Might there be another reason, beyond Eusebius McKaiser’s disparaging ones in Let’s slay some myths about identity politics, for rejecting identity politics? Yes.
McKaiser’s views on identity politics have three noteworthy features. The first is that individuals acquire their social identity as a result of what others believe about them and how they view them. The second is that an individual’s privilege is determined by how others, given their views, treat or interact with them. The third is that the utility and unavoidability of identity politics — the analysis of social reality in terms of social identities — is a consequence of the fact that, whether we like it or not, we are each implicated in a world that unfairly confers some privileges to some of us because of our social identities.
We can also scale up and consider how groups or social institutions view, interact with, enable or disable individuals or other groups and social institutions.
McKaiser is unimpressed by people who reject identity politics and believe they do so for one of three reasons, or some combination of them. First, people are resistant to own up to, and give up, their privileges. Second, people subscribe to the “myth of meritocracy”, a false belief that the benefits they’ve accrued are purely, or mostly, the results of hard work rather than identity-based injustice. Third, people are too lazy to familiarise themselves with technical or academic arguments for, and developments within, identity politics and the social theory and philosophy supporting it.
These reasons answer the question: “Why, possibly, might people reject identity politics?”, rather than why they actually do. Answering the latter question would require the presentation and analysis of data that McKaiser doesn’t have and, in fairness, doesn’t have space to do in a newspaper column.
We should be willing to grant that each of these explanations is possibly right. We could also think of some cases where they are right. But that isn’t enough to establish that they are right in all or most cases.
But there are grounds besides these to reject identity politics as an analytical framework. To see what they may be, we should get clearer on what identity politics is meant to explain, and how those explanations are meant to work. That puts us in a good position to see how they might possibly fail.
So, what is identity politics meant to explain? McKaiser’s example is of two people who walk into a store where the one is treated with suspicion and the other is regarded as beyond suspicion. Identity politics is meant to explain cases like these: generally, patterns of human behaviour and, more specifically, cases of differential treatment and inequality. The explanation is that the one person was treated with suspicion because the store clerk viewed him as black and treated him in accordance with various negative stereotypes associated with that social identity. The other person was regarded as beyond suspicion because she was viewed as white and treated in accord with positive stereotypes associated with that social identity.
How are those explanations meant to work? This is a more involved question. Imagine we think it’s a general rule that people who take a degree in political studies tend to be on the left and vocal about their political commitments. Imagine, then, that at some gathering you find yourself wondering why someone at the party is so forceful about some political issue. Your friend might remark: “Well, they studied politics at the University of Cape Town, so …”, and this would be enough to make sense of the person’s otherwise confusing enthusiasm for political debate at a birthday party.
Identity politics explanations are meant to work somewhat like that. Particular events, such as the different treatment received by a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the woman in the shop, are explained by showing them to be singular instances of a more general rule, where the rules are given in terms of social identities and their attendant stereotypes. At least, absent a deeper explication by McKaiser, this is how we may assume they are meant to work.
What this approach requires is a stable, consistent and finite taxonomy of social identities. What this practically means, given how McKaiser understands the mechanisms by which we acquire our social identities, is that it requires that at least most members of society think in the same ways about the same taxonomy and act in the same ways given their views. It’s on the assumption that these criteria are met that we can explain the treatment of the SACP member, or the woman, in terms of their social identities, rather than in the more austere terms of the prejudices of the store clerk. Putting it another way, insofar as these criteria aren’t met, we are better off explaining patterns of social behaviour in other terms, perhaps those of individual prejudices, or perhaps something else altogether.
For example, if, perchance, there is instability in the SACP member’s social identity — because the clerk doesn’t regard him as black — then there would be no reason, in this case, to say that it was their social identity that accounted for their treatment. Or, even if the store clerk viewed the SACP member as belonging to some other category (say, communist, along with some or other unsavoury stereotypes about communists), we’d have to account for the SACP member’s treatment in some way other than his black social identity. This situation generalises, for insofar as people do not think about the same taxonomy of social identities, and don’t act in the same ways given the same views about that taxonomy, we aren’t in a position to tell which social identities (if any) would be useful for explaining any given situation. In that case, the extent to which there is variation in how social identities are ascribed is the extent to which we’d find identity politics — analysis in terms of social identities — unfruitful.
How much variation occurs is an empirical question, which I don’t have the space or resources to answer. So, I’m not here declaring that there actually is such disenchanting variation in social identity ascription. My point, rather, is that, to the extent that there is such variation, we should become disenchanted with identity politics as an analytical framework for understanding social reality.
In the initial parts of his article McKaiser makes a clear and useful conceptual case for his enthusiasm for identity politics, but whether we should share his enthusiasm is an empirical matter he did not settle. I also haven’t settled it. My own view is that the empirical details are not favourable to his position. Another reason, beyond McKaiser’s three disparaging ones, for rejecting identity politics may just be that, despite appearances, and despite the enthusiasm for it in certain kinds of literature, it isn’t all that empirically fruitful as an approach to understanding social reality. It would be useful if, in our attempts to resolve this dispute, we paid more attention to empirical details, rather than to rhetorical flair, and how, and in which sense, these details can help us understand our social reality.
Shaun Stanley is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at the University of Bristol