Saturday, August 26, 2017

The End of Liberal Identity Politics, Take Two

Mark Lilla, the guy who right after the elections argued that "liberal identity politics" must end before liberalism can rise from the grave (presumably as a zombie) has written a book based on his earlier New York Times article:  "The End of Identity Liberalism."

The book is called The Once And Future Liberal.  After Identity Politics.  Beverly Gage reviewed it for the New York TimesShe was not impressed:

Lilla acknowledges that social movements like feminism and civil rights played important roles in American history, raising questions and insisting on changes that could be secured no other way. At the moment, however, he finds such movements to be counterproductive, sucking energy away from the simple and urgent task of getting more Democrats into office. He disparages Black Lives Matter as “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” and dismisses “sex relations, the family, the secretarial pool, schools, the grocery store” (read: women’s issues) as all but irrelevant to serious politics.
It's almost as if Lilla's own identity has blinded him when it comes to certain issues?  Gage finds this a pity, because Lilla could have touched upon some important questions:

How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?
Well, the majority of recent anti-Trump marchers have been women, so they cannot possibly have made any difference, right?

I responded to Lilla's original 2016 article in a long (and popular!) blog post which I believe is still worth reading.  Today I want to return to the question if I can find any shared concerns between Lilla and my divine self.

Given that I have not yet read his book, what follows  is based on his original NYT article and on this recent interview (1).  In the latter he:

...pins many of the troubles of the Democratic Party on the rise of identity politics. He argues that Americans have become hostile to the way the left speaks and writes and that “by the 1980s [identity politics] had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” “The main result,” he writes, “has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.”
 Let's address the second sentence in that quote, about the way the left speaks and writes and about the possibility that some undefined group "Americans" has become hostile to it.

I don't know the specific examples Lilla might have in mind when he refers to "the way the left speaks and writes", but my guess is that he means the specific language often used on Twitter conversations and even more generally, the kind of language which uses terms such as "privilege" in the new progressive/feminist/lefty sense, rather than just in the traditional sense of referring to moneyed and power elites.  The rest of this post analyzes the new concept of privilege and asks if its use helps to convert more people to the liberal or progressive or social justice causes.

The origins of the new ways of employing the term "privilege" are in the male privilege and white privilege checklists (written in the nineties, I believe).  Those checklists, and many others which followed, are excellent for introspection, excellent for learning how one's own eyes can be blind to the everyday experiences of others and excellent for widening our narrow personal understanding of how the world works.  I strongly recommend such introspection and the resulting greater knowledge (and humility) for everyone.

But I'm not at all convinced that telling people that they are privileged (or that they should acknowledge their privilege or that they should not participate in debates because of their privilege etc.) is a good recruiting tool for the liberals or a good way to get allies for various causes, including feminist ones. Perhaps this is the "hectoring" Lilla mentions in his book?

The reasons lie in human psychology.

First, most unearned political privilege (except for financial privilege) cannot easily be relinquished.  Thus, there's little individuals accused of not having acknowledged their privilege can do to relieve any feelings of guilt and possible anger (2) the accusations may have caused.  Sure, they may focus more on fighting  for those less privileged (3), but the differences in overall levels of privilege are not going to be erased in any near future.  This means that the discomfort, the guilt and perhaps even future accusations will mostly remain.

Second, the use of the political concept of "privilege" turns old arguments about racism and sexism etc. on their head.  Now the problem is not that some groups are treated truly shittily; the problem is that other groups are not treated shittily enough.  Although the two ways of framing the problem are identical in some ways (4), the solutions they seem to hint at are very, very different.

Third, and linked to the above, individuals largely want to feel good when doing good, and working to stop the shitty treatment of other groups contributes to that.  Working to remove one's own privilege is mostly impossible, and working to remove all privileges, wherever they are found, is a Sisyphean task.  That is not conducive to creating warm and happy feelings.

In short, one attracts more flies with honey than with vinegar, and more allies and new liberals by luring them in with promises of good feelings of accomplishment rather than with  impractical promises of absolution from awkward feelings of guilt.

All these three points are about the emotional reactions I imagine some of the common language used by the left might cause in the yet-undediced.

They are not the reactions of truly thoughtful individuals, and nothing I have written should be interpreted as denying the importance of introspection about our many possible privileges (5).

Neither am I denying the existential unfairness of what I advocate here or that the pain, wounds and scars which come from experiencing an oppressed life are much larger than any small doses of guilt the more privileged are made to feel.  The reason for my arguments is simply that I believe they would work better.

Finally, we are never going to reach all individuals, however much we bend backward to be kind and welcoming, and there are cases when expressing righteous anger is  too psychologically important to take the above into consideration.

My most serious reservation about the language some on the left use is not any of the three points I wrote about above, but its lack of emphasis on attempts to change the institutions which make oppression possible and its excessive emphasis on internal emotional work and the expectation that if such work somehow became near-universal, well, then the institutions would change.  The reverse might well be a faster-acting prescription, and it can be launched on the simple principle of fairness and justice for all.

So did I find any common ground with Mark Lilla?  Perhaps, though I suspect that his prescription would not stop where mine does.  After all, I have no desire for the Democratic Party to clean house by sweeping human rights and civil rights under the carpet, and neither do I see the Republican Party as somehow not engaging in identity politics of the most obvious kind.


(1)  The interview is worth reading.  Lilla's answers are weirdly weak and not always based on factual evidence.  Then there's this case of contradiction:

He argues that the focus on identity politics caused the downfall of the Democratic Party, put the Republicans in power almost everywhere and resulted in this:

All the rights that movement politics people and identity politics people have fought for are under siege at the state level. There’s rollback on union rights, there’s rollback on voting rights for African Americans, there’s rollback on abortion. There’s a constitutional right to abortion in this country, and there are parts of the country where you cannot get one, and why is that? Because we are not competitive in these places because people have walked away from us, because of the way we talk, because of the things that with our seeming contempt for them.

Ok.  How, exactly, would the return to some mythical united past Democratic Party help in retaining these rights?

Suppose that Lyndon Johnson had never  sided with civil rights and thus the Democratic Party had not lost the South for generations, and suppose that the Democratic Party had decided not to give any priority to reproductive choice.

That's the kind of Democratic Party which would dispense with certain types of "identity politics," i.e., those which directly affect only women or only minorities.  How would returning to such a "unified" platform help to keep voting rights and reproductive choice alive?  After all, they wouldn't be a priority on the platform of Lilla's imaginary post-identity liberalism.

(2)  The latter is the likely response of bigots, but can also arise when everything an individual has achieved is attributed to privilege, rather than pointing out — to use a simile — that one can win a hundred meter dash by running very fast, training even harder AND because one was allowed to start a few meters short of the total hundred.

(3)  That is the intended effect, naturally, and it works for some percentage of those who are approached in this manner.  What I'm arguing here is that an alternative strategy would work for a larger percentage.

(4)  The traditional approach seems to assume that a certain level of general fairness exists and that this is the level some groups already benefit from.  I'm not quite certain if this level, defined as a goal,  exists in the newer formulation.

(5)  Indeed, I regard that work as essential.