All Commentary
Monday, July 9, 2018

The Self-Oppression of Identity Politics

Which story will define and inform your lives?

In today’s world of exponentially less systemic discrimination, claiming its continued existence effectively compromises more crucial mental and spiritual freedoms.

“The mind moves in the direction of our currently dominant thoughts.”

Earl Nightingale, American radio-show speaker, author, human-potential pioneer

Who amongst us hasn’t attained some goal in life—from getting your first bicycle as a kid, to landing our dream job, and everything in between—by single-mindedly focusing on its realization? We all have. In fact, that exercise, embodied by the above quote, is at the heart of virtually every self-help prescription—mantras, affirmations, visualization, positive thinking—for improving one’s life in any number of arenas.

With the above Nightingale quote in mind, let’s look at identity politics, defined as:

“A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.”

The appeal of identity politics is undeniable and understandable. For members of groups that, historically, have been oppressed or marginalized to any extent, it’s sensible (not to mention downright heady) to join forces with like-minded souls, and fight to end that oppression. Over the past half-century, minorities, women, and gays have made enormous progress precisely because they systematically organized and fought against proactive discrimination.

Square Peg in Round Hole?

As such, no one could seriously argue that the above groups aren’t far freer and have far more possibilities and opportunities than they did prior to the 1960s. Because of their efforts, there are bodies of law in place expressly prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. As well there should be.

So, what happens when an identity-politics mindset encounters a society that has made enormous strides in eliminating institutionalized forms of discrimination—i.e., Jim Crow laws, red-lining practices in real estate; racial/sex discrimination in businesses, restaurants, public transportation, clubs, organizations, etc.? Does it become a movement subject to the law of diminishing returns?

Consider the underlying sentiment expressed by most practitioners of identity politics: “I am not free to fully succeed in life, and if I indeed don’t succeed, it’s because I am surrounded by people and institutions committed to keeping me down.” In the not-too-distant past, for the above groups, that sentiment was a statement of fact.

But, in our vastly different times today, does such a mindset simply become a reliable path to victimhood?   

It’s one thing to fight against true oppression, where there are active, codified, societally accepted measures that prevent you from realizing your dreams, but in a much freer society, where the laws are now on your side to a far greater extent, what does one end up fighting against?

“But, there’s still racism in America!”

Yes, there is, but that racism exists far more in the realm of personal beliefs and prejudices held by individuals, as opposed to institutionalized policies to keep people down. Shelby Steele, acclaimed black author, columnist and filmmaker, in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, obliquely underscored this point (emphasis mine):

“Of course this does not mean there is no racism left in American life. Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it. But now it is recognized as a scourge, as the crowning immorality of our age and our history.”

Racism is endemic to the human condition. A bold statement on its surface, yet, given the history of human behavior across millennia, and the hard-wired tendency of groups—regardless of culture, race and nationality—to consider themselves superior to those different from themselves (i.e., the essential quality of “racism”), were truer words ever spoken?

So, given all the above, and particularly the personal (vs. systemic/institutional) nature of most racism today, if your goal is to “eliminate racism,” you’d need to enter the realm of mandating proper speech and thought. And one look at the insanely PC-driven attempts to curtail free speech at many of our universities (just one venue for this awful trend) is all it takes to see how dangerous and unconstitutional that exercise is.

Two (Very) Different Gay Black Women

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine two gay black women—people who are part of multiple “identity” groups.  

One says, “Yes, I’m a gay black woman, but nothing and no one can stand in the way of my living my ideal life, and realizing my dreams.” In this day and age, with far more freedom to thrive than at any other time in history, is it even remotely far-fetched to imagine that this woman, if she worked hard enough, would, in fact, realize her dreams?

On the flipside, let’s take another gay black woman, who, immersed in the world of identity politics, aligns herself with other similar folks. To them, the world is a hostile place, replete with systemic oppression and institutionalized racism standing between them and what they want.

“The mind moves in the direction of our currently dominant thoughts.”

If those are the two respective worlds these two women inhabit, which of them is more likely to succeed? Who has more “agency”?

I can hear it now: “But you’re a straight, white male. What do you know about oppression?” Not much. But, what does my reality and opinion (ignorant and naïve?) have to do with your journey? Nothing. Given the extraordinary progress these groups have made, the far more relevant question for them is, “Which story will define and inform your lives?”

Will it be the one that essentially says, “The deck is stacked, and if I fail, it’s not my fault”? Or the one that says, “Sure, there’s still ignorant, bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic people out there, but they no longer have the power to stop me from realizing my dreams. And if they try, I’ve got the law on my side”?

We’re all aware of plenty of people who are members of “aggrieved” groups, who’ve succeeded in life—some enormously—despite countless obstacles and hardships. By the same token, we all know of plenty from those same groups who haven’t.

Doesn’t the existence of that real-world dichotomy argue far less for discrimination, and far more for the incandescently self-evident fact that human beings are endowed with widely varying levels of intelligence, initiative, ambition, drive, vision, motivation, etc.?

We should all be prepared to push back against cases of real racism when we encounter them. But in a world that, legally, is far freer for all its citizens than at any point in history, more often than not, invoking identity politics amounts to little more than arguing for a life of limitation. And who would consciously choose that?   

  • Peter Bowerman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer, and author of the acclaimed Well-Fed Writer series on commercial freelance writing.