A civil war is not worth igniting over identity politics

A civil war is not worth igniting over identity politics. The savage realities of economic injustice and devastating ecological abuse must take precedence.

It’s fascinating that in the academic humanities we have been trained to thoroughly debunk the myth of biological essentialism. Everyone is basically a ‘social constructivist’ these days. And yet it is exactly the case, however practically justified, that identity politics and separatist ideologies are manifestations of what we might call the myth of social-historical essentialism. This becomes an agonizing double bind for virtually any intelligent, sensitive well-informed academic, to be sure. Why?

On the one hand, race, ethnic/minority studies and gender theory are all crucial and vital driving forces of so much creativity, restorative justice, funding, new research initiative and advocacy in the humanities. But how do we negotiate the tremendous value of these initiatives without enabling essentialism in the opposite direction, thereby abandoning certain cherished principles of knowledge, wisdom, insight, democratic deliberation, experimental inquiry, free speech and complex ethical cognition that are at the heart of the academic humanities?

As one cultural studies advocate put it, “Many disciplinary practices of the activist culture succeed in curbing oppressive behaviors. Callouts, for example, are necessary for identifying and addressing problematic behavior. But have they become the default response to fending off harm? Shutting down racist, sexist, and similar conversations protects vulnerable participants. But has it devolved into simply shutting down all dissenting ideas? When these tactics are liberally applied, without limit, inside marginalized groups, I believe they hold back movements by alienating both potential allies and their own members."

How do rigorous research, ethical insight and love of wisdom co-exist as priorities in an academic climate increasingly dominated by the myth of social-historical essentialism? How can we deeply respect and still vibrantly protest the rampant anti-intellectual ethos and obfuscating forces of ideology in the academy, which wrongly reduce all the distinguishing features of intellectual life to the surreptitious use of social power, corruption and privilege?

Here's my current outlook. I firmly believe that we need to prioritize our focus and mobilization efforts on countering the savage financial injustices, military domination and devastating ecological crises of our times. Except for multi-millionaires and billionaires, we are all profoundly weak, oppressed and virtually powerless to mobilize against the ecological terrorism of humanity’s 'leading edge' forces of globalization, as well as the shocking disparity between the rich and the poor, all the worse in third-world countries. What I’m suggesting is that ecological activism and economic justice informed by dynamic inquiry and democratic engagement are imperative sources for taking action and coming together on the Left, if we are to mobilize robustly against the mass-scale violences, corruption, powerlessness and poverty that the sweeping majority of humanitas faces.

In his book, Race Matters, Cornel West differentiates three kinds of activism of black scholars: “1) race-distancing elites, 2) race-embracing rebels, and 3) race-transcending prophets” (64). I appreciate his distinction here and think that 3) is exemplary and only possible if ecological terrorism, military domination, and catastrophic economic negligence are prioritized. As I see it, when 2) is prioritized it tends to become a social basis for polemical deadlock, by insisting on giving priority attention to certain differences (based on ethnicity, skin color and so on) and fueling unnecessary antagonisms (for instance, telling someone because they have white skin or a certain kind of genitals, they have no right to speak on a certain issue). This can take up tremendous time and energy among groups, and is often justified; but it's nevertheless based on fallacious thinking. This enacts social-historical essentialism.

Practical, historical, structural, and situational issues are crucial to understand the grounds for why certain thoughts/ideas—whether fallacious in terms of identity politics or religious myths of transcendent authority or strong persuasive use of rhetoric—are still justified and ought to be legitimated. I am thus not disputing the legitimacy of these movements and ideas. In fact, I am not unsympathetic. I'm just endeavoring to set the record straight, based on critical thinking itself. For if we throw out critical thinking, then there’s no reason to differentiate someone's knowledge with a PhD from the knowledge of freshman at a privileged university.

We need principles and rigorously informed knowledge that prioritize addressing the concrete realities of ecological devastation, military domination and financial crisis. We need to align around such insights and commitments to the good life, without undermining the real grievances and ongoing oppressions directly related to identity politics and progressive humanist appeals to pluralism, tolerance and social justice.

Works Cited

Lee, Frances. “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Advocates.” Yes Magazine, October 13, 2017. http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/why-ive-started-to-fear-my-fellow-social-justice-activists-20171013/

West, Cornel. Race Matters. Vintage Books, NY: 1993.

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