Discover more from The UnPopulist
The Right Kind of Identity Politics Would Be Good for Liberalism: A Conversation with Akiva Malamet, Part I
Such politics is about overcoming zero-sum social arrangements and bestowing more justice and recognition on more groups
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. It seems like everyone has an opinion about identity politics, but far fewer people have a clear definition of it. This is a problem, not just because arguing about vaguely defined terms is rarely productive, but also because identity politics plays an important role in how we ought to think about liberalism and the role of liberal institutions.
My guest today is Akiva Malamet, Managing Editor of The UnPopulist. Our discussion digs into the nature of identity politics, the nature of identity itself, what it means to validate versus merely tolerate identities, and how all that plays into liberalism.
Let me very briefly mention that ReImagining Liberty is a listener-supported show. If you enjoy these discussions and want to get early access to new episodes, you can become a supporter by heading to reimaginingliberty.com. With that, let's get to my conversation with Akiva Malamet.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: We talk a lot about, we being basically everyone, talk a lot about identity politics. What do we mean by that term?
Akiva Malamet: It's a good question in part because it's not always clear what everyone does mean by identity politics. Sometimes they mean politics that in some way references a form of identity. We might talk, let's say, about criminal justice policy, and then as a result of talking about criminal justice policy, we might talk about, let's say, the disproportionate impact it has on African Americans.
Another way of talking about identity politics is the ways in which politics or a form of politics in which the priority is about how a certain identity group is being treated, and a series of policies that are oriented around that. Instead of just talking about disparate impacts of African Americans, you might talk about, well, what is it to be an African-American in society today? How are you affected? What are the different social indicators of your group's success?
In many ways, to define people as members of identity groups, whether those racial, religious, sexual, gender orientation, and so on, and to talk about the ways in which they exist in society, the way that they're impacted in society, and to see their struggle as a distinctive form of political struggle. Rather than talking about policies in general that affect societies, policies about healthcare, and how they affect us, we're talking about how does society treat a particular group. What are the outcomes for that particular group?
In particular, does the fact that that particular group exists or has some kind of presence in society, does that mean people in that group should advocate for themselves on the basis of their group membership? That is, should they see themselves primarily as group members rather than, let's say, as individuals or as simply members of society? Should they think about themselves primarily with respect to a particular identity that they have, whether that's racial, religious, sexual, gender, and so on, and advocate for themselves in those terms?
It has a dual dimension. It refers both to how does society think about how it's composed. Is it composed of individuals rather than members of groups? Then how do group members think about themselves? Do they think about themselves as individuals rather than members of groups?
“Another way of talking about identity politics is the ways in which politics or a form of politics in which the priority is about how a certain identity group is being treated, and a series of policies that are oriented around that. Instead of just talking about disparate impacts of African Americans, you might talk about, well, what is it to be an African-American in society today? How are you affected? What are the different social indicators of your group's success?”
Aaron: Are these groups voluntary or, I suppose, consciously entered into? I guess what I mean by that is if I have some obligation to advocate as a member of a particular group, it seems to matter a lot if I identify as a member of that group, if it's a group that I feel is representative of me, or that I share something in common with other people who are in that group that I don't share with people who are outside of it.
It seems like a lot of the groups that we think about from identity politics standpoint are almost imposed upon people. We say “we as a society” have chosen to recognize these particular characteristics as salient. Skin color puts you into categorizable groups, but hair color doesn't, or height doesn't, but national origin does. That's not necessarily freely chosen, and it also changes.
Different groups have been white at one time or another in American history, recognized as being in different racial categories. That would seem to complicate a lot of this, especially when it comes to either deciding whether differences that we might identify in terms of outcomes, in terms of policy, latch onto, I guess, actual groups versus arbitrarily created ones. Also, if we're saying you as a member of this category have an obligation to have solidarity, identity with, advocate on behalf of, et cetera, the potential arbitrariness of these groups would seem to complicate a lot of that.
Akiva: Yes. This is a very complicated question because identity is a complicated question. In many ways, identities are combinations of things. They're both statuses that other people impose upon us, so I might not think of myself as particularly white or non-white, but other people will decide for me whether I'm white or non-white. In my case, this was actually a relevant question in the beginning of the 20th century because I'm Jewish, and Jewish people were not always considered white.
Over time, Jews and other ethnic minorities, religious minorities such as Catholics, Italians, Greeks, and so on eventually became part of—was considered white. Whiteness was no longer the preserve of “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” the WASP majority, so there was a transformation of identity of whiteness from this thing that was declared upon other people to expansion of the idea of whiteness to include larger and larger groups of people.
In many cases, identity is something that people don't choose. It's something that's thrust upon them, and then the way that they think about themselves is in terms of the oppression that they experience. In many cases, identity groups are a function of an oppressive dynamic. The most obvious case there has to do with Blacks and African Americans, but also Native Americans, indigenous people, and so on.
“In many cases, identity is something that people don't choose. It's something that's thrust upon them, and then the way that they think about themselves is in terms of the oppression that they experience. In many cases, identity groups are a function of an oppressive dynamic. The most obvious case there has to do with Blacks and African Americans, but also Native Americans, indigenous people….On the other hand, identities aren't just things that people choose for you, they're also things that you choose for yourself.
Someone might decide that I'm Jewish, I'm of Jewish ancestry, but my engagement with what Jew and Jewish means will be my choice. ”
We can also include this to any group of people that suffered discrimination. In the American case, we might talk about Catholics and Jews to a lesser extent until really a change in the middle of the 20th century when they started becoming considered white. On the other hand, identities aren't just things that people choose for you, they're also things that you choose for yourself.
Someone might decide that I'm Jewish, I'm of Jewish ancestry, but my engagement with what Jew and Jewish means will be my choice. I could become an Orthodox Jew, I could become a Reform Jew. I could have a wide variety of identifications with Jewish ethnicity and religion, and that will ultimately determine the way that I relate to my identity, and what that identity means will be affected as much by my choices as it will by what other people choose for me. I would say that there's a dialectical back-and-forth relationship between identities as both imposed and unimposed.
Charles Taylor, a philosopher that I'm a big fan of, says that identities are positional. They're not just about the statuses that you're given, but they're also about the values that you hold. They're about the things that you care about, and what an identity will mean to you, and to what extent you even accept an identity is going to be heavily influenced by the things that you care about and what they mean to you.
Even if someone else imposes onto you certain attributions, you might reject what those attributions mean. We can see that when, for example, in debates over being queer or being gay, different definitions of what those things mean, where some people consider themselves part of the "LGBT community," other people don't. Those differences don't necessarily have anything to do with their sexuality or gender identity. Sometimes they may have differing sexualities or gender identities just like everyone else in the queer community, but they may not consider themselves queer because of what queerness has come to mean in society and culture.
“Even if someone else imposes onto you certain attributions, you might reject what those attributions mean. We can see that when, for example, in debates over being queer or being gay, different definitions of what those things mean, where some people consider themselves part of the "LGBT community", other people don't.“
Aaron: Is part of this about then privileging or giving weight to certain aspects of an identity? You, Akiva, you're Jewish, you're also a heavy metal fan. You are a writer. There's a lot of things that go into the identity that is Akiva. When it comes to identity politics, we don't talk about metal-head identity politics, really.
I guess the close example is like, I spent a lot of time in the punk rock community as a kid, and we hated the hippies, and they were a disfavored class, but by and large, there's certain kinds of things, and we tend to weight those in a particular—a lot of people would say that your Jewishness is more—if we're identifying what is Akiva's identity, that would seem to get privileged, just like maybe the color of your skin would seem to get privileged or your ethnic background over your interest in writing or your interest in heavy metal. That's, again, something that's not necessarily freely chosen as far as what you emphasize in your own identity.
Akiva: Yeah, for sure. To some extent, the way that those things might be arranged might depend on context as well. I might consider both my heavy-metal identity and my Jewish identity to be important. They're important at different ways in different times in different places.
When I'm at the synagogue, my Jewish identity is going to be probably more important than when I'm at a metal concert and vice versa. They're going to have contextual relevance in that way. For someone who's thinking through the lens of identity politics, it doesn't matter whether I'm at the synagogue or the metal concert. I'm Jewish in both of those contexts for someone who's thinking about identity politics.
I think to some extent, this points at the heavy degree which identities are not chosen, to which they're imposed upon us by society. In particular, the way in which political coalitions grow up tend to be around people with—either who have suffered some form of oppression, but combined with some kind of deep premodern form of social tie. By that, I mean a social tie that's not necessarily chosen, but is kind of something that you emerge from as an accident of birth.
Metal is a musical preference. It's something I chose. It's not something that people use as a form of identity politics because it doesn't have the same quite—as a metal fan, I would say the metal community is quite tribal. Anyone who's been to a metal concert or a punk show can get that sense. The level of tribalism and the kind of unchosen, almost mystical level of bondedness that you get from an identity such as being Jewish or identity such as being Black or an identity such as being queer, connects you to other people in a very primal way, I think, that has a kind of hold on you, that is not completely chosen.
There are really two forms of external hold. One is that the outside society may oppress your group. The other is that your group itself sees itself as intimately bonded, sees itself as very connected on a very ancient, historical, social, and even biological level, so because of that, that tends to override treating other identities as important because one of my identities has this kind of ancient, pre-modern, unchosen, primordial feature.
Aaron: What does this have to do with liberalism? The core idea of liberalism is everybody—equal dignity, equal respect, equal rights. The state exists to essentially protect those things and not treat—it seems anathema to the very idea of liberalism to say, "We are going to treat people differently based on their different identities or their different group categorizations." To some level, that's like the antithesis of even the rule of law, is to treat people differently based on these characteristics as opposed to equal treatment of all. It does seem like identity politics potentially exists in tension with liberalism?
Akiva: Yes. I think there are forms of identity politics that can be in tension with liberalism, particularly when identity politics means creating categories where one group is hierarchically placed above another. Let's say whites above Blacks would be a historical reason. That was also a form of identity politics.
There's a somewhat biting quote from Mark Lilla where he criticizes identity politics. He says that the KKK was the first identity group in America, which is, I think somewhat unfair to the advocates of identity politics today, but has a point, which is that there is a way in which identity politics is focused on people as members of groups and not as individuals. Particularly when it focuses on them as members of groups in ways that distinguish them and gives them privileges, abilities, or rights that other groups don't have.
I think usually when we think about identity politics though, the reason that they emerge, and this goes back to our conversation about identities being imposed and the nature of oppression, they often emerge because people aren't being treated equally.
Black Lives Matter is not some kind of claim for Black people to be given more rights than white people. It's a claim for Black people to be given the same rights as white people and be treated the same by the police force, or in other forms of public policy such as housing and so on. Often identity politics might have the superficial appearance of being about treating people unequally, but historically, there are really two forms of identity politics. There's the identity politics that wants unequal treatment, and there's the identity politics that wants equal treatment. The difference between those types of politics is very, very important.
“Often identity politics might have the superficial appearance of being about treating people unequally, but historically, there are really two forms of identity politics. There's the identity politics that wants unequal treatment, and there's the identity politics that wants equal treatment. The difference between those types of politics is very, very important.”
Aaron: You have talked about this in the context of what you call tolerance versus recognition and how these identities should play out in both a liberal regime and in the way that liberal citizens interact with each other and think about each other. Can you unpack a bit about what you mean, this difference between toleration and recognition?
Akiva: Tolerance is the social standard that liberals basically invented going back some hundreds of years, where it's encapsulated by the phrase, "Live and let live." You can do your thing and I could do my thing and both of those things are okay, and we agree to live around each other. We don't celebrate or affirm or include what the other person is doing. We just let the other person do whatever it's that they want to do, assuming that that person is not interfering with my sphere and what it is I want to do.
Tolerance is really about suffering the existence of difference. It's about allowing something that you don't necessarily like to continue to exist and to not initiate force or harm or coercion against it. In political philosophy language, we may say that tolerance is a negative form of liberty. It's about not interfering with someone else's rights. Recognition is basically the opposite. It's a form of positive liberty. It's about being accepted, included, celebrated.
“Tolerance is really about suffering the existence of difference. It's about allowing something that you don't necessarily like to continue to exist and to not initiate force or harm or coercion against it. In political philosophy language, we may say that tolerance is a negative form of liberty. It's about not interfering with someone else's rights. Recognition is basically the opposite. It's a form of positive liberty. It's about being accepted, included, celebrated.”
The term recognition comes from the philosopher Charles Taylor, who has a famous essay called The Politics of Recognition that came out in the ‘90s about this move, this shift by groups to not only wanting to be tolerated, but to be recognized and celebrated. You could easily think of the word recognition as a synonym for inclusion, celebration, acceptance, and so on. In some ways, it has a crossover with your concept of sympathetic joy in the sense that we're not only allowing something to exist despite— or suffering its existence, but we're consciously adopting a positive celebratory attitude towards it.
Aaron: Why would we want one versus the other, I suppose, if we're thinking within a liberal context?
Akiva: My argument is that both of these values are important. There tends to be a split where people are either Team Tolerance or Team Recognition. They either want just this very thin doctrine of suffering other people's existences or they want a strong celebration. People tend to be very binary about these kinds of things as you see in the discourse about identity in general.
My argument is that tolerance is a kind of basic moral principle in order for society to function. What tolerance says is that we don't have to like each other to live alongside each other. We don't have to like each other to get along. We can cooperate where it's possible for us to cooperate. We don't have to cooperate in other areas areas. You don't have to love the fact that I'm Jewish in order for you to sell me bagels. Well, actually, that would be weird. If you're selling me bagels, you probably are also Jewish.
In order to sell me stuff, the marketplace is actually a good example of the tolerant attitude where I'm trying to make a buck and you have something I want or vice versa, so there's an exchange and we don't have to love each other in order for this to work. What this misses, is that life is kind of sad if all that happens is we tolerate each other. If you think about community and the way that people form community, community is not formed by people tolerating each other. It's by people celebrating and accepting and appreciating each other. Then there's a group experience that gets created as a result of this.
The hypothetical scenario to people, and I that imagine, is: you move into a neighborhood, and as soon as you move in, people invite you to a potluck. As a result of the potluck, people share food from all of their different cultures. You have this great accepting, appreciating, mutually beneficial exchange and appreciation of people's identities.
Now, alternatively, imagine that you move to the neighborhood and nobody harasses you, nobody bothers you. The only conversation you have is about whether your tree has leaves that are falling onto someone else's yard. The only conversations you have are about whether your space is interfering with someone else's space. Now, there's nothing inherently bad about the toleration paradigm. It's just a little bit diminished in terms of the fundamental goods of a human life.
What I argue is that in some contexts, on a more basic level, the level that allows society to function, we need to tolerate. If we want to create community, we need to recognize. Recognition is appropriate in certain contexts in which community is important.
”There's nothing inherently bad about the toleration paradigm. It's just a little bit diminished in terms of the fundamental goods of a human life.
What I argue is that in some contexts, on a more basic level, the level that allows society to function, we need to tolerate. If we want to create community, we need to recognize. Recognition is appropriate in certain contexts in which community is important.”
Aaron: Good. I like that. I think as you were speaking, one of the things that occurred to me is, how much of recognition? If you just say to someone, "Here's something that's wildly different from what you're used to. We are going to just suddenly expose you to it and you have to not only tolerate it, but you should like it, celebrate it, enjoy it, take pleasure in it, et cetera." That can be challenging.
There's a process to get from tolerance to delight and recognition. A lot of it takes immersion. It takes repeat contacts. The community that you're trying to, or a new musical genre. You recommend to me some really out-there album of metal that is well beyond my particular tastes. My daughter takes drum lessons, and her teacher is the drummer in what I can recognize as a very good progressive black metal band. I can't stand black metal singing absolutely. It does not work for me in the slightest.
I could be intolerant of it in the sense that I could just say, "I'm never going to listen to it. If you start playing it in the car while we're driving somewhere, I'm going to demand that you turn it off." I'm going to dislike the person who lives next door, who's really into it, and so on. I'm going to refuse to be exposed to it, which would basically be like intolerance, but even if I don't like it, if you play it right now, if you play it for me and you explain to me what's going on, and you give me different examples and I listen to it for a while, I may come to eventually like it.
We've all, I think, had that kind of experience. An album we didn't at first, or a food that we didn't like the first time we tried it, but pushed through, and now it's among our favorite things. It wasn't like forcing myself to like it. It was what I didn't like, through exposure, turned into something that I did. To me, the problem with saying mere toleration is what we need, and holding up basically toleration as the moral ideal, is that, in a sense, it discourages people from aiming higher than that, from aiming for—
It says, "Okay, the point that you should stop at is, I'm not going to beat you up because you like progressive black metal and I'm not going to stop you from listening to it, but I'm certainly going to try to avoid it," and you're done. We stop there if tolerance is all we need. If we can say, "No, there's this other higher thing to aim at," it encourages people to stick with it.
That's when you generate—it's not just I think the recognition—my moral relationship to you is better if I recognize and appreciate, say, your Judaism versus if I merely tolerate your Judaism. Our friendship can be deeper, it's a stronger connection, more value comes out of it, et cetera. Also, these communities can be built out.
When you mention sympathetic joy, I think that's part of my argument, is it's not that everyone needs to like everything, but if we can recognize that recognition and taking pleasure in different ways of doing things, it's a higher moral aim, then it's more likely we'll get to those things, and we'll get to the stronger communities, the stronger solidarity, the deeper relationships, and all of the stuff that not just benefits liberalism and liberal institutions, but makes our lives more rewarding and richer and more pleasurable and deeper and all of those things as well.
Akiva: I'm inclined to agree. Like I said, I think of toleration—I like the phrase moral minimums and moral maximums. Toleration is a moral minimum. It's the basic level that you should expect from someone else in a community, but it's not the only thing you could possibly expect. There may be contexts in which you have a right to expect more.
If we're friends—and we are—it would be a pretty bad friendship if the only thing we did is I said, "I really like this thing," and you're like, "Oh, that's cool. I don't care," and vice versa. There are a lot of contexts into which merely tolerating isn't doing the right amount in order to respect people as full human beings. You're actually disrespecting them by not taking those commitments that they have seriously.
On the other hand, recognition cannot be a form of disrespect if you reduce them to those commitments. If you decided that I'm a Jew and the only interesting thing about me is that I'm a Jew and you're going to treat me in my Jewy Jewness in every interaction that we have, that would also be a form of disrespect. That would be a form of hyper-recognition of one aspect of who I am. That would also fail to properly appreciate me in terms of the nuances of who I am.
Part of the challenges about recognition is that it's highly contextual and it's highly dialogical. In order to properly pay respect to someone, you need to actually engage with them and understand the nuances and complexities of what their identities are, and pay tribute to them relative to who that person is and realistically in terms of who that person is, and not abstractly from the outside decide that you know what or who this person is because you've picked up on the most publicly salient or politically significant part of who they are.
“In order to properly pay respect to someone, you need to actually engage with them and understand the nuances and complexities of what their identities are, and pay tribute to them relative to who that person is and realistically in terms of who that person is, and not abstractly from the outside decide that you know what or who this person is because you've picked up on the most publicly salient or politically significant part of who they are.”
Aaron: Is that then one of the critiques of, say, wokeism or whatever gets perceived as wokeism in the sense that… So a lot of people I think who are anti-woke are anti-woke for basically the reasons that they hold prejudices against gay and trans people. They might have racial prejudices. They might have misogynistic views, even if these aren't really conscious, or aren't hood-wearing levels.
They just don't like being told, "Hey, cracking jokes at these different groups' expenses probably isn't cool," or, "Hey, you constantly hitting on everyone at the office probably isn't a good idea. You should knock it off." They don't like stuff that they have been used to being suddenly not socially acceptable. That seems to me just a bad argument against wokeism.
Some of the smarter ones do seem to latch onto this essentially disrespectful recognition that you just mentioned, which is I, as a “#ally,” am essentializing all of these disfavored groups, the groups that have been traditionally lower on the hierarchy, and so on, and basically reducing all of these very diverse individuals with lots of interests and lots of elements of their identity to their membership in victim group X, Y, or Z.
Akiva: I think the smarter critique of wokeism or identity politics or social justice politics, whatever we want to call it, all of which have a certain amount of ambiguity especially because they're often used as pejoratives. I think there is a valid concern that we are reducing people to their group status. By doing that, as particular, we retribalize society, we redefine society in terms of these opposing groups.
People can no longer learn how to really cooperate with each other because they see other people only as group members. Those group members, if they're not members of my group, then they're an out-group and they are the “other.” That creates potential for conflict and even violence. I think there's some validity in that. There are versions of identity and social justice and woke politics that do essentialize people basically into thinking about them primarily as members of Oppressed Group X or Oppressed Group Y.
I think the more, what I would consider to be a more sophisticated version of that politics would simply say “It is not an irrelevant fact that this person is a member of Oppressed Group X or Oppressed Group Y.” It does affect their life. It's important, it does matter for their wealth, their health, and wellbeing, so we engage with them. You should be attentive to the fact that they probably have had certain experiences.
It's not crazy for me to say that my Black friend is not just a person, but it's someone who may well have experienced racism, may well have had that color their life and their identity. I should be sensitive to that. Now, it's entirely possible that's not true at all, but noticing that they have that piece of identity or thinking about the possibility that that identity might matter to them is a way of taking them seriously and taking their experiences seriously without also reducing or essentializing them to that identity.
Aaron: Stephen Colbert, when he was still doing the Colbert Report, had this running joke about not seeing color. He was like, "I'm literally colorblind. I can't tell if you, my guest sitting in front of me are white or Black or something else." That attitude, there's a lot of people who think that is the proper way to deal with past discrimination on the basis of membership in different oppressed, marginalized, disfavored groups is to just say, "I don't even see it."
Not in the literal sense that Colbert's joke was based on, but I don't see it, or when people are saying, "We need to talk about gay rights," or, "We need to talk about Black Lives Matter," people will respond with, "I'm just in favor of rights for everyone, or all lives matter." They're just saying that even talking about this is continuing the bad parts of identity politics. Are you saying, does the moral value of recognition mean that that approach is wrong?
Akiva: I think so. There are different forms of recognition, as I said earlier in our conversation, and sometimes all recognition is about rectifying wrongs. When people say Black Lives Matter, they don't disagree with the idea that everyone's lives matter. It's simply focusing on that part of the community for whom rights have not been recognized or rights are not being enforced.
Saying Black Lives Matter is the same thing as saying All Lives Matter because it's saying that these lives matter too, as part of the general statement that All Lives Matter, and they're not being attended to. There is that, but there can also be identity—like recognition, it's not about rectifying a wrong, it's just about appreciating who someone is. Those come out of different contexts. In the appreciating who someone is context, it tends to be, I think, more personal and local, but in the more injustices context, it's sometimes part of a larger institutional conversation, but these things are not binaries, and what happens in our culture affects what happens in our institutions and so on and back and forth.
It's not that there are easy dividing lines between an intimate friendship and national politics because the levels of intimacy that I have are on a spectrum. My relationship with my family is very intimate. My relationship with the president is not intimate at all, but there are a lot of spans in between. How do I in my relationship to the person—what's my relationship to my grocer? What's my relationship to my child's teacher? What's my relationship to the guy that teaches your daughter drums?
There are levels of intimacy here and the lines can become blurry and complicated. To what extent we are treating someone in a dispassionate way versus a more intimate way can become messy and the extent to which our recognition of their identity status, to what extent that's a function of— because we're concerned about injustice versus to what extent that's a function of us caring about, learning about them as a person. I don't think there's any formulaic answer to that. It's a very contextual, Hayekian thing where you pay a lot of attention to what's going on in front of you and the people in front of you.
Aaron: What are we to make of certain identities becoming non-identities or the default and then not seeing that as identity politics? I'm thinking of every time a movie, particularly a genre, a superhero movie, or geek culture movie gets announced that has a minority main character or a woman main character or gay characters are featured prominently, you get this line of pushback that is like, "Having a Black superhero is political," or making that character a woman, changing—If we had the next James Bond to be Black, that would be political, but if the next James Bond changes his hair color or is 30 years younger than the current James Bond, that's just still the James Bond as long as he's white because white is default. Particularly, I think whiteness, Americanness gets treated as this default thing and any deviation from it is “political.”
I'm putting that in quotes because that's the argument. Maleness is the default and being female is the different. Straight is the default and so on. Christian is the default. It's almost identity politics of non-recognition of identity. It looks very weird from the outside. There's nothing political about a woman superhero, just like there's nothing political about—it can be political, but it doesn't have to be. It looks very weird, but it seems to be this odd non-identity identity politics.
Akiva: I think, often what people consider to be identity politics is a politics that prioritizes identity that's different from the status quo, but hidden within the status quo is its own form of identity politics. Simply the implicit biases of who we recognize to be a certain superhero character or who we could imagine being that character and them usually having characteristics as you said, of, let's say, them being a white straight man who's Christian and so on, though that default in our head privileges and actually creates a cultural hierarchy of one identity over another identity.
“Often what people consider to be identity politics is a politics that prioritizes identity that's different from the status quo, but hidden within the status quo is its own form of identity politics.”
In that sense, changing the identity to a Black person or a woman or a non-straight person or whatever is political in the sense that it challenges an underlying cultural assumption. It challenges a value about how we self-organize, how we culturally represent our society.
Is that a bad thing? I'm inclined to say that it's a great thing. I think it's particularly important and there's lots of discourse about the value of representation, but it actually does make a big difference to people who, having spent their lives consuming content with people who don't look like them, it helps them identify with people who do look like them.
That doesn't mean that they should never learn to expand themselves and to learn how to identify with people who don't look like them because I think that's important. I think that's important in art that we learn to identify with people, even people who don't look like us, but it's nice once in a while to have someone who does look like us and to feel affirmed in that there is a value and majesty and literary resonance and importance and cultural significance to the whatever combination of things I am as opposed to whatever combination of things someone else is.
Aaron: Another interesting thing that goes on is how many people who are in the centered default identity, so straight white men as our archetypal version of this, then see recognition of difference or of different identities not as a higher moral ideal than toleration, but as a direct threat, that they've essentially taken in the default-ness of their identity as part of their identity.
The mere recognition of—having more Black characters or more gay characters or more women characters on television and in movies or having pride flags out in the community or having your kid's school occasionally reading books featuring a gay couple—horror of horrors—is they see that as a threat because they've so identified with being the default, and the move away from being the default feels like an undermining of not just the nature of culture and the world in which they live in, but a threat to who they are.
I also think it gets paired with—because we see minorities, minority status, minority identities as suffering the slings and arrows that come along with that, oppression, marginalization, and so on, there's this holding on to our default dominant status because I need the majority of people to look like me or else I feel threatened and I feel like my identity is going to be—If the default is no longer straight white men, then straight white men may feel like now I'm going to be oppressed the way that I have oppressed all of the gay people or Black people or women and so on.
Akiva: There's a deep irony to this. There's a series of Christian films that have come out in the past decade or so-called God's Not Dead. In each film, there is some kind of conspiracy against Christians from expressing their faith, whether they're—Take the first movie, the character is in a philosophy class. Contrary to the spirit of philosophy, the professor, played by Kevin Sorbo, which is quite a fall for Kevin Sorbo.
Aaron: He's actually pretty good in that role. I had to watch that movie for another podcast. It's a deeply weird movie. I recommend it highly as an insight into just how bizarre the victim complex and white evangelical America is.
Akiva: He's still a good actor, but the point of the thing is, in the philosophy class, Kevin Sorbo's character requires his students to sign a statement saying they don't believe in God, which is the opposite of what would happen in any responsible philosophy class, is requiring statements of non-faith. There's a Christian character in the class who can't sign it, so they get to a big back-and-forth about whether God is dead or not. Then the rest of the movie's basically a long apologetic for why they think Christianity is true. In each class, the character gives some reason why they think God is real. Then in the end, it turns out that Kevin Sorbo's character is mad at God because his wife died, and has this kind of problem suffering situation. Every single iteration of the God's Not Dead franchise is about some Christian being oppressed because their views are being marginalized.
Now, none of this actually happens in the real world, and as David French himself, a Christian, has pointed out many, many times, Christians in America enjoy the most religious freedom that Christians have ever enjoyed anywhere at any time on Earth. There is this sense that because they're not the dominant culture anymore, and because they have to be potentially sensitive and say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas or whatever, that they might threaten to become a minority status.
I think what's ironic about it, is they don't always realize that this is precisely what they are afraid of happening, which is not actually happening to our extent, but even if it were happening, what they're afraid of going on is precisely what is the marginalization or the non-dominance at least, that every other minority group of whether it's religious or racial or whatever has gone through in America. There's this very strange recognition of the possibility of marginalization, but then not recognizing that marginalization in places where it's actually occurring.
“What they're afraid of going on is precisely what is the marginalization or the non-dominance at least, that every other minority group of whether it's religious or racial or whatever has gone through in America. There's this very strange recognition of the possibility of marginalization, but then not recognizing that marginalization in places where it's actually occurring.”
Aaron: Again, I strongly recommend at least the first movie. They go downhill in how fun they are to watch pretty quickly, but the first movie does have this—I did not grow up in evangelical America. It's not a culture that I knew a lot about going into this, and I was shocked at how bizarre the level of portrayed victimization and marginalization was in this. It takes place at a small college in it's… I don't think they ever tell you, but it looks like a Midwestern town area, and the oddity of this kid when they have a raise of hands of who doesn't believe in God, he's the only Christian. It's him and his girlfriend are the only Christians on campus is the takeaway, which is utterly weird because most of those kids in that classroom, they're all white I think as well. There’s the not understanding how academic philosophy works, but just this sense that yes, all of American culture is turned against white Protestantism, which is utterly bizarre because if there is any identity that achieves basically universal recognition in America, it is white Protestants. "God bless America" is all over the place. Every president professes religious faith. These are the default characters all over the place. It's totally bizarre. It's basically a sense that recognition is not enough. We can have tolerance, we can have recognition, but what they want is identity dominance.
Aaron: Hegemony. I guess my question after all of this conversation is, as I think you and I agree, tolerance is the baseline. Intolerance is clearly immoral. You should have tolerance, but it's not good enough. It's not what you should aim for in your own life. A lot of your arguments are about how it strengthens community, strengthens character. A lot of my arguments are about how actually coming to love all of the difference that is inevitably in the world around you means you are going to just be happier. The not liking it is just the route direct to suffering. A boring life, I think as you put it, but it's also just suffering and rage at difference is not going to make you happier.
What do we do about that? How do you go out into the world as liberals who want to strengthen liberalism who believe in these values and convince people, particularly people who have spent their whole lives basically seeing difference and other identities as a threat or as something that causes them consternation to change their way, shift their perspective, and embrace recognition, sympathetic joy, whatever we might call it?
Akiva: That's a difficult question because essentially what it requires is to ask of people whose identity is based on everyone else sharing their identity, to not have that identity, and to have an identity based on appreciating difference. It requires a very deep head shift in terms of how people relate to one another and a head shift that I'm not always sure is possible.
I think tolerance is a moral minimum, but recognition has also actually been quite important for the achievement of tolerance. Seeing people as part of my in-group makes it easier to tolerate them, and this is why nationalism exists. This is why different forms of tribalism exist because people have a naturally tribal group-oriented psychology. It's a head shift to get people actually to tolerate even as opposed to recognize to the point of hegemony, which is actually the social—has been the normative standard for most of human history, is hegemonic recognition rather than diverse pluralistic recognition.
It's a difficult problem. I think all we can do is--we can do two things. One is that we can try and expand the size of our ingroup so that our ingroup includes more types of people, more ways of being, and also to learn how to have a sense of self, have an identity that does not need everyone else to affirm it in order for it to exist, in order for it to be valuable.
Learning that identity is not a zero-sum game, that it's not like my identity has to be dominant versus your identity has to be dominant, but that no one's identity has to be dominant and that no one's representation has to be dominant, and that what life is about is about appreciating the diversity of differences and about learning that there are different ways to be, and all of them have a certain amount of validity.
Obviously, there are complexities within that and things that might fall outside the bar. There's the old paradox about the "Can the tolerant, tolerate intolerance?" and all that stuff. Fundamentally, it's about a reorientation of self and it's about appreciation for identities as a win-win situation rather than a win-lose one.
“Learning that identity is not a zero-sum game, that it's not like my identity has to be dominant versus your identity has to be dominant, but that no one's identity has to be dominant and that no one's representation has to be dominant, and that what life is about is about appreciating the diversity of differences and about learning that there are different ways to be, and all of them have a certain amount of validity…Fundamentally, it's about a reorientation of self and it's about appreciation for identities as a win-win situation rather than a win-lose one.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you like the show and want to support it, head to reimaginingliberty.com to learn more. You'll get early access to all my essays as well as be able to join the ReImagining Liberty Discord community and book club. That's reimaginingliberty.com or look for the link in the show notes. Talk to you soon.
The UnPopulist invites interesting thinkers from across the political spectrum to foster a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation to advance liberal values, including thinkers it may—or may not—agree with.
© The UnPopulist 2023