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Part of the problem with “Identity Politics” is that its proponents treat it as if everyone had to necessarily care about the issues they like.

Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Channel puts it in a very easy to criticise way:

If a piece of media involves people, who necessarily possess identities, even if they’re fictional, then it has Identity Politics.

Saying that people “necessarily possess identities” is kind of weasel-wording, i’d like to go a little into how exactly it is misleading.


People are necessarily themselves, and someone else can necessarily identify them. You can look at someone and see characteristics that, in one sense, help build his identity. But the idea of “Identity Politics” implies a different sense of “identity”. Identity politics implies using those characteristics to organize politics.

Identity then ceases to be about cognition and becomes about belonging. It is not a matter about what someone is, but in which groups he or she is involved, and therefore what roles he or she gets in the political games.

Identity as belonging is certainly political, in the sense Mike uses in the video, by definition: He is enforcing a definition whereby identity means whatever ties you to political processes. But you can refuse those ties. Human beings certainly need some ties with other people, but those ties are created, they don’t magically spring from some mystical thing called identity.

Before there were white-skinned people around, north american indians were not red-skinned. They were just people. They had skin. The skin had a certain color. But there was no political game around any of that.

When you make identity an issue, you are making a political manoeuvre. You are forcing some personal characteristics to be put into play in political contexts. Characteristics that someone else might very much not be comfortable with.

So, when homosexuals complain about not being able to french kiss in public, they seem to forget that any display of sexuality is frowned upon in a prude society. But instead of fighting prudishness, they organize another fight, one where identity-as-gay is the central issue. That is, they force identity into a political process so as to be able to frame it as us versus them, and thus force other gay people who would prefer to be neutral (and just french kiss in private) to take sides. And while i do not think this is an invalid power play, it certainly is a power play, and a risky one.

Saying that “everyone has identity” and that “you just uncover it” is very disingenuous. Or, to use the jargon, it is a way to justify and naturalize the privilege of setting the terms of discourse.

When second-wave feminism creates the slogan “the personal is political”, they are making a power play, a very biased one, and a very blunt one. Overgeneralising, you can say that everything is political, like you could say that everything is magnetic because protons have charge, but that doesn’t really mean anything. If everything is a power game, you can’t forget that this game has many many many divisions on its board, and confusing household politics with party politics with relationship politics (and so on) is not a sane thing to do, nor is it blameless.

So, today, Identity Politics is a way to turn otherwise level interactions into moral (and therefore uneven) disputes. That is what is meant when you complain that people are “bringing politics into” stuff.

Taken far enough, this way of politicising stuff becomes a denial-of-service attack. In other words, if you raise the issue once or twice, at points where we do have time to argue back and forth, this might be a very interesting criticism. But if the issue is constantly raised, in situations where arguing the issue at any depth would be stopping whatever was being done before, it actually becomes an impediment to the functioning of society.

The “crybaby” is claiming to fix the world but actually she is just making the world stop. She is also making herself the center of attention. And there is a final, bitter element to the attack, that if someone comes out and actually tries to argue with the crybaby, and point out to her that she is bogging down things, then she latches onto personal attacks, bringing into the open stuff that the other people prefer to keep private. That is, the final measure of Identity Politics is equivalent to “outing” people, which is extremely painful. (That is why the Feminazi moniker is so sticky…)

Identity in the sense of “identity politics” means the characteristics you give a xit about. Stuff that you like or dislike about yourself. Stuff that is meaningful to you. So, if in some sense everyone has those kinds of things, maybe they are none of your business. And maybe your claim that “everyone has identity” is just a way to hack into my personal space.


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