Identity As Politics

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

Identity politics is well acknowledged in conservative circles as one of the worst scourges of postmodernity. As its name suggests, there are two different aspects to this phenomenon: a theory of identity and then a theory of how identity relates to politics. The latter term is relatively easy to define: for everybody living after the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, politics means, very simply, “power dynamics”.

The classical idea that politics is a means of organizing a political community (polis) remains embedded within this newer, more disturbing definitiona but only insofar as that “organizing of the political community” is properly informed by the power dynamics existing among—and this is where identity politics comes in—different identity groups.

One result of this way of understanding politics is that the individual becomes unimportant except as a representative of some identity group. This thinking often motivates the policies overtaking the corporate world: diversity, equity, and inclusion hiring. When a white man comes in and applies for a position, he may, as an individual, be obviously qualified.He may be far and away the most qualified candidate who is seeking the position. But the white race overall is not qualified to hold such-and-such position because the white race already has an unfair distribution of power; a good hiring manager will therefore engage in politics (the process of distributing/redistributing power to change the dynamics) and gift the position to a candidate from a less privileged identity group.

The problem of defining identity is a little more difficult, although I’ve hinted at the fact that identity is understood not as an individual occurrence, but something which is formed at the level of the group. Perhaps as a corollary to this group-oriented understanding, there has emerged, over the past 6 or 7 decades, a strange identity-related phenomenon which I have chosen to call “the psychological synecdoche.”

Synecdoche, of course, means using a part to represent a whole, as in referring to ‘boots’ (boots on the ground) as ‘soldiers’. Synecdoche is integral to the understanding of symbolism, especially in literary theory. I’m using it in a slightly less conventional sense: what I mean by it here is this practice of choosing one aspect of yourself—say, your sexuality or your race—and attempting to create a comprehensive identity from it.

 One simply has to look to the group-identifying individual to confirm the point I’m making; after all, if one is gay, this concerns not only who one has sex with, but also how one is supposed to vote, one’s religious affiliation (obviously), which community organizations one belongs to and supports, what kind of flag one flies, etc. Another phenomenon, almost as strange as and far more perverse than the psychological synecdoche, is that of privatizing aspects of one’s identity which should be publicly expressed and publicizing aspects of one’s identity which ought to find a more private expression.

Take religion, more particularly Christianity, whose adherents have been told time and again beginning in the 1960s that their religious beliefs ought not to affect anyone outside the four walls of their own home. Certainly, a company publicly professing biblical beliefs or a traditional Christian ethic is nowadays completely off-limits.

This attitude ignores the fact that religion is by nature congregational and communal; sexuality, on the other hand, is not congregational. It is an intimate affair, or ought to be.  Sex takes place between two people. To parade through the streets screaming about sex, post on public forums detailing one’s sexual experiences, fly flags outside of embassies to show sympathy for certain sexual acts, deliberately and diabolically confuses what should be the private nature of all sexual acts.

To return to my original observation, that of the psychological synecdoche, it will inevitably lead to a very disordered understanding of the human person if one insists on marginalizing the full range of human experiences to prioritize merely the sexual experience, or racial experience. It will lead to even worse disorder if one tries to racialize or sexualize all experience, which is the identity politician’s alternative to the problem of marginalizing some experiences at the expense of others.

Identity is a very complex process. I would suggest it is one of both becoming and being.  It involves acts of congregation and community and also acts of intimacy. A well-ordered identity will incorporate the full range of human experiences; it will not marginalize the religious for the sexual, nor marginalize the civil for the racial, nor the ethical for the political. It will comprehend all six categories and numerous others as well. It will rebel against any notion that the inner life of the human being can be summed up in a few simple words, or a few silly slogans.


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