On the long drive to and from Nashville to deliver my daughter and all of her belongings to her dorm room at Vanderbilt University, I listened ad nauseum to news reports about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Commentators said the police were not vigilant in stopping the violence and police responded that protestors refused to comply with instructions to ensure their safety; they talked about the clubs people were carrying and how protestors deployed balloons filled with urine to spray reporters and opposing protestors; they discussed how the original intent of the rally was only to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, for seven hours, the talking heads and their paid experts went round and round the boxing ring, jabbing at paper-tigers and looking for someone to blame, but they never really got to the heart of the problem: The riot in Charlottesville was not prompted by the removal of a statue, but was the culmination of a political philosophy that has been fermenting for some time now in America–a phenomenon known as identitarian politics.
An identitarian’s ultimate political purpose is to promote his or her own culture, race or social ideology and is “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” [https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/] The identitarian cares more about bolstering his or her own image than in affecting positive social or political change. The movement, which first emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, has experienced a recent, strong revival in Europe and is often associated with fascism. In America, this resurgent ideology has been translated to the epithet “white supremacy,” from which it is a short hop, by the liberal media, to conservatism. Surprisingly, both right and left apologists acknowledge this tactic is a blight to rational and productive debate and that both sides are guilty of its use.
From the right:
“Which is why identity politics — after decades of polluting our minds — now feels so wrong. We finally wised up. Identity politics preaches a splintering of one large collaborative group into competing vindictive ones — resulting in new angry tribes whose central thesis is to NOT cooperate. Because cooperation is a sign that you are violating their religion of separateness. In the American “melting pot,” identity politics wants to smash that pot — to bring us back to the Dark Ages, when collaboration was sparse.” [Identity politics: the biological fraud; by Greg Gutfeld]
And, from the left:
“Identity politics of this sort leads us, when confronted with a social conflict, to ask a familiar question: ‘What’s the politically progressive position on this?’ This approach to social issues betrays a troubling narcissistic displacement: rather than analyze the social issue on its own merits, the political identitarian uses the issue as a way to assert his own persona. At worst, the social stakes of the issue are just a means to the end of his self image—what matters is what his position on the issue says about him.” [Political Identity as Identity Politics; Richard Thompson Ford]
When taken to the extreme for any group, identitarian politics results in monolithic positions that are unproductive and degenerate into verbal rock-throwing. Speakers on both ends of the political spectrum do a lot of speaking but not a lot of listening–because listening might require a change of position that would threaten the group’s identity.
What if politics became less about people (one’s idols, statues or favorite team) and more about ideas? What if we had monuments to ideas–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Federalist Papers–instead of people: Would we be tearing those down too?
Until political discourse becomes more about ideas and less about your ancestors, where you grew up or what news station you watch, we will remain stuck in the political quagmire that we see displayed in Congress. Some say the ultra-left are responsible for the emergence of the ultra-right (and visa versa). Is this stark division reversible or have we returned forever to the time of skins and clubs, where the strongest and meanest survive? We need to return to the foundational principle that we are a people who use productive, civil speech to build a better republic. If not, we create our own destiny, which is the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville last weekend.