Bill Hulet Editor


Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Identity Politics

Years ago there was a big debate among the very small number of people who actually care about "big debates". It centred around whether activism should be put into "single issues" or "political organizing". That is to say, in the grand carnival of society the question raised was whether it was better to organize demonstrations, mount petition drives, fundraise, issue press releases, and, so on for one specific social issue, like wage discrimination against women; or; whether it would be make more sense to put all that effort into building a political party that would fight for that issue plus others like ending carding, gay rights, unions, higher minimum wages, fighting climate change, etc. No one talks about "single issue politics" anymore (mainly because people have learned that it is possible to "walk and chew gum at the same time"), but the discussion continues in a slightly different form in arguments for or against "identity politics".

What distinguishes this new iteration from the old one is that the focus of organizing isn't on the specific social problem---such as police violence---but instead on a specific, sub-group of the population, such as blacks, and their unique experience of the problem, as in the "Black Lives Matter" movement. The argument being that white people have such a profoundly different experience with authority over their lives that you simply cannot understand the problem without actually having lived it yourself as a person of colour.

Public Domain photo by Johnny Silvercloud, c/o Wiki Commons

This change in focus can be threatening to people who are not members of that specific group because it seems to be arguing from a position of "privilege". That is to say, for example, if you simply cannot understand a significant aspect of policing unless you are a black civilian, it feels to some that your point-of-view as a police officer (or white civilian) simply doesn't count. 

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To political organizers (ie: those folks who see the "big picture" and want to build political parties), identity politics is really scary and dangerous. This is because the classic way that populations are manipulated and controlled is through "divide and conquer" tactics. For example, racism has traditionally been a wonderful thing to use against poor whites---because if you could convince a lot of them that they were so much better off than people of colour they would believe that they had a "stake" in the system. And if you identify with the people exploiting you, you don't want to change things.  

Unfortunately, however, understanding the danger of "divide and conquer" doesn't alter the fact that some fractions of the population simply do not have the same experience as others. The vast majority of men have no idea at all about what it's like to be sexually harassed. Most whites have no idea what it's like to be "carded" or stopped by the police for "driving while black". Nor do heterosexual people have any understanding of what it's like to go through life being gay or trans. And the really important thing to remember is that while something like being "carded" or harassed because of your sexual orientation is a totally incidental and minor thing in the life of people that it almost never happens to---it is a huge, big deal if it is a routine part of your life. And because of this tremendous difference in the perception of importance, it has tended to be extremely easy for organizations like political parties, unions, etc---who have tended to be overwhelmingly composed of white, straight men---to simply "bargain away" any movement on these "lifestyle" issues when "more important" stuff like tax rates, minimum wages, base salary, etc, came up for negotiation. This is why groups have recently started to mobilize around the sub-population instead of the issue, and focused on the single issue instead of the broader, political party.

The "divide and conquer" tactic has been attempted, and it has met with mixed results. Some police unions and elements of the Republican party have tried to create a "blue lives matter" campaign to divide people who are concerned about the problems police officers face from the people who are concerned about the problems of blacks---and pit one against the other.  

Public Domain photo by Daniel Oines, c/o Wiki Commons
Image has been cropped by Bill Hulet
This has managed to develop some traction, as the sign above would indicate. In contrast, an earlier attempt to divide divide blacks and gays over same-sex marriage (using appeals to conservative black churches), seems to have fizzled out before it actually got any momentum. Primarily, this happened because the black population is more sensitive to "civil rights" than the general public. They seemed more interested in helping others gain rights that they had to fight for themselves than they disliked gays. (There are still inter-racial couples alive who were forbidden to marry under the old Jim Crow laws. The parallel with laws forbidding gay marriage were obvious to many.) 


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There is an element to identity politics that scares a great many folks. Once you start looking at the world this way there is a danger that it can become a bit of a Pandora's Box---the identities will start to multiply to the point where there will no longer be any sort of majority left. Just to illustrate with my own example, consider the following. I'm a straight, white male. But I'm also someone who grew up in a poor, working class family. I'm a union member in what is considered a good place to work. But I've always worked at physical labour and as a result, various parts of my body have been damaged in ways that cause me considerable pain (arthritis, tendinitis, sciatica.) Moreover, I am married to a woman who has a psychiatric illness that has kept her from being employed for a large part of her adult life. Moreover, I am planning on sponsoring her to come live with me as an immigrant (she's an American citizen.) Also, I am a survivor of an abusive, dysfunctional family, and, as a result, suffer from PTSD. 

Any one of these issues could become something I identify with and see as being key to who I am. I could go on about class discrimination, the casually brutal way people treat the mentally ill, the way managers routinely ask people to do jobs that wear and tear on the body without bothering to think about the cumulative impact that this has over a person's lifetime, and, so on. But the fact of the matter is that compared to many others, I'm doing pretty good. And I understand that---just like everyone else---I have to pick and choose my battles. As a result, I've made it a practice to try to identify my struggles through issues instead of identity. I am not about to cast aspersions on others who emphasize their own specific experience even though I choose to emphasize the value of seeing things within a larger context. We all bring different experiences and gifts to the table, and diversity is generally a strength instead of a liability.

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This raises one last point. 

It's a natural thing to always try to generalize from our own personal experience in order to understand someone else. For example, I was able to scrimp and save, put together a down payment, and, buy my own house---even though it was a slum and I had to gut and rebuilt it over 20 years. So what's stopping someone else? Well, lots of people didn't grow up on farms and learn that they can do just about anything if they put my mind to it. Moreover, houses cost a lot more now than they used to---even slums. I know this stuff logically, but it is still emotionally easy for me to forget about it. How can I avoid making similar judgments about someone else? 

What I try to do is remember the following statement: "I may think I know what that person's life is like---but I really don't. So the rational, the kind, the enlightened thing is to simply suspend judgment. Maybe I will be able to learn a little bit about that person's life, but until then I will just take what they say on its own terms." I know that it's really difficult to remember to suspend judgment, but when you can it is useful to try. And if you continue to try, after a while it becomes easier and easier to do. And at that point you begin to start to listen to what the other person is saying and you also start to lose any resentment you might feel towards granting that person anything that you might have once thought of as being "special privileges".