Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Identity Politics

I quickly get tired of a lot of what passes under the name "identity politics". Not all of it may be bad, but a lot of it is. This post is dedicated to the bad lot.

When one speaks of identity, one can mean a lot of different things. One can mean, for instance, numerical identity (expressed in logic by '=' - for example, Mark Twain=Sam Clemens), or qualitative identity (the kind of identity that holds between identical twins). Identity politics focuses on something else. This is identity in the sense not of what is essential but of what is central or important to a person - "who I really am". But there isn't a single sort of identity that falls under these sorts of descriptions but many. Here are four versions of identity that might fall under this sort of category (and which people tend not to distinguish often or very well):

1) Cultural identity - one's role or importance as assigned by culture
2) Reflective identity - one's role or importance as chosen or approved of by one's self
3) Deep identity - what is central, evaluation or function aside
4) Normative identity - what is central or important in regards to one's function or telos

Obviously, there are going to be important connections between all of these. All but the normative may, for instance, be partly constructed, whether by society or the self.

Now how does identity politics of the sort I don't like work? Here's the game plan: Defend people with trait or behavior X by claiming that X is part of their identity and hence that X is morally okay and justified and that one has a right to do X and to the protection of it and protection from discrimination on the basis of it. To aid in this process, it helps to actually have or produce an identity in order to advocate protecting it. To this end, the formation or maintenance of organizations, chat rooms, communities, public advocacy or identification, conscious differentiation from others who do not do or have X, the use of identity politics itself to defend X, etc. all help to form or maintain an identity around X so that one may now pursue defending it in the public square. Racial identity and the production of White identity as different from Black or whatever else is one example of a kind of identity that was created in modern times (though here the motivation was more to justify one identity at the expense of others). Homosexual identity is another, and much more recent. Many of these sorts of identity involve a symbiotic relationship of mutual creation and maintenance between cultural and reflective identities.

So once you've got this nifty new identity, so the politics goes, you try to justify X, which the identity is formed around, by referencing the fact that it is part of one's identity. Homosexuality has definitely gone along this path. Individuals will sometimes do the same thing too, of course ("I couldn't stay married to Bobby! It's just not who I am! Jimmy's much better for me..."). But notice that X being part of one's identity does not actually, necessarily make it morally okay or justified or whatever. Just because gay sex is part of one's cultural, reflective, or even deep identity does not make it okay or that it should be protected, etc. (Consider, for instance, the fact that very, very bad stuff can be part of one's identity in any of those three senses)

The only surefire way to get identity to entail goodness or whatever is for it to be normative identity. But opponents of homosexual behavior precisely deny that it is part of anyone's normative identity, so for the homosexual-advocate engaged in identity politics to rest their case on this kind of identity is to beg the question and fails to prove that such behavior is acceptable. So, in sum, there isn't any easy way actually to argue from identity to permissibility, rights, or anything like that. But the players in the identity politics game might not want you to know that - in fact, they need most people to be ignorant of it if their strategies are to work.

(For a very closely related group of confusions, see my posts in my series on naturalness: Naturalness Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

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