Breaking Down “Identity Politics”


On April 24, I gave a speech to the Rochester Harvard-Radcliffe Club. In the space of this column, I will discuss some of the ideas that I expressed in my speech, the primary theme of which was identity politics.

When people hear the phrase “identity politics,” they tend to have one of two reactions. Many conservatives will roll their eyes and agree that people need to stop identifying so fiercely with their race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or other group and focus instead on the concrete actions that they and those around them might take to make their own and others’ lives better or worse. Conversely, many progressives will object to the expression “identity politics” that implicitly marginalizes people of color, women, sexual minorities, and others on the receiving end of ongoing oppression. Those who object note that what many call neutral is in reality a world of implicit and explicit bias, discrimination, and victimization.

My suggestion, in my speech and here, is that the phenomenon of identity politics is actually about two different things: (1) identity and naming; and (2) victim culture.

Identity and Naming

First, there is the act of naming people and things. It has always been a sign of power and prestige to be able to decide what others are to be called. God honored humans with the opportunity to name some of their fellow beings. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel as a kind of promotion. One who hates others utilizes cruel names and slurs to refer to those others. Humans typically classify all nonhuman animals as worth considerably less than all humans. We even use the animal category as a way of diminishing the humans we want to denigrate. With names, we can create an identity that did not previously exist.

Because naming is as powerful as it is, members of different groups fight hard for the privilege of being the ones to name themselves and others. Transgender women call themselves women and wish that others would adopt that nomenclature as well. This wish comes into conflict with the wishes of others who are used to defining male and female in a particular way and may have religious or other obligations that may rely on that mode of classification. A similar and yet politically very different sort of conflict arose when Rachel Dolezal asserted a right to define herself as African American when her birth parents were both white. The surrounding society, of course, ultimately decides how broadly or narrowly a name or classification will reach and what the basic contours of that name or classification are. It may, however, take a while to decide.

By recognizing that naming and classifying have been part of life even in the Bible, we see that some of today’s identity battles are familiar. We have not entered a new period during which people are taking up strange linguistic practices. Instead, we confront what we have always confronted: different groups vying for power in one of the ways that humans do—by naming themselves, each other, and the world around them.

Victim Culture

Identity politics is not just about naming. It is also about what some might call “victim culture.” This idea, too, is not without controversy. Many people (mostly progressives) would say that there are real victims who should be able to call themselves such. Others (mostly conservatives) would respond that one rarely becomes a permanent victim simply in virtue of one’s membership in a particular group defined by sex, race, or other characteristic.

Part of victim culture is about how interactions between victim groups and perpetrator groups ought to go. Specifically, perpetrator groups—those with “privilege”—have an obligation to defer to people who belong to victim groups and who claim victim status. Privileged groups, in turn, must “check their privilege” and treat victims as more highly qualified to describe the way things are for people inside and outside of their group. And members of victim groups who reject victim status might face hostility and even challenges to their authenticity by other members of those groups.

In The Coddling of the American Mind Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that many features of today’s “victim culture” are very unhealthy. They identify “trigger warnings,” the punishment of “micro-aggressions,” a preoccupation with “implicit associations,” the demand for “safe spaces,” and the notion that “speech is violence” as cultivating the opposite of what cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to do to fight depression. They say that accommodating victim identity actually entrenches the very features of being a victim that make this status hazardous to one’s mental health.

To this, Haidt and Lukianoff add the observation, based in part on a book called iGen by psychology professor Jean Twenge, that the people who have made these demands and changed campus culture were born in 1995 or later. This statement suggests that we have entered new territory and perhaps a revolution in social interaction. And it may be true.

To be sure, Haidt and Lukianoff do not lack critics. Neither does Twenge. But even if they are right and their critics are wrong about the nature, causes, and effects of contemporary campus culture, it is also possible that victim culture is simply a new twist on a very old phenomenon.

We have long given victims (including the sick, the oppressed, the poor, the disabled, etc.) a separate status from the rest of society. For most of human history, that status has been decidedly horrible. If a person fell into a victim category, then the rest of society would bully that person and worse. The status of victim was associated with humiliation and shame, and victims generally hoped, if possible, to hide their stigmatized identity rather than presenting it to others and thereby inviting ridicule. Thus, our longest-serving president felt it necessary to hide his wheelchair from the public.

We might find one exception to this approach to victimization in religion. A victim within a religious text might find glory in his sacrifice rather than shame or disgrace. Though Job went through multiple torments, he ultimately surrendered to God and was restored to a happy life. And most saliently, Jesus was tortured to death through crucifixion, and it is that very moment of ultimate victimization that many Christians commemorate by wearing a cross around their necks. This takes what looks like a moment of humiliation, disgrace, and literal stigmatization and glorifies it as a holy sacrifice.

It is certainly an important advance for us to stop humiliating and shaming victims, as we have lately begun to do. It is outrageous to add to the misery of a victim’s experience itself the pain of stigma. We must be kind and compassionate to people who have suffered and treat everyone with respect.

But unless we want to know something that victims of a particular type are uniquely qualified to tell us, it is unclear that we should defer to anyone simply because of his or her victim status. We have too much to learn to limit the universe of those allowed to teach us. And different people within one designated group may have very different experiences—even along the dimension designating the relevant group.

Our history of naming ourselves, others, and groups, along with our tendency to classify victims for good or ill should give us a little peace. We are not in uncharted territory, as some believe. We have the luxury of knowing that others have confronted these challenges before, and we can consider with care how we ought to handle them. Behind every name and every category, of course is an individual waiting to be seen, recognized, and understood. Our society will ultimately decide whether those needs are best met through identity conflict and victim culture.