

But Hitchen’s coda reminds me of what one Yale student wrote after she was mortally offended by Erika Christakis’s letter to her Silliman House students defending Halloween costumes as a form of free speech, and asking for people to chill out. As the Atlantic reported (my emphasis):

Another Silliman resident declared in a campus publication, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.

The student next described what she thinks residential life at Yale should be. Her words: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” In fact, students were perfectly free to talk about their pain. Some felt entitled to something more, and that is what prolonged the debate—not a faculty member who’d rather have been anywhere else.

Another example is “Islamophobia,” where the criticism of bad religious doctrine elides into personal offense, shutting down any possibility of a debate (and given that the topic is religion, a constructive debate is unlikely anyway).


  1. Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Some on-line “news” sources are pretty much just Identity Politics digitized at this point. It’s an echo-chamber where closely held, comforting and deeply personal falsehoods are reinforced, not unlike FOXNews or conservative talk radio in the 1990s.

  2. TJR
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    This all reminds me of the Mclusky album “My pain and sadness is more sad and painful than yours”.


  3. DrBrydon
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I think what he’s saying (in the final paragraph of the first quote) is that most people are happy with the way they are, and that we are better off not being represented by people who don’t buy into Identity Politics.

    As to the second quote, the trouble with someone else’s pain is that people are more or less susceptible to pain, so we can’t judge your pain (nor can we know how much pain something will cause). At the same time because pain is completely subjective, we don’t really know if you are in pain; it’s very convenient to say you are in pain, but it might not be true. Both attention seekers and drug seekers know this.

    • Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      There is a pain questionnaire, however, used by some, which does attempt to objectify matters. (How successfully, I don’t know.)

      I also remember reading there’s a weird anesthetic that seems to remove people’s *motivation* to act on their pain, which sounds paradoxical, but the “first rule of dissociations” is a pretty good pattern, so …

  4. Posted October 4, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted October 4, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    What I understood from the final paragraph from Hitchens is that, should you go around asking people if they would change their identity, nearly all would say they wouldn’t (I’m reminded of the phrase “as a proud member of X”). However, he says that the best among humanity are those who are able to look beyond this way of thinking, i.e., who are able to avoid arguing from their identity.

    • somer
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 1:19 am | Permalink

      thats what I understood too

  6. Christopher Bonds
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    [JAC:]. . . maybe he means that such people are unable to transcend their own identity to deal with issues affecting other groups—or humanity as a whole. Perhaps he’s referring to the kind of people who, deeply wedded to being thought of as anti-bigotry liberals, are willing to throw Middle Eastern women under the bus since they’re oppressed by Muslim people of color.

    That’s pretty much what I understood him to say. Earlier, Hitchens wrote what to me is the most telling comment: “People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for.”

    This is what is known in the critical thinking community as “identifying with your beliefs,” the notion that it is our beliefs that make us what we are. Instead of doing that, we should identify only with how we come to our beliefs. That has become my mantram almost as much as Bernie’s that campaign finance needs to be reformed.

  7. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Unusually for Hitchens, it’s pretty badly written. His points are, I think:

    1. Most people are happy with the identity they have, and wouldn’t change it if they could. So even though they talk about the awful way their identity group is treated, they wouldn’t choose to be something else.

    2. Humanity is best represented not by those who try to use emotion to make their case, but by those who use logic and reason to do it.

    • Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      “1. Most people are happy with the identity they have, and wouldn’t change it if they could. So even though they talk about the awful way their identity group is treated, they wouldn’t choose to be something else.”

      If he means black people for example should be willing to be white if they could then I don’t agree. If he means it in the sense that they prefer to have their their identity defined by their victimhood, and wouldn’t choose not to be defined by that victimhood if they could, then I think he might have a point.
      If you wear your victimhood as a badge of honor you are essentially compelled to find things that justify your identity as a victim.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted October 4, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        I mean the second one – that people want to stay the way they are but not be a victim because of it.

        Another example would be being gay – most gay people like being gay, they just don’t like the way so many treat them because of it. And by the second point I mean, and I think he means, we need to point out, for example, that the way society in general treats gay people means their suicide rate is multiple times higher than straight people. Therefore as a society we need to change. Logic, reason, data etc shows us we’ve got it wrong currently so we as a society must change.

        • Posted October 4, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Yeah I may have completely misunderstood what Hitch was saying. As Vinnie Barbarino used to say “I’m soooo confused”. :p

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted October 4, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha! I thought Vinnie was so cool when I was a young teenager, but Dad wouldn’t let us watch Welcome Back Kotter!

  8. Larry Cook
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    What I understand Hitchins saying in that last paragraph is that change will come from those who transcend their own group identity. For example, the fact that Islam has to change for there to be an end to Islamic terrorism has made me pessimistic about the end of this era of terrorism because people don’t transcend their identities. Islam is even more sensitive and unwilling to consider criticism than other religions, but none of the big religions is willing to listen to what it considers “outside” criticism. Being human first and a Muslim second seems uncommon among the devout.

  9. eric
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Slightly off-topic, but the NYT today ran an op-ed about an anonymous Italian author being identified, and – surprise surprise – not having the “authentic” background of her characters. The NYT defends her. As they say, the point of good writing is to transcend your limitations, not be bound by them. The link is below. I’m showing the title so people can google it if my html fu fails. Elena Ferrante and the Power of Appropriation.

    Here’s the final paragraph:

    This is the paradox of literature, which is also the glory of humanism: the idea that nothing human is alien to any of us, that we all have the power to imagine our way into one another’s lives. If the exposure of Elena Ferrante reminds us of that truth, which today we are too inclined to forget, perhaps it will turn out to be justified.

  10. jaxkayaker
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused at the relevance of the Clarence Thomas hearings.

    • Posted October 4, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Me too. This is definitely not Hitchens’s most lucid writing! But he didn’t address identity politics very often.

  11. J. Quinton
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of an essay I read a few years ago by Paul Graham: Keep your identity small.

    Identity politics has no right or wrong, so there isn’t some outside standard that determines when one side has won; everyone’s an expert when it comes to what they identify as. Therefore, debates based on identity are, in theory, able to continue indefinitely.

    • Posted October 4, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I love that essay, but when I’ve paraphrased it to others it comes across as an effort to get them to shed everything they believe in. It’s a tough sell. And extremely hard to live by.

      There’s a prisoner’s dilemma at work here as well. It’d be alot easier to keep one’s identity small if everyone else went first, as it were. What good is a small number of small identity folks against a large and angry herd of those with thick identities? It’s a liberal conundrum.

    • Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Maybe we should just adopt the sense of identity used in most logical theories.😉 That’s a pretty small one.

  12. Kevin
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    “overweight caucus of the Cherokee trans-gender disabled lesbian faction”

    THAT is my new goto group when it comes to the oppressed.

    Science will continue to parse everything in the end. It’s only a matter of time, when politics is just applied science. In fact, politics is already becoming a puppet of science.

    No ideology, no matter how personal or primitive or psychotic or fascist cannot be implemented better than an ideology reinforced by science and technology.

    Want to build a wall? Anyone can do that. Want to build a cheaper or stronger wall or one that has greater functionality. Only science.

    Want to make healthcare better? If it’s magic pills or superbug killers…it’s science.

    Any agenda, representing the religious right to the scatterbrained left, is always better implemented with better science. The bittersweet victory in all of this is that prayer and faith lose, regardless of the identity games people play.

  13. chrism
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I believe Hitch referred to identity politics in the Clarence Thomas hearings as being reactionary rather than radical in that identity politics were used to shut down any assessment of his ability to be a worthy Supreme Court justice. A traditional radical, wanting to change the existing white dominance of the SCOTUS would say “Forget his colour, he’s a good man for the job because he is qualified” while a reactionary of the day would say “Oh, no. Can’t let a black man into this white club, so let’s pretend he is unqualified.” Introduce identity politics and the radicals then say “He has to be approved simply because he is black” which takes the debate away from his abilities and the reactionaries can’t openly argue against his colour, and are thus left attacking his character. This then left Anita Hill as a witness for the reactionary side, when one would have expected her testimony to be supported by the left, being a relatively less powerful black woman. Such confusion has become the norm in highly politicised hearings of this sort, and Thomas’ track record has not shown him to be original or imaginative in his work, being largely an automatic conservative vote.
    There’s a kind of mirror image thinking that results in the left supporting a side that they would normally have nothing to do with at all. It’s the same phenomenon as the left’s refusal to criticise islamic terrorism because oppressed brown people must be always supported over their western victims, conveniently ignoring the larger numbers of brown, mostly muslim, victims. That’s what puts the regressive in what used to be the progressive left.

  14. Posted October 5, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I read it as an exposé on the perils of intellectual insecurity. Just as Hitchens generally despised partitions, he also knew the liabilities of unfounded partiality, credulity, and pathological allegiance when the mind is suspended for “the cause.”

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