Identity politics is much in the news. From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, and from Incels to White Nationalists, it’s hard to get away from the idea that identity plays a critical role in modern political movements. Society seems to be fragmenting and polarising. People flock to others with whom they share some common identity (race, gender, ethnicity, religion etc) and develop rallying cries and political demands that speak to their shared experiences.
Sometimes this seems like a positive development: by bringing to light systematic abuses suffered by particular groups we can build a more just and equal society. Other times it seems less positive: by settling into our groups we become tribalistic and suspicious of outsiders. There seems to be a paradoxical tension between the aspirations and unintended consequences of identity politics. One of the most common critiques that I have come across is that identity politics leads to a kind of systematic intolerance. There are certain sacred truths about group experience and group membership that must be not be questioned or challenged. This, ironically, leads to a less progressive and fractious social life. As John McWhorter put it (commenting specifically on the concept of ‘microaggressions’) there is a danger that what passes for identity politics is ‘just bullying disguised as progressive thought’.
Is this a fair criticism? In this post I want to take a look at one attempt to put this criticism on a more rigorous, logical footing. This attempt comes from Danny Frederick’s paper ‘Identity Politics, Irrationalism, and Totalitarianism: The Relevance of Karl Popper’s Open Society’. The paper is an interesting blend of Karl Popper’s political philosophy with concerns about microaggressions, trigger warnings and multiculturalism. It helped me to think about identity politics in a new way, and although I agree with a lot of what Frederick has to say, I think he overemphasises the negative manifestations of identity politics in his critique. Although there are certain concepts and ideas employed by identity political movements that lead to a closed social order, the very same concepts and ideas can be used to create a more open society. I’ll try to explain my thinking in what follows.
1. The Open Society and its Enemies
Frederick’s argument is that identity political movements rely on a set of concepts and ideas that foster a ‘closed’ society. This is bad because an ‘open’ society is more desirable than a closed society. In saying this, Frederick leans heavily on the distinction between open and closed societies from Karl Popper’s famous work The Open Society and its Enemies.
A closed society, according to Popper, is historically synonymous with a tribalistic society.* This is a form of social organisation in which an extended kinship group are held together by some common religious myth. This myth usually involves some form of ancestor worship which is used to clearly delineate group ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The religious myth also typically comes with an irrational attitude toward social customs and practices, and an assumption that the way things are in nature is the way the gods want them to be. The result is a rigid, close-minded, and often hierarchical form of social organisation. Everyone has a predefined role in society. There is little or no scope for escaping from it. People favour irrational loyalty to traditions and customs. There is limited growth and innovation.
An open society is rather different. It is usually more individualistic than tribal and allows people to form alliances with others with whom they may share no common ancestry. There is more scope for moving freely between social groups. People are not defined by or constrained by their ancestry. There may, of course, still be religious beliefs and practices undergirding such societies, but they tend to be universalistic in nature, not tribalistic. Furthermore, rational argument and debate play a larger role in these societies. Traditions and customs are not deemed to be sacred. They can be reformed and changed. There is room for growth and innovation.
From these descriptions, it seems obvious that an open society is more desirable than a closed one. The point of Popper’s two volume work on the Open Society and its Enemies was to show how the ideas of influential philosophers like Plato and Marx lead to the closed society and away from a more open society. Popper argued that their approach to reason and rationality was central to this. Popper felt that the approach we take towards reason and rationality determines how we manage social conflict and solve important problems. He identified five different attitudes toward rationality that could be endorsed by different thinkers at different times:
Irrationalism: This is where we solve problems by appealing to intuitions, emotions, impulses and instincts. This results in a dogmatic approach to intellectual discourse (i.e. you just make pronouncements that are emotionally appealing) and an instrumentalist approach to the use of reason and argument (i.e. you make arguments when this is a useful way of persuading your opponent).
Pseudo-Rationalism: This is where we claim some special epistemic authority (intuition/communication with God etc.) that allows us to know the answer to important questions and problems. This also leads to a dogmatic approach to intellectual discourse as the appeal to epistemic authority is designed bring an end to inquiry and debate.
Uncritical Rationalism: This is where we reject anything that cannot be supported or proved to exist by rational argument and/or evidence (e.g. the philosophical view supported by the Vienna Circle). Popper and others argued that uncritical rationalism was self-defeating because the commitment to rationalism itself was unsupported by rational argument.
Fideistic Rationalism: This is where we pick a few ground truths that cannot be challenged or questioned and then develop our worldview and problem solving approach by reasoning from these ground truths. Depending on what gets included within the set of ground truths, this view can also be quite dogmatic and limiting, tending towards irrationalism, even though it avoids the mistake of uncritical rationalism.
Critical Rationalism: This is where we accept the need for some ground truths to start the process of inquiry and rational argument, but never allow these ground truths to become unquestionable articles of faith. Everything is up for grabs and subject to rational scrutiny. This is the antithesis of dogmatism.
As you might imagine from the descriptions, the irrationalist approach is most at home in the closed society. Indeed, it may be the cognitive foundation of a closed society. Contrariwise, the critical rationalist approach is most at home in the open society. It’s with the other forms of rationalism that the problems arise. They may seem, on the surface, more open-minded than outright irrationalism, but they can easily lead us back to a closed society. This is particularly true of fideistic rationalism. Different groups that adopt fideistic rationalism can appear to be quite rational in many contexts, but they will each have their sacred cows that cannot be slaughtered and so will tend towards irrationalism in certain matters.
2. The Link Between Identity Politics and the Closed Society
We are now in a position to understand Frederick’s argument. He claims that identity politics leads us to the closed society by fostering and encouraging an approach to reason that is antithetical to critical rationalism. He doesn’t spell out the argument in formal terms, but my reading of his paper suggests that the following is a reasonably accurate reconstruction of what he is trying to say:
- (1) We ought to favour an open society over a closed society
- (2) To create the conditions for an open society, we need to foster critical rationalism.
- (3) Identity politics, at least in its current manifestation, is antithetical to critical rationalism (and closer to fideistic rationalism/irrationalism)
- (4) Therefore, we ought to reject/resist identity politics, at least in its current manifestation.
Hopefully I have said enough about premises (1) and (2) in the preceding section. Admittedly, I haven’t provided a robust defence of them (Frederick says more in his paper) but I hope I’ve provided enough detail for people to see these as reasonable propositions that can be accepted for the sake of argument. This allows us to turn attention to premise (3), which is the real meat of the argument.
The first thing to note about premise (3) is its scope. It does not claim that identity politics is always and everywhere a bad thing. It simply claims that it is a bad thing as it is currently practiced. Frederick is clear about this scope limitation in the paper. He says ‘there need be nothing amiss with identity politics in principle…However, the current popular form of identity politics embraces irrationalism [via fideistic rationalism]’ (Frederick 2017, 7). So what it is about the currently popular form of identity politics that leads to this? Frederick identifies a number of concepts and ideas that are deployed by practitioners of identity politics. He thinks each of them contributes to the problem:
Multiculturalism: This is the view that cultural differences should be celebrated and respected and that society should embrace cultural diversity. The problem with this is that it stalls or prevents criticism of cultural practices that might be ethically or socially problematic.
Criticism of Cultural Appropriation: This is where cultural insiders criticise outsiders for taking, using or re-representing their cultural practices/traditions/artefacts. Taken to an extreme this can prevent cross-pollination and innovation of cultures. Furthermore, it can assume that cultural ‘insiders’ (itself a problematic notion) have some unquestioned epistemic authority or control over their practices/traditions/artefacts.
Publicising of Microaggressions: This is where people are criticised for saying or doing things that, while minor and not overtly discriminatory in themselves, are taken to contribute to an unwelcome social environment for members of recognised minority groups. Frederick thinks this is problematic because in many cases the ‘micro’ behaviour is just assumed to have a negative effect and so must be criticised and punished. In other words, emotional reactions to behaviour are favoured over rational judgments. Similarly, as in the McWhorter quote given in the introduction, critics argue that calling people out for microaggressions can be a form of ‘bullying’.
The Idea that Speech is itself a form of Violence: This is where certain speech acts are taken to be violent in and of themselves, not simply things that can provoke or incite violence. This is particularly problematic when the speech is assumed to be violent irrespective of its context. Frederick argues that this view is absurd because speech acts only take on meaning and have effects in a particular context, and yet some famous cases of people being no-platformed or prevented from speaking seem to have made this assumption (he cites some controversial cases in his paper, such as the protests of Charles Murray speaking at US universities and the withdrawal of an invitation from Richard Dawkins to speak in Berkeley).
Use of Trigger Warnings: This is where advance warnings are issued regarding the content of a movie, book, lecture (etc) on the assumption that the content might be traumatising to some people. While this practice may have some merit in its original form, Frederick says that it is now used to discourage students from dealing with challenging ideas and sacralises their emotional reactions.
Calling out of Mansplaining: ‘Mansplaining’ is when a man tries to explain something to a woman in either a condescending way or in a way that assumes, without evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence, that the woman lacks the requisite knowledge or expertise.** The ‘calling out’ of mansplaining is an attempt to gossip about, ridicule or publicly shame men for doing this. You can find many examples of this on social media (search for #mansplaining on twitter). Frederick argues that this can be problematic if it is used as an excuse to simply dismiss or ignore arguments rather than engage their substance. It could also be counterproductive to dialogue or constructive debate.
Use of the Phrase ‘Check Your Privilege’: This is similar to the publicising of microaggressions and the calling out of mansplaining. It is an attempt to get people from privileged social groups to recognise the unfair advantages they have over others. While this might be valuable in some cases, Frederick laments the fact that it can also be used as a form of ad hominem attack that gives someone an excuse to ignore or dismiss what someone from a privileged group is saying.
In addition to each of these examples, Frederick argues that embracing the tactics and beliefs of identity politics can lead to absurd or contradictory views. For example, there is often tension between the members of different identity groups — e.g. radical feminists and conservative Muslims — and yet the practitioners of identity politics tend to overlook or ignore those tensions. Frederick also uses the more controversial example of the tension between beliefs about transgender identity and feminist identity to illustrate this point.
3. Evaluating the Argument
That’s Frederick’s argument. Is it any good? I think it’s complicated. I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. There is much that I see going on in identity political movements that I find problematic and uncomfortable. I’m particularly uncomfortable about the rise of white identity politics. I’d much rather live in a world where people weren’t attracted to group identity labels and wouldn’t invest so much of their emotional energies in those identities. But I also appreciate that this is unlikely to happen any time soon and that I may be in the privileged position where I (as a white heterosexual male) have to worry less about group identity than people who are coded as belonging to a minority group and have that identity thrust upon them whether they like it or not. I think we need to be able to see things from that perspective (at least to some extent) if we are to build a more just society.
And this brings me to my concerns about Frederick’s argument. To be clear, the concepts and ideas he identifies can definitely foster irrationalism and close-mindedness. I, for one, don’t like the social media pile-ons or public-shaming or ex-communication of people for relatively innocuous behaviours. I don’t like the attempt to shut off inquiry or bully people into silence. That said, I think it is important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would defend something like multiculturalism, the use of trigger warnings, and the publicising of microaggressions. What would they say to Frederick’s argument? Assuming they aren’t in the grip of complete irrationalism, I think they would argue that each of those practices, when done right, is actually conducive to greater critical rationalism and openness in society, not antithetical to them.
It’s all a matter of dial adjustment. If you crank up the identity political dial too far, you may tip over into irrationalism and closed-mindedness; but if you get the balance right you can actually help to foster more openness and critical reflection. The way I see it is this: the defender of something like multiculturalism or the criticism of cultural appropriation believes (often with good evidence) that dominant cultures tend to silence or ignore the views of minority cultures. In other words, from their perspective, it is the dominant culture that tends towards irrationalism and closed-mindedness because it ignores or suppresses what is said or done by members of a minority culture. This kind of irrationalism needs to be protested and rectified. Members of the dominant culture need to be ‘called out’, to at least some extent, in order to help them to overcome their own tribalism and closed-mindedness. If done right, this can help in building a more open society.
Consider some examples. Although it is often ridiculed, there is clearly a sensible form of multiculturalism, one that is perfectly at home in a Popperian Open Society. As Frederick himself acknowledges, there is no such thing as a perfect culture and there are many different, permissible ways of life. We can learn something from different cultures. Through tolerance and intercultural dialogue we can grow and progress. If we are suspicious and dismissive of other cultures this will never happen. Where multiculturalism becomes problematic is when it is assumed that minority cultures can do no wrong and that they should be forever preserved in some historically contingent form. Something similar is true for the criticism of cultural appropriation. There is obviously something problematic about members of dominant cultures not taking the art, literature, music or ideas of minority cultures seriously unless they are spoken to them by a member of the dominant culture (who may then take the credit or receive the reward for re-representing these ideas). This again silences or suppresses the voices from those cultures, which is not conducive the kind of critical, free-flowing, upwardly mobile, interaction we would expect in an open society. Where it becomes problematic is where it is assumed that there can be no cross-fertilisation of culture and no possibility of intercultural understanding. A similar analysis can be performed for most of the concepts and ideas that Frederick criticises above (the one exception might be the view that speech itself is a kind of violence; I’m more with Frederick on that one but I’m not entirely sure that defenders of that idea do favour a completely de-contextualised view of the harm of speech). In each case, if you adjust the dial to the right level, you avoid irrationalism and foster openness.
And this, for me, is the problem with Frederick’s argument. Although he is clear that he does not think that identity politics is always and everywhere a bad thing, he does seem to assume the worst about the practitioners of identity politics. For example, in his conclusion he says the following about their motives:
The exponents of identity politics want to establish a closed society in which their ideological views are unchallenged, cultural traditions are ossified, a new caste system of approved identities is imposed, and respect for it is indoctrinated…The logical terminus of identity politics is the totalitarian state.
Ironically, this is the kind of blanket assumption about a group of people that Frederick himself criticises in the exponents of identity politics. We shouldn’t follow his lead. Maybe what he says is true for some exponents of identity politics but if I’m right a good number of them could have more sensible and progressive aims, ones that are entirely consistent with the open society. The logical terminus of identity politics is not, necessarily, the totalitarian.
What does this mean in practice? It may still be the case that many of the particular manifestations of identity politics do tend towards irrationalism. This strikes me as being an empirical matter that can be determined only on a case-by-case basis. If they are found to favour irrationalism, they should be criticised and challenged. But this does not mean that there is nothing salvageable in the concepts and ideas used by the exponents of identity politics. This too should be recognised.
* For what it is worth, I think it is important to distinguish tribal societies from hunter-gatherer societies. The latter tend to be more egalitarian and flat in nature.Tribal societies are more hierarchical and associated with the origins of agriculture. For more on this distinction, I recommend reading Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order.
** Yes, I appreciate the irony in the fact that I am a man trying to explain what mansplaining is.