Problematizing the Left’s Relationship to Identity

Last week while getting a refill on my prescriptions, I sat in a waiting room with Fox News playing on the television. After listening to the usual banal nonsense about immigrants and religious liberty violations, I listened to an interesting segment from Laura Ingraham complaining about the left’s fascist adherence to identity politics.

This struck me as odd, because as somebody involved in leftist circles both online and IRL, identity politics seems to be anything but a unifying/monolithic concept on the left. The Marxist-Leninists accuse the SJW’s of being overly sensitive and bourgeoisie, the SJW’s accuse the Marxist-Leninists of being patriarchal bros. In my experience, both of these criticisms are valid.

As a gay man, I have been torn on the usefulness of identity politics categories as they are currently approached. While I fully believe in social justice and an end to the structural oppression of difference, I am also quite often turned off by the way that these ideas get framed.

While I (strangely) agree with Ingraham that the left has a problematic relationship with identity politics, I don’t agree with why. Thinking through it, I have three key objections to the ways that the Left currently approaches social justice a la identity.

Objection 1: Collectivization

I think the first problem I have with identity politics is the way that identity is assumed through collective linguistic signifiers. What I mean, is that the terms that identity politics relies on require stereotypes and generalizations to make sense.

When people talk about the structural oppression of black people, a certain experience of blackness is assumed through the use of the word “black.” This isn’t a critique of rhetoric here, I don’t think using “African American” would fix this issue. I think the problem is our relationship with language and how that translates to political activism.

A focus on identity through an open-ended term like ‘black’ assumes a shared experience that doesn’t necessarily exist. I don’t think that cis black men and trans black women have the same experience with blackness.

So when the left tries to turn experience into policy analysis, it fails because it assumes a shared experience that isn’t there.

You can see this tension with previous pushes for social recognition. The original Civil Rights Movement for example struggled with the inclusion of LGBT, female, and disabled black bodies because their experience was so different, it was difficult to advocate policy change/protests that recognized these differences.

The result was the erasure of LGBT, female, and disabled activism from the Civil Rights Movement.

I see similar problems within the LGBT coalition, where ‘LGBT’ has come to mean ‘cis gay men.’ The Gay Rights Movement can push for policies that materially benefit cis gay men like gay marriage rights, but cannot lower the rate of trans women being murdered literally at all.

Objection 2: Revulsion

The second objection I have to the left’s approach to identity politics on the status quo is that I think its attempts to seek institutional recognition are nonsensical.

Now before you get upset, let me preface this by saying that I completely understand why the desire for institutional recognition is important.

My problem is not that institutional recognition is bad, but rather that people should not need institutional recognition to affirm their own sense of self. I think that too often political activism becomes so entrenched in people’s own identities that a negation of their politics is a negation of their entire notion of person-hood.

This goes beyond partisan divides, and into the left’s toxic relationship with identity in general. Political disagreements between people who agree that homophobia is bad become pissing matches when the people involved don’t agree on the method to end it.

This to me represents the de-politicization of politics, or conversely, the personalization of politics. Nobody can contest the ideas of a person who engages in politics this way, because they have shielded it from any legitimate contestation.

I think this is bad because first, it removes the ability of the left to have any serious/meaningful conversations about how to actually end structural oppression. Last month, I was banned from a leftbook page for pushing back against the notion that “anarchism would resolve all structural oppression.” Maybe it would, but I wouldn’t know because as soon as I questioned the ability for anarchism to dissolve material inequalities like money/resources, I was blocked for ‘de-legitimizing the experiences of trans women’. What the?

I also think it increases the amount of exhaustion and alienation that disenfranchised people already feel because this framing of identity turned political differences into personal attacks. My critique of the Gay Rights Movement is not the same as the de-legitimization of gay identity.

Objection 3: Normalization

My final objection to the left’s relationship with identity is on the basis that the end goal of identity politics seems to be the ultimate normalization of different categories.

I think this is a mistake.

Our society commits violence against difference because collectively, America has come to the conclusion that all difference is inherently bad. Rather than pushing back against this fear of difference, many leftists want to simply normalize certain categories of difference within existing grammars and norms.

What if, instead of normalizing bodies that better fit into the grammars of oppression, we instead re-create a society that respects difference for what it is — that is, different.

When Trans Pride split from Gay Pride, it create a space to affirm the differences in experience and legitimized, rather than erased, trans bodies.

Maybe this is the path identity politics should take, rather than just more of the same.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store