The following topics—and related topics—are ones which I wish to continue writing about and I doubt that I could encompass in one article.
In this piece I will critique the ideological, political, and social notion that inequality between groups can, or should, be tackled through identity politics.
My primary assertion is that: identity politics is a modern form of reductive tribalism that ultimately effaces the individual.
So let’s start with a thought experiment.
Imagine being a part of a homogenous tribe that exists in a vacuum.
That is, an identity group of some sort without external comparators. Imagine that tribe was all that you knew. It would be almost impossible to be an individual within such a group, in fact being an individual would be bad, and taking a tribal essentialism position would be beneficial. Imagine how such a tribe’s governance would be wholly tribe focussed.
Ok, so the parameters of that thought experiment exist virtually nowhere, and probably never have. My point being is that only without other competing or coexisting tribes is it possible to feasibly use tribalism as a key tenant of governance.
The dangers of political tribalism
However, in reality tribalism is an untenable approach to governance.
Well why is that? It may not easily be seen as tyranny to be subsumed by one’s tribe if you exist in a vacuum without alternative choices, external influences, or competing tribes. Well reality has all of those things. Therefore, the obvious corollary is that it is absolutely a tyranny to force someone to adhere to a tribe.
This is where biology clouds us from seeing the pitfalls of tribal governance; because—evolutionarily speaking—being a member of a homogenous group is a boon, not least for the clearly defined allegiances and enemies. Humans are highly socialised beings and are biologically predisposed to ascribing priority to those that signal as our tribe members.
The real world is difficult, full of uncertainty, and contains enemies and competitors. So why wouldn’t you seek the relative security of a tribe?
Well perhaps you’re seeking the freedom to embrace some degree of individuality without being vilified. (Although depending on your tribe that cannot be guaranteed). And anyway, individuality requires effort and risk, and why would you put in extra effort or take risks when tribal conventions are already mapped out? An answer is: there is value in a diversity of ideas.
Now there are those that love being a part of a tribe, or ideology above all else, and they can love it to the point of extremism. The following quote from John Cleese quite succinctly states an appeal of extremist thinking:
The great thing about having enemies is that you can pretend that all the badness in the whole world is in your enemies, and all the goodness in the whole world is in you.
Hell, even just being a ‘run of the mill’ ideologue has that same tantalising pull.
There are no innocuous ideologies. And they’re forms of pathological over simplification, and they’re also clubs, I mean the kind of clubs that you hit people with as well as the clubs that you belong to. The advantage to me being an ideologue is that I can explain everything, I can feel morally superior, and I know who my enemies are. —Professor Jordan B. Peterson
But again, I believe an element of appeal of tribalism is our in-built psychological proclivity for the us-and-them mentality.
Perhaps it is also a survival mechanism. ‘If I compete within my tribe to be the most ‘tribe focussed’ then I will thrive.’ Or perhaps extenuating circumstances may frighten someone until they’d rather be in a familiar box, whatever the cost. ‘Members of x opposing tribe have committed y act that I consider reprehensible and so I must retreat to—and bolster—my tribe for the necessary counterattack on the opposing tribe.’
An unfortunate example of this was evidenced right on mainstream Australian news. Following the tragic and senseless rape and murder of a young Melbourne woman by a lone—mentally unstable—man, a reporter on The Project said this:
The best way to prevent this crime and keep all women safe isn’t by changing the behaviour of women, but by changing the behaviour of men. This might upset some people, but honestly, parents, instead of telling our girls not to walk through parks, maybe we should be telling our boys not to rape them.
The journalists position is essentially as follows:
My tribe (women) are reeling from the disgusting actions by a single member of a coexisting tribe (men). This constitutes an attack on my entire tribe which was enabled by the entire offending tribe. Therefore, on behalf of my tribe (because I presume to speak for all of them) I am calling for drastic action to be taken by the entirety of the offending tribe. And therefore it is reasonable for me to publicly demonise the entire coexisting tribe.
This is a disgraceful display of identity politics (tribalistic reductionism) seeking to capitalise on a tragedy for political aims. Equally as disheartening is that to find any critique of that journalists statements you have to look to fringe media commentators. And when did justifiably mocking bad ideas (at least left wing ones) or even criticising them become socially unacceptable, and not fit for mainstream media?
Extreme adherence to the tribe is typically thought of as a conservative trait. But the ideas of some modern left wing people seem to prioritise forcefully ordered tribal identity above individuality … or even logic … or even society.
Supposedly the highest priority tribal identities are minority groups who are seemingly marginalised in some way. (Disregarding that if something is ‘minority’ enough then by definition it would be at the ‘margin’ of what that society values, and unfortunately cannot be realistically expected to receive society-wide acceptance. And also, isn’t it marginalising to define someone as a member of x tribe and then passionately advocate on behalf of their tribe and not them as an individual?)
I will steadfastly criticise this type of ideological position, although obviously I do not consider all those adhering to it to be homogenous, that kind of irony is too unpalatable for me.
In my opinion identity politics is a somewhat oversimplified term for a broadly complex web of ideological tactics and goals. Identity politics can be approached via the extremes of multiple ideologies, such as gender studies, racial essentialism, postmodernism, and Marxism.
The essential claims of identity politics are: there are inequities among identity groups, with some wielding unjust power over others. Your identity group is more important than your individuality, and identity groups should be treated in accordance with what they ‘deserve.’
It doesn’t take long for these ideologues to assert something like: “[identity politics] has always been about structural barriers and biases privileging white people, as opposed to an individualistic focus on race or sexuality.” An individualistic focus on group held traits? An individualistic focus counterpointed against a ‘white-people-caused-our-problems’ kind of reductionism?
Point to the barriers not to the supposed race behind them. Point to the structural bias not to the supposed race behind them.
Anyway, obviously not all advocates of identity politics are being intentionally extreme, it may just be misguided compassion, or a survival tactic, or—at worst—an attempt to curry influence. But again, psychologically speaking people love being right and telling everyone about how right they are. People also love feeling morally superior. And people want to make the world a better place, with young people being especially driven to ‘change the world.’
So no, I do not blame the individual ideologues.
You cannot see an individual’s flaws, or merits, if their tribe—or identity group—is what takes precedent. How could anyone hope to be an individual if their prime concern is affirming their allegiance? (Or more importantly how they definitely DO NOT sympathise with THAT group.)
Tribes love compassion, but only for those deserving. After all, heathens are gleefully crucified and apostates are executed by their former brothers.
A fundamental tenant of democratic civilisation is that of individual freedoms and individual responsibilities. Socially speaking you can be judged as a member of some tribe or as an individual, but politically or legally speaking you can only—and should only—be judged on your actions as an individual.
That is true freedom.
Do not try to liberate minorities groups from their perceived collective tribulations, only to continue putting them all in their minority box. Liberate them from always being put into that box in the first place. Treat people as individuals.
Seek independence from the expectation that your problems are caused by others or that you deserve the aid of others. But most of all seek the freedoms of individuality and not the limitations of group identity.
Tribalism reduces the importance of the individual. Evolutionarily and historically speaking an individuals worth has never been greater than under the freedoms of modern democracies that value individualism.
The human race needs to survive. The tribe needs to survive. But if an individual is seen to be getting in the way of that, even if only in the short term, then the tribe will force the weight of the collective upon them.
In fact, the tribe must do this. It is best for the tribe.
That is why the iconic imagery from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests is so damn important. Because, if needs be, the individual—or minority—must stand up against the tribe because it has become corrupted.
Identity politics as an ideological goal is ripe for corruption. Why would anyone think it would make for a suitable governing principle? It becomes quickly tyrannical and MUST, by definition, steamroll or expel any opposition. Just look to The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, The Khmer Rouge, The Communist Party of China, or The Korean Workers Party to name a few.
I believe identity politics is a modern version of authoritarian tribalism. And I think, it is an attempt to cope with multiculturalism and becoming a more ‘global society.’ I think it is a consequence of Marxist and Postmodernist ideologies, and the inadequacies of our education systems. And additionally, I think that as the masses are on average lifted out of poverty those no longer struggling to survive can pursue compassionate aims.
But unfortunately, we often flounder to do things efficiently, we can be easily misled, and there are infinite ways in which we can categorise groups as unequal.
Hence, extremist identity politics (or meta-tribalism) seeks to place society into tribe-like identity groups and then dole out ‘mediated equality’ among them.
I think meta-tribalism is a relevant term to include alongside identity politics, because it helps to clarify what identity politics actually leads to.
It is an incredibly reductionist and regressive ideology. Under meta-tribalism we are no longer individuals we are just tribes of varying worth.
When did these truths cease to be self-evident?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — The Declaration of Independence
They meant equal under law and having equal opportunity. That is the equality that is worth fighting for.
Anyway, for me, the key word there is Liberty, but equally important is that the document was one of Independence. Yes it was America seeking independence as a sovereign nation, but could the same thing not apply to seeking some independence from your tribe, be they overbearing or not?
Be a sovereign individual. It is an incredibly hard thing to do, but it is incredibly gratifying.
The definition of liberty is tied up with independence. But more importantly liberty is:
Freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.
Oh that human desire to be free from shackles, to shirk unwanted obligations, and to lift yourself up—or unwittingly lower yourself—into a position of your choosing.
We must remember the importance of independence, because any tribe, or ideology, can become corrupted and extirpate your individual freedoms.
Unfortunately the fact that democratic individualism (with a healthy capitalistic economy) is the best form of governance ever devised is too often; taken for granted; reduced to it’s flaws—that are inevitable in any system—; or seen as too ‘inequitable’ when superficially examined.
If the main tenant of extremist liberalism is equality (at the expense of liberty and reality) then mediated equality, by force, is a foregone conclusion for those that see inequality and want to redress it.
Sure it all starts from a place of compassion, that is why a lot of the extreme left are youthful and often ignorant of the fact that yes, we don’t live in an ideal world, but no, you cannot make one. Stalin and Pol Pot started out as compassionate revolutionaries, they thought they could create a utopian society.
They failed, and so would you. You will never make a utopia through political and social force.
What is it about compassion that can go so wrong? Compassion is a good thing. But what happens when you see x group being disenfranchised? The human response is to try and remedy it. Well what happens when you come to believe that x group is disenfranchised because of y group? The human response is to try and remedy it.
Here the problem starts. The human response often leads to irrationality. This is because the human response is evolutionarily aimed at maximum survivability, often acting on immediate emotional responses, employing brute force, and mercilessly excising anything deemed counter to survivability.
So when you see something that you perceive as a detriment to your tribe the antithesis of your tribal compassion kicks in, and that antithesis is cruelty and mercilessness.
The inverse of compassion, that unavoidably rears its head when confronted by the perceived cause of the suffering inspiring your compassion, is animosity.
Anyway, so, what happens when a left wing extremist tries to combat the inequality in society? They ascribe the source of inequality to a groups behaviour—past or present—, namely white men oppressing everyone, because that is simpler than trying to tackle multiple variables. And then they try to enforce ‘equity’ (or equality of outcome), and they seek power to redress these imbalances through emotional appeals, calls for compassion, and demonising any opposition.
But the methodology is to: acknowledge that people are different—by some metric (typically race, or sex, or sexual preference)—and then sort them into tribes based on that and then try to make the tribes ‘equal,’ or ‘redress injustices,’ by redistributing societal resources ‘accordingly.’
This is an adaptation of tribalism to a meta scale, an attempt to return to that warm and cosy time of ‘knowing your place and what you deserve’ while also knowing everybody else’s. Except not in a discriminatory way of course …
Wilful disregard for the unalienable rights of the individual only leads to suffering
My main point in writing this is to state that an adherence to identity politics and meta-tribalism is to disregard the importance of individuality. Yes individuals belong to identity groups, that is unavoidable, but equally unavoidable is that individuals belong to many identity groups.
Being an individual is the only categorisation that universally matters.
Although I could write about this subject for page after page I will end with the following.
You cannot logically deny that people are different. You cannot logically deny that individuals identify with many different groups. You cannot logically deny that there is inequity among groups. It is illogical to assert that all inequality is due to ‘x taking from y.’
Thus it follows that there can never be universal ‘equity.’
To pursue ‘equity’ requires force and tyranny.
So what is the alternative?
You acknowledge that people are different. You treat people as individuals. And you encourage individuals to strive towards things of value, whatever they may be.
Life’s not always fair, but the foundation for making it better is championing individual rights and responsibilities.