March 25, 2017

The Limits of Identity as a Lens to Understand the World

So referring to members of organizations who are part of an oppressed identity group as "token members" as a way to insult the organization is messed up. It assumes that those individuals have no self-agency, no control over their own thoughts, and that they didn't come to their politics on their own terms, informed by their own experiences and self-education.

Lately, I've seen the accusation of people being "tokens" done by people who disagree with Marxism and the politics of intersectionality and solidarity, who use identity as their primary lens for understanding the world, and believe that identity is sufficient to inform political and organizational strategy.

It instead highlights the failure of identity to explain the world, and the political conclusions reached by individuals of oppressed identities that are not in lock step with members of identitarian cliques. People in various identity groups often believe and act contrary to the way that they are expected to. This incongruence between believe and action, and identity is often explained away by identitarians saying that these individuals are not actually members of that oppressed identity, and is invalidating of that persons experience and identity as a member of that oppressed identity.

This sort of illogical and insulting conclusion leads to white activists shouting down black people as being anti-black racists, or shouting down trans people as being transphobic.  And the reason for this isn't because there is any substance to these accusations-- it's because there is a strategic or political difference, which is being elided.

Now it's entirely possible that black people have internalized anti-black prejudices, or that trans people have internalized anti-trans prejudices-- and the identitarians shouting people down have to agree in order to engage in this sort of behavior.  But to agree that identity doesn't coincide with politics invalidates the foundational premise of identity politics-- that identity is sufficient to inform your political worldview and strategies for change.

Now identity politics is problematic itself for a host of other reasons. Using identity to explain why people should have a certain set of politics is reductive (the opposite of intersectional), and members of oppressed identity groups who do not fall lock-step in with a clique are cast as being "self-hating", or as being guilty of upholding and defending other oppressions.

This is all done as a way to hide political disagreements and cast the person in question as being "bad" rather than actually having out debate around areas where disagreements lay, with the goal of winning people to a point of view. It attacks the person and not the argument (ad homeniem), which is toxic and destructive behavior.

Intersectionality, as it was originally conceived by Kimberle Crenshaw is not about how many oppressions you as an individual can tick a box next to on a list. It's about how identities and oppressions interact and cannot be (and should not be) used to reduce any individual to any one monolithic set of experiences. It was an argument against both identity-based reductionism and class based reductionism, but has been taken by those who perhaps have not read the source materials to mean something entirely the opposite, and they instead argue that identity CAN be used to reduce an individual to a monolithic identity.

Intersectionality, as originally conceived, is an argument in favor of Solidarity politics, because nobody can be reduced to monolithic identities, and all our struggles intersect and overlap with one another.  Just as black women have a different lived experience from black men because of gender, and also have a different lived experience than white women because of race, there is no monolithic "black female experience" either.  The black lesbian experience is different from the black female experience.  Ultimately, everybody's experience is different, and identity shapes people's oppressions, and these oppressions are different from person to person, but the conclusion that must be drawn is either that each of us are too unique in our own oppressions to come together and fight in solidarity, or our oppressions are linked and intersect in ways that require us to come together and fight in solidarity.

One of these strategies will destroy the left, and the other will build the left into a force that can take on all systems of oppression and defeat them.  I'm going to throw my lot in with the politics of solidarity, and fight to end all oppressions, even ones that I don't experience directly.

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