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The Problem with Identity Politics

Karsten Erzinger (3L)

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Those are the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr, spoken on August 28, 1963. On that day, he was delivering a pertinent message that still holds relevance today.

In today’s chaotic world, it seems we are still struggling with the concept of treating people as individuals, rather than lumping them into groups and making assumptions about them based on those associations. To an individualist, I am simply Karsten, an individual human being. To the practitioners of identity politics, I am Karsten, the white straight cisgender Christian conservative male. By throwing those labels on me, it is then easier to place me into a box and assume my views and opinions. This should not be how we operate and we should resist the purveyors of this flawed and problematic practice.

Identity politics is not only problematic because it leads to assumption making, but because it feeds and grows the problems of tribalism and polarization. Indeed, identity politics is essentially the practice of tribalism. Your group (or tribe) identity becomes your own identity; you cease to be an individual and your identity is your group’s identity. Therefore, what the group wants, you want. What the group fights, you fight. If you have a different thought from the group, you are tossed out and the group marches on without you. Those within the group are aware of this, and this awareness ensures that the group’s orthodoxy is maintained and upheld. Critical thought tends not to emerge in this environment and group think wins the day. This is one of the things George Orwell highlights very well in his masterpiece 1984, a book everyone would be wise to revisit.

The examples of this practice are many and plentiful, and the perpetuation of it is one of the major problems facing our society. Our inability to grapple with the fact that individuals are in fact individuals, and not just faceless members of whatever groups we place them in, is something that needs to change.

The polarization that exists is a byproduct of identity politics. When people put themselves in groups and only associate with those within their groups, then they are simply placing themselves into an echo chamber. Social media only reinforces this, by filtering out things we don’t like in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. If I don’t converse with or read anything from people who aren’t in my groups or who think differently, it becomes easy to dehumanize or assume the worst about people who think differently. Indeed, it isn’t surprising if people in those situations begin to think everyone thinks like they think and believes what they believe. It’s not hard to assume the worst intentions about someone when you never speak to them – this is why we live in such a polarized world right now, why there is always so much noise and conflict. We have forgotten how to talk to one another, to agree to disagree, to recognize common humanity even if we see things differently.

Indeed, even in academia the problem is severe. Identity politics is everywhere throughout the university and, not surprisingly, our ability to talk to each other is becoming worse and worse. It is now not out of the ordinary to hear about distinguished academics, lawyers, and politicians have speaking events shut down by mobs who disagree with their message (and right to speak it).

Furthermore, I would posit that the mini-resurgence of white nationalism isn’t Donald Trump’s fault, but rather the fault of widespread identity politics. Identity politics begets identity politics.

Identity politics is a poison in our society. Hopefully we will be able to find a cure, but in the meantime, here are two things I encourage everyone to do to stem the growth of this problem.

First, treat everyone as an individual. Don’t assume things about that person based on the attributes they have. This is difficult, but should be something everyone strives to do. Just because an individual voted conservative doesn’t mean they like Donald Trump or Stephen Harper; similarly, just because someone voted for Justin Trudeau doesn’t mean they like Karl Marx or selfies.

Second, try to read or listen to people you don’t agree with. Doing this will act to constantly reinforce the notion that not everyone thinks the same as you. It will also help you become okay with that fact and more comfortable with disagreement. Furthermore, it might help you recognize the common humanity you share with them. Even the most hated people around are still people; this is something commonly forgotten when groups reach for their pitchforks and torches. Finally, doing this will help you think more critically and independently, something that we all need a little bit more of.

People are individuals, not groups. We have value, dignity, and worth because we are human beings; those things are not dictated or calculated based on group identity. We, as individuals, should be judged by the content of our character and nothing else.