One of these things is not like the others

One of the interesting consequences of the identitarian revolution is a migration — among a substantial number of people — away from all-encompassing frameworks of political justice and towards ever-expanding lists of discrete, identity-based claims of justice (and even topic-based claims of justice).

So for instance, it is not uncommon to see someone articulate their political perspective as a long, non-exhaustive list of justices (indeed it is plural) they support: racial justice, gender justice, queer justice, disabled justice, trans justice, class justice, environmental justice, food justice, and so on. Or, someone will articulate their political perspective as against the oppression of a long, non-exhaustive list of identities: people of color, women, poors, prisoners, disabled people, LGBTQ people, indigenous people, and so on.

I personally find myself more a partisan of all-encompassing frameworks of political justice. Almost all of the political prescriptions that come out of this non-exhaustive, list-based approach to justice would also come out of most of the egalitarian political justice frameworks as well. But, unlike the list-based approaches, the frameworks — at least on their face — have ways of maintaining coherence and avoiding contradiction. Long lists of discrete types of justice with no overarching framework will fall into internal contradictions quickly as one justice claim will run up against another justice claim elsewhere on the list with no theoretical way to resolve the conflict.

Putting that meta-theoretical discussion aside for a moment, I have seen something in these list-based approaches recently that does not make sense. In the oppressed-identities lists, I occasionally see the inclusion of students. As the lists get longer and longer, it is perhaps easier to just slip some more identities you are partial to onto it, but students are unlike every other identity I have ever seen on this list.

Take the following list: people of color, women, sexual minorities, disabled people, fat people, poor people, indigenous people, and students. In every identity case, imagine two people who are otherwise identical except one has the identity on the list and the other does not. The person that has the identity on the list would always be in a worse position that the one who does not. For example, take two identical people except make one of them a man and one of them a woman. The woman is in a worse position because she faces sexism.

Run through each of the identities and do the same thing, and you will find the same result. That is, until you get to students. When you get to students, it reverses. Take two otherwise identical people, make one of them a student and one of them not a student, and it is the non-student that is in a worse position. It is the non-student that will face massively lower lifetime earnings, higher unemployment rates, and all of the troubles that go along with being on the lower end of the labor market, not to mention foregoing the intrinsic benefits of education.

The inclusion of students on the oppressed identity list has taken the left’s student fetishization to a fascinating level. I wonder if this will slide by because college students are an important constituency of the left, or if actually-oppressed identities will push back. If it does just slide by, that does not bode well for the list-based justice approach. Adding students to oppressed identity lists when they are actually more privileged than their non-student counterparts converts the list from one iterating oppressed people to one iterating the left’s coalition members, oppressed or not. If this keeps up, maybe young urban professionals will find themselves on the list soon too.