A problem with one facet of identity politics

Formalized identity politics grew out of the insufficiency of left politics in the middle of the 20th century. At the time and in subsequent years, proponents of identity politics (identitarians) raised a series of devastatingly precise criticisms that have fundamentally changed the way the left operates. The left’s almost uniform focus on class oppression has been supplemented with coequal focuses on racism, sexism, ableism, imperialism, homophobia, and other identitarian concerns. The left has also internalized — albeit imperfectly — the identitarian critiques against traditional left-wing organizational structures, which white men tended to dominate. Although the list of identitarian successes could iterate for volumes, some identitarian ideas, recommendations, and practices strike me as incoherent.

At its core, identity politics is about pursuing the interests of marginalized and oppressed identity groups. This immediately poses a methodological problem: how do you know what the interests of those groups are? There are two ways to answer that question. In the first way, one analyzes the position of an identity group through the lens of one’s own political views, determining from that analysis what that identity group needs in order to access justice. In the second way, one simply listens to what members of an identity group have to say. Identitarians seem to regard the first approach as inferior to the second one, and perhaps even paternalistic.

Although the second approach seems more empowering and deferential, it poses its own methodological problem: to whom should one listen? Consider the case of abortion. Identitarians often claim that abortion access aligns with the self-interest of female identity groups. There are many persuasive arguments in favor of abortion access, but the identitarian case is rather slim. Using the deferential identitarian approach, how do we know that abortion access aligns with the self-interest of women? If women were almost unanimously in favor of abortion, then I think a pretty easy case could be made. But when polled, women sharply divide on the abortion issue. In 2011, 60 percent of women answered that abortions should be illegal in all circumstances or most circumstances, and 44 percent of women described themselves as pro-life, only 6 percent less than the number that described themselves as pro-choice.

So to whom should a person actually deferential to the voice, agency, and subjectivity of women listen: the 50% of women who identify as pro-choice or the 50% of women who do not? When identitarians carve out an issue as one governed by identity considerations, they implicitly — and oftentimes explicitly — claim that almost everyone would agree with them if they were members of the identity group in question. So, identitarians will say things like “if men could get pregnant, then they would definitely support abortion access.” But is that true? Judging from the polling data, it seems quite obviously false: those capable of pregnancy actually sharply divide on the necessity of abortion access.

In reality, members of any given identity group disagree with one another about what their interests are and what should be done. This necessarily requires identitarians to select the viewpoint of one subset of an identity group over another subset. For instance, to be deferential to the subjectivity and interests of women on abortion, an identitarian must pick some women’s voices over other women’s voices. But how would a truly committed identitarian do something like that? On what principled criteria could such a decision ever be based?

There are a few possible options, but they all eventually collapse down into picking the voices of those who hold one’s own political opinions. One could invoke the concept of intersectionality to cut the polling data even finer: sure maybe women as a whole are fairly split on abortion, but queer women of color with disabilities are much more supportive. But using intersectionality concepts to get out of the bind fails for two reasons. First, one has to decide which intersectional slice to prefer, a decision that will inevitably be motivated by a desire to find some intersectional slice that mirrors one’s own political views. And second, when taken to its logical extreme, intersectionality undercuts the idea that there is such a thing as coherent categories of identities with unified interests: every person has layers and layers of identities that make them unique from almost everyone else.

In addition to the intersectional side-step, someone might just try to depend on the majoritarian preferences of that group. But this seems like a very strange criterion. On this approach, the self-interest of an identity group could change daily so long as enough people in the identity group change their mind. More than that, identitarians do not actually rely on aggregate information about the preferences of oppressed groups. For instance, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist activists seem to unanimously be upset at the basically colonial situation of modern-day Puerto Rico, preferring Puerto Rican independence instead. Meanwhile, less than 5% of Puerto Ricans ever vote in favor of independence when given the option to do so, with the rest preferring Puerto Rican’s territorial status or statehood instead.

What people represent as deference to the interests, subjectivity, and ideas of marginalized identities is really nothing more than tokenization and rhetorical shell games. People who suggest their politics are based upon those things are actually just finding people within marginalized identity groups who mirror their own political viewpoints. That is the only remotely plausible method one could use to pick between the different opinions of those within specific identity groups. So a person who supports Puerto Rican independence finds someone in the 5% of Puerto Ricans who do so, then lifts up their voice and suggests their own political viewpoints are dictated and colored by solidarity with Puerto Rican people. Of course, that’s a lie.

None of this is to say that identity politics is inherently flawed; it isn’t. It has some problems here and there — for instance, the self-interests of marginalized identities are not always in harmony, and the framework has no real way of picking winners — but by and large, the overall thrust of it is completely dead on. The pretension however that identitarians are deferential to the voiced preferences of marginalized groups is just that, a pretension. Instead of playing a shell game of tokenized voices, I think identitarian-leaning people — especially those identifying as allies — should make direct substantive analysis about issues instead. It is a more persuasive approach and ultimately more honest.