On identity politics

Identity politics is about bullying:

  • The bullying of black people is racism.
  • The bullying of women is sexism, or patriarchy.
  • The bullying of gays, trans, or Muslims is homophobia, transphobia, or Islamophobia respectively (though I think it should be called something else, since “phobia” means “fear”).
  • The bullying of poor people is an economic program called austerity.
  • The bullying of employees by employers is exploitation.
  • The bullying of people in the streets by police is police brutality.
  • The bullying of people in prison by the guards is prison brutality or prison abuse.
  • The bullying of indigenous Palestinians is Zionism.
  • The bullying of children by their parents, teachers, priests, or other adults is child abuse.
  • The bullying of children by other children in their school is simply called “bullying.” (Some people seem to think that this is the only meaning of the word “bullying.”)

“Identity groups” are the different groups of victims that I have named above. “Identity politics” focuses on one or another of these groups, separately, perhaps exclusively.

Admittedly, there are some differences between the situations of the different identity groups. For instance, being black is like having a target painted on your back; it means being bullied all your life. You can be arrested or even shot for “Driving While Black.” In contrast, you may be able to hide the fact that you are gay or Muslim. (Or gay and Muslim, an intersectional identity that will subject you to far more torment.)

Even in the privileged classes (I’m white), all of us have been bullied at least once or twice in our lives. But generally we are not in fear for our very lives. We have to use our imagination to think about what it’s like to be bullied all your life. One way to imagine it is by watching war movies — there are plenty of those on television. Being black must be like living in a war zone.

Still, I think we would be strengthened in our fight against bullying if we focused more on what the different kinds of bullying have in common. They all involve someone with less power being abused by someone who has more power. The abuser lacks self-knowledge, and lacks empathy for people different from himself. The different kinds of bullying are all justified by authoritarianism and a philosophy of “might makes right.” (By the way, I highly recommend the book “The Authoritarians” by psychologist Bob Altemeyer; it is available free online and it is very insightful.) I see bullying as part of our society’s culture of separateness, perpetuated by separate property and hierarchical power.

Some Marxists claim that bullying is caused by capitalism. I think bullying is different enough to deserve separate consideration, but I can see a connection: Separate property creates separate lives; competition kills empathy. Under capitalism, we all become commodities, to be abused or discarded.

Some people in an identity group are suspicious of outsiders. There are good and bad reasons for that.

For instance, a black man is right to believe that I am not as heavily invested in Black Lives Matter as he is. I am white, I don’t have a target on my back, and I can take a vacation from worrying about black lives any time I want to. The black man doesn’t have that option.

And certainly the Democratic Party has been insincere in its claim of standing for identity groups. Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” was a lie, and Barack Obama did nothing to improve the lives of blacks or other identity groups. I voted for Jill Stein, who was opposed to imperialism, not for Hillary Clinton, who wanted to prove that a woman could be as big an imperialist as any man.

But our hope for a better world rests on the fact that we are not all like the bully. We are all capable of learning to feel empathy, and not just for people identical to ourselves. Eugene Debs said

While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free,

That idea applies to all kinds of bullying. Whenever any of my seven billion brothers and sisters is bullied, the injustice is against me as well. My life has been sheltered, but I am not carefree. And when I see a white man harassing a black man, I may see white supremacy — but I also see a human being, lacking self-knowledge, harassing another human being. I may not know what to do about that, but it is a concern from which I can never take a vacation, because I am a human being too.


2018 Oct 11, version 1.03.

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