Egalitarianism was traditionally about erasing the arbitrary differences between us all. The idea was that in a situation where you interacted with a black trans-woman named Aaliyah – you saw Aaliyah in all her complexity as an individual, not as a ‘black’ ‘trans’ ‘woman’ in all the stereotyped simplicity of those categories. Inclusiveness meant building one large community of individuals.
The so-called ‘progressive’ movement today has a completely different goal in mind: equality of power – very loosely defined – between groups of people associated only by their arbitrarily-assigned-at-birth characteristics. Someone who wants to be a progressive is today required to engage with Aaliyah first as ‘black’, ‘trans’ and ‘woman’ long before engaging with her as a unique individual.
Where is the recognition of Aaliyah’s humanity in this? The existentialists, a collection of mid-20th century Marxists dedicated to the emancipation of all, explained the human condition as one where ‘existence precedes essence’. Unlike other animals or objects, which lack the capacity for the actualisation of a unique self, we are each defined as individuals by the choices that we make and things we value.
Identity politics undermines this self-actualisation that is at the very core of psychological well-being and seeks instead to subsume each of us into a collective to which we are assigned at birth through no act of free will. This is a fundamentally illiberal doctrine – you are not free to be an individual; you are instead principally a member of a group.
Contemporary identity politics is perplexing, considering that the history of 19th and 20th century liberalism and progressivism chronicles a decades-long battle against similar attitudes as they manifested in fascism. In Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, the Volk and the nation were placed ahead of the individual. You were a member of a race first; your individuality was secondary.
Consider Martin Luther King’s comment:
‘I have a dream that one day my four children will grow up in a world where they are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
Compare this ideal to what happens today at Princeton orientation, where students are asked to stand up according to group markers that identify them. For example, ‘stand up if you identify as Caucasian … look at your community.’ This process goes for an hour. How can this activity produce anything other than an atomisation of the Princeton community into tribal groups? How could emphasising the cosmetic differences between us lead to an inclusive, unified community? Such an initiation precisely encourages us to judge each other by categories rather than character.
This impoverishment of the rich concept of identity down to the crudest labels is particularly harmful to university students because we are at an age where we desperately need and want individuation. Identity politics encourages us to prematurely conclude this process of self-discovery and creation by suggesting that what we see in the mirror is enough to constitute an identity. We end up defining ourselves, and others, by things we have no control over – like our race or gender – instead of by freely chosen values, opinions and customs.
In addition to undermining self-actualisation, the identity-political emphasis on group affiliation encourages the disintegration of inclusive, discursive democracy into clientelist populism. When the basic unit of political action is the individual, policy is driven by ideals because it is values that define individuals. When politics is instead driven by groups, it favours the most populous.
This is the worst possible outcome for minorities because it is a mathematical inevitability that the populous majority will win elections. Without any idealistic check on its self-interest, it then proceeds to increase its power and rents by exploiting minorities.
Intersectionality plays right into this with its almost explicit embrace of a cynical, rent-seeking approach to politics. It claims, for example, that white feminists cannot help black women by helping women in general; they can only help by abdicating their meagre power to give more volume to even more oppressed voices than their own. Such a philosophy is one step from saying: ‘Give me your resources or else you are unjust.’
New waves of social justice activism have led to a dramatic change in the meaning of solidarity. Classical solidarity was about unifying humanity by bringing everyone into the same tent through the expansion of universal freedoms and rights. Contemporary solidarity is instead: we are all different, and the only way to be an ally is to shut up and vacate the tent.
This attitude was abundantly clear in the recent backlash to Sydney Boys High prefects showing public support for gender equity. It was argued that, rather than being useful advocates and supporters, these men were undermining women’s attempts to agitate for change. Similarly, Roxanne Gay has previously opined: ‘I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to anyone [who is not a woman]’.
It should be abundantly apparent from Trump’s election and the meteoric rise of the primarily race-based alt-right that encouraging people to identify only with those most ‘similar’ to them is political suicide for minorities. The working class of the rust belt was told by a collection of university-educated elites that because they were hetero-normative and white, they were actually ‘privileged’ rather than struggling. So they abandoned their old unionist ideologies and organised instead around these news labels, eventually electing perhaps the most sexist and racist leader in American history – instead of a woman who would’ve been over-qualified for the job.
What a win for progress. No wonder critics like Jeffrey Tayler and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are starting to call progressives ‘the regressive left’.