What on Earth are Identity Politics?

I make a point of listening to intelligent people with whom I disagree.  As I mentioned in an earlier rumination on this topic, one of those people is Sam Harris.  And I really disagree with him.  A lot.  In major ways.  Harris is an objectively brilliant person but his current fixation on the liberal and progressive advocacy of “identity politics” is beginning to wear thin and, on that topic, I find his analysis not only in conflict with my own, but lacking and even disappointing.

Two weeks ago, Harris hosted on his "Waking Up" podcast, Columbia University’s Mark Lilla and discussed the phenomenon of identity politics.  I disagree with most of Lilla’s analysis but it is at least far more nuanced than Harris’s own.  This week, Harris hosted Yale University’s Nicholas Christakis.  Those familiar with Christakis might already see the problem with applying the phrase “identity politics” to his conversations with both Lilla and Christakis.  For those of you unfamiliar with Lilla and Christakis, some clarification may be in order.

Mark Lilla is an old-fashioned 60s and 70s style progressive liberal.  He has written and discussed at length his opposition to “identity politics” and, in so doing, has defined them rather broadly.  Lilla considers any political position that is designed to appeal overtly to one identity group to be a form of “identity politics.”  To his credit, he occasionally (not always) applies a measure of restraint and nuance to this criticism, but by and large this is how he applies it.

Nicholas Christakis is a sociology professor who has an intimate understanding of and appreciation for the parts that identity and cultural relativism play in modern politics.  He briefly entered the national spotlight when he and his wife (also a Yale professor) were protested by Yale students for their criticism of a (rather patronizing) e-mail from the university’s administration regarding appropriate Halloween costumes.  Students circulated petitions calling for them to be fired for their insensitivity and Nicholas was accosted publicly and shouted down by angry students.

The confusion surrounding the term "identity politics" stems largely from its use as a blunt object in the suppression of particular political ideas and its application to wildly disparate political phenomena with little or no differentiation.  Harris is a case study in that misapplication.

That Harris interviews both of these men, ostensibly about “identity politics” is a near perfect  representation of how the term is wielded in modern political discourse.  By applying the same term to the issues that both men discuss, Harris equates the very real role of identity in coalition building and advocacy (within which there is real room for legitimate disagreement), with an extreme concept of identity justice with very real implications for academic freedom and freedom of speech that, as yet, has served little concrete purpose.  Harris uses an extreme manifestation of identity driven grievance to discredit an perfectly legitimate (and I would argue essential) means of coalition building and advocacy with which he happens to take issue.  This is especially obvious and cynical given his lack of anything resembling an open mind with respect to the latter.

I don’t think I would consider myself a “free speech absolutist.”  I certainly believe that there are words that do real damage and have real implications in the real world.  They can incite violence or cause panic or rise to the level of slander or libel and truly damage a person’s reputation and prospects.  I would, however, consider myself a “free speech liberal.”  I genuinely believe that the solution to hate speech is more and more and more compassionate speech.  I believe in the power of argument and of confronting uncomfortable ideas.  The extreme and exclusionary purity with which Christakis was confronted actually does concern me.  I think the impulse toward snuffing out, or shaming into silence, unpleasant or disagreeable speech is a real problem on the left (and the right, for whatever that’s worth).  I do not, however, make the same mistake as Harris when he relegates any invocation whatsoever of group identity to the same dark corner of the college-campus left.

There is a legitimate place for the consideration of identity in progressive politics.  In the pursuit of some progressive goals, identity-based solutions are not only legitimate but essential.  Perhaps not only essential, but the only meaningful solutions at all.  Harris dismisses these solutions (or the goals) in the same breath with which he dismisses college students for shouting down a progressive ally like Christakis.  

This lack of nuance, the broadness of this particular brush, is more than just bull-headed and arrogant.  It’s cynical.