Leftist Critiques of Identity Politics
This essay is intended to be a thorough response to leftists who express opposition to “identity politics.” I will be using the term “leftist” here in a broad manner to refer to people whose political views generally fall to the left of mainstream Democrats in the U.S. (or analogous liberal parties in other countries), regardless of whether the individuals in question identify as progressive, socialist, communist, anarchist, green, or what have you. I am not a big fan of the term “identity politics” for reasons that will become clear, but it is one of the more commonly used terms to describe social justice activism intended to reduce prejudice and discrimination toward historically marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and other minorities.
There are numerous reasons why one might expect leftists to be pro-“identity politics” almost by default. After all, leftists tend to be egalitarian, are opposed to hierarchies among people, and recognize that the injustices that plague our society are systemic and can only be remedied through activism (e.g., collective organizing, working to elicit change). However, despite this apparent overlap in concerns and understanding, I have increasingly encountered criticisms of “identity politics” (IP) from leftists, particularly those who focus their analysis and efforts primarily on economic class (EC). In this essay, I will respond (as both a progressive/leftist and a social justice activist) to some of the most common complaints along these lines. The purpose of this piece is not to defend all expressions of IP, as there are some that I feel are misguided or counterproductive (as I have written about in great length in my book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive and in subsequent essays collected here). Rather, I will be making the case that a left that focuses solely on EC to the exclusion of IP will result in a far less robust and righteous movement, much to its detriment.
A quick note about this essay
I will be using “IP” and “EC” mostly as convenient shorthand, since many of the arguments I refute here are structured upon an imagined EC-versus-IP distinction — I reject this distinction and have absolutely no desire for these acronyms to catch on. Obviously, EC-centric leftists who have issues with IP activism may believe different things or have different concerns, so whenever I say “EC-centric leftists say fill-in-the-blank about IP,” I’m not implying that they uniformly say or believe these things, just that I’ve heard some EC-centric leftists make this particular claim. Some sections of this essay address problems with what has been called “class reductionism,” while others tackle more general complaints regarding “identity politics.” This essay is fairly long, as I wanted to be comprehensive, so feel free to skip ahead to sections that are of particular interest to you.
The “economic class”/“identity politics” false dichotomy
There are numerous forms of marginalization that exist in our society: racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and so on. If you happen to be on the wrong side of any of these hierarchies, you will face many inequities and injustices. Notably, EC-centric criticisms of “identity politics” often rely on a very specific framing, one in which classism (i.e., marginalization based on economic class; I elaborate on what I mean by this in this thread) is plucked out of that list, and pitted against all the rest (which are lumped together as “identity politics”). I will hypothesize as to why this occurs later on in the essay. But I want to begin by pointing out that this is a false dichotomy. Many of us (perhaps even most of us) who are concerned about social justice matters that fall under the umbrella of IP are also concerned about, and engage in activism regarding, EC.
Here, I will forward what I believe is a more accurate framing: Some people are single-issue activists that are only concerned about a single form of marginalization, usually one that impacts them personally. Single-issue perspectives create a distorted view of the world, and lead activists to propose solutions that will help some people while hurting others and leaving countless more behind. When EC-centered leftists complain about Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism and Caitlyn Jenner’s trans-respectability politics (both of which ignore classism and other critical issues), or less renowned activists who only seem to recognize male privilege, or heterosexual privilege, but not upper/middle-class privilege (I will be addressing the notion of “privilege” shortly), what they are actually critiquing is single-issue activism, not IP more generally.
In contrast, others of us take a more intersectional approach, recognizing that all forms of marginalization intersect with and exacerbate one another, and that we must challenge all of them simultaneously. This includes both EC and IP issues. Intersectionality is difficult in practice, but necessary if we are sincere about helping all marginalized people, rather than a select few. (My thoughts on how we can be good intersectional activists without excluding others who have a stake in the movement are detailed throughout the second half of Excluded).
From an intersectional perspective, not only is EC-versus-IP a false dichotomy, but leftists who wish to jettison IP and focus solely on EC are clearly promoting a brand of single-issue activism. I’m sure that their agendas seem internally self-consistent from their very specific vantage point. But from the perspective of people who are marginalized in ways other than (or in addition to) EC, it’s glaringly obvious that focusing solely on EC will not do much if anything to reduce sexual assault on women, end racist police practices, allow people with disabilities to enter inaccessible buildings, or to prevent LGBTQ+ children from being bullied in school or subjected to conversion therapies (to name but a few issues).
People usually gravitate toward single-issue activism because they are unconcerned about forms of marginalization that do not personally impact them — this surely applies to some (albeit certainly not all) EC-centric leftists who denounce IP. Those who claim to be genuinely concerned about these other forms of marginalization, yet dismiss IP anyway, usually forward one of the following rationales.
Contradicting the “principal contradiction”
The “principal contradiction” refers to the idea that there is some original or primary form of oppression that gives rise to all the others. Apparently, this is a Maoist concept, and he believed that the principal contradiction was the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. I first learned about this concept upon reading Alice Echols’s book Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–75, which discusses how radical feminists back then often argued that gender (not class) was the “primary contradiction.”
Of course, there is really only one purpose for making such a claim: to persuade others to join you in your single-issue activist campaign, under the pretense that once your pet oppression is eliminated, all other forms of marginalization will subsequently fall by the wayside too.
But the thing is, there is simply no evidence for a principal contradiction. In fact, it is quite clear that people who denounce classism are still quite capable of being racist, or sexist, or ableist, and so on. (Indeed, Echols’s book chronicles how the radical feminist movement began when women split from existing leftist organizations due to the rampant and unapologetic sexism they experienced there.) Similarly, people who denounce sexism are still quite capable of expressing classism, or racism, or heterosexism (as Echols’s book also chronicles). Because there is no primary contradiction, just lots of different hierarchies that people may or may not endorse.
But let’s just pretend for a moment that classism is some kind of principal contradiction, and that once it’s eliminated, then all other forms of marginalization will magically disappear too. Even if you showed me irrefutable evidence that this was true, here is how I would respond: “Great, that’s wonderful to hear! So when do you think we’ll be able to wrap up this whole classism problem then? In a couple weeks? By the end of the year at least? What? Oh, you say that it will probably take decades, if it even happens in my lifetime. And in the meantime, you want me to simply shut up and tolerate all the sexism, transphobia, etcetera, that I face on a day-to-day basis, because these are merely ‘secondary’ contradictions in your eyes? Seriously?! No thanks.”
No One Thing Lifts All Boats
Another common EC-centric justification for ditching IP goes something this: Women and minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty. Therefore, by focusing on (and hopefully someday ending) classism, we will be helping all of these groups.
I have come to refer to this specious line of reasoning as the “reverse trickle-down economics” argument, because it relies on the same “a rising tide lifts all boats” mentality. Sure, all boats may be lifted to some degree, but some boats will be lifted far higher than others! Specifically, people who *only* contend with economic issues will come out swimmingly in this scenario. But those of us who also deal with racism, sexism, ableism, etcetera, will still remain marginalized in that future world despite economic equality.
I think the logical fallacy at work here becomes readily apparent if we slightly tweak this argument. What if I made the case that poor and working class people are disproportionately female. Therefore, if we focus all our efforts on eliminating sexism, we will be helping these groups. Your response would likely be: “But there will still be people marginalized by classism in that world!” And you would be correct. Just like how, if we eliminated classism, many people would remain marginalized by other forms of discrimination.
Misconceptions about privilege and diversity
Another common complaint EC-centric leftists make about IP regards the concept of “privilege.” The argument typically goes something like this: How can you possibly say that an unemployed worker who can’t afford to pay his rent has “male privilege,” or “white privilege,” or “heterosexual privilege” . . . ?
The problem here is that some people mistakenly presume that having “fill-in-the-blank privilege” means that you are somehow “fully privileged” in every imaginable way. Unfortunately, this misconception can be found among some single-issue activists (who will act as though the specific form of privilege they lack is some kind of magic key that opens up every door and makes life easy across the board) and non-activists (who are quick to point to obstacles they face as evidence that they are bereft of any privilege whatsoever). However, from an intersectional perspective, it is clear that all these privileges can (and do) exist simultaneously, and each may contribute to making a person’s experiences in the world less difficult to some degree.
Here is how I describe the concept of privilege to skeptics: Do you believe that marginalized/minority groups face discrimination and are disadvantaged as a result? If the answer is yes, then another equally valid way of describing the same situation is to say that dominant/majority groups are relatively advantaged in comparison. “Privilege” simply refers to those advantages.
One of the reasons why activists frame such matters in terms of privilege is to illustrate how *all of us* are impacted by unjust hierarchies and systems, even if it is not always apparent to us. To use an analogy that most EC-centric leftists should readily comprehend: People who are wealthy tend to look upon poverty as a phenomenon that exists entirely outside of themselves — they view it is an unfortunate circumstance that some people are forced to endure, perhaps because they deserve it, or maybe instead they think “there but for the grace of God, go I.” But in reality, that wealthy person is the beneficiary of the very same system that forces others to live in poverty. If you can understand that, then it should be relatively easy to see that white people are the beneficiaries of racism, that straight people are the beneficiaries of heterosexism, and so on, even if such beneficiaries never actively sought out that privilege or consciously intended to hurt others.
In other words, the reason for explicitly discussing upper/middle-class (or white, or male, or heterosexual, etc.) privilege is to make people in these dominant/majority groups realize that they have skin in the game too, and therefore they should be helping to dismantle this unjust hierarchy.
Once a person acknowledges that they possess some form of privilege, they are more likely to accept the reality that they are not in any way objective about the form of marginalization in question. Sticking with the previous example: Wealthy people often spout all sorts of ignorant opinions about poor people and poverty from what they imagine is an “objective” perspective. But someone who acknowledges their class privilege may come to realize that, because of their advantages, they don’t actually know what it’s like to live on a minimum wage, or to rely on food stamps, or to be unable to afford healthcare. This is a huge blind spot in their understanding of these issues. And upon acknowledging this, they will be more inclined to defer to those who have first-hand experiences dealing with those obstacles.
That is why IP activists talk about privilege. It’s not to make people feel guilty, nor to win the latest round of “oppression Olympics” (although some people do those things). Rather, it’s to make people in dominant/majority groups recognize that marginalized/minority groups are the experts of their own lives, and they should be listened to regarding the discrimination and issues they face.
Which leads us to a second common misconception regarding the concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion.” EC-centric leftists will sometimes dismiss calls for racial diversity, or gender diversity, and so on, as irrelevant or mere distractions. Or they will ridicule “the first fill-in-the-blank-minority to ever do/become . . .” news stories for supposedly being superficial expressions of “identity pride.” And admittedly, some members of the marginalized group in question may feel validated by that news, or view it as a sign of progress, but that is not the primary reason why IP activists push for diversity. Rather, knowing that dominant/majority groups are generally ill-informed about marginalized/minority groups’ issues (due to their privilege and lack of first-hand experiences), gaining inclusion and adequate representation is the only way to ensure that their concerns will actually be addressed.
Once again, using classism as an example: The U.S. Congress is disproportionately wealthy. Do you believe that we would be better off if there were fewer millionaires, and more poor and working class people, serving in Congress instead? Most leftists would enthusiastically answer “yes” to this; I know I would. And it’s not because of superficial tokenism or supporting “poor and working class pride.” It’s because such individuals would likely be more concerned about, and better equipped to address, issues regarding classism than a millionaire who has never economically struggled. If you agree with this, then it should be easy to understand why women and minorities would similarly advocate for more inclusion and diversity.
Of course, diversity isn’t everything. Despite being a trans woman, I would much rather be represented by Bernie Sanders than Caitlyn Jenner, for obvious reasons! But if the choice was between Bernie Sanders and a competent trans woman candidate who shared many of his EC positions, but whose experiences as a woman and minority gave her a better appreciation of IP-related issues, well, I’d most definitely be inclined to support her. To portray such a preference for diversity as superficial or unimportant (as some EC-centric leftists do) denies marginalized people’s life experiences and personal knowledge regarding oppression.
Is “identity politics” narcissistic and divisive?
I mentioned at the outset that I dislike the term “identity politics.” This is because the phrase seems to suggest that our identities (rather than the marginalization we face) is the most salient feature of our activism. Indeed, this is probably why those who oppose IP-umbrella activism seem so fond of calling it “identity politics” in the first place. (In contrast, within IP circles, the term is often reserved for a specific brand of single-issue activism that completely precludes perspectives from those who do not share the identity in question; I explain the many problems with such activism here.) This semantic maneuver allows pundits like Mark Lilla or Angela Nagle (whose work I will address soon) to portray us as overly obsessed with our own identities and issues, rather than focusing on the common good.
Accusations that IP is inherently “narcissistic” and “divisive” have become quite prevalent among EC-centric leftists lately. And these claims put women and minorities in a double-bind, because if we do speak out about the issues and obstacles we face (rather than simply “taking it”), then we will be dismissed as self-centered “wreckers” who are destroying the movement. It’s basically a foolproof way of silencing any leftists who want to discuss any experiences with marginalization that fall outside the realm of EC. And the only way that employing this tactic would make sense is if the person making these claims believes that 1) forms of discrimination outside of EC do not cause any significant material harm (in which case, they’re wrong!), 2) such discrimination does cause material harm, but the targeted groups either deserve it or should simply take it (in which case, fuck you!), or 3) they believe that EC is the “principal contradiction” that we should focus all our efforts on (which I’ve already debunked).
In addition to disregarding all forms of non-EC marginalization, accusations that IP activism is inherently “narcissistic” or “divisive” severely confuse cause and effect. After all, I’m not the one who is “obsessed” with my identity: When I am relaxing in the privacy of my own apartment, I rarely ever think about the fact that I am transgender. But do you know when I do think about it? When I log onto my computer to find news coverage of the latest “bathroom bill” social conservatives are trying to pass, or receive hateful social media comments targeting me specifically because I am transgender. Or when I go out into the world and have to navigate the reality that, if random strangers become aware of the fact that I’m trans, they might start verbally or physically harassing me. In other words, it’s the people who harbor anti-trans attitudes who are obsessed with my identity, not the other way around! While I would absolutely love to live in a world where my trans identity was not especially notable or worth calling attention to, these people insist on making an issue out of it. Furthermore, by making a distinction between transgender people (who they single out for discrimination) and non-transgender people (whose identities and experiences they respect), it is they (not us) who are the ones being divisive.
Once we acknowledge this causality, it becomes clear that IP is not an expression of navel-gazing or narcissism, but rather a form of organized resistance against those who are actively trying to delegitimize and disenfranchise us.
Is “identity politics” individualist and frivolous (rather than collectivist and materialist)?
Hey, did you see how I used the phrase “organized resistance” in the last sentence? I’d imagine that might have surprised some readers. Because while EC-centric leftists are constantly obsessing over our supposed obsession with identity, they somehow manage to completely ignore the second word in “identity politics”: politics.
For me, few red flags are redder than when I hear an EC-centric leftist describe the activism that they’re involved in as “collectivist,” and IP activism as “individualist.” Frankly, it tells me that they know absolutely nothing about IP activism. It tells me that they never once bothered to pick up a book or watch a documentary about the histories of IP-umbrella activist movements, because if they did, they would have learned how these movements always involve individuals coming together, putting differences aside, and working toward common goals, which is why they are called movements!
Whenever I come across an EC-centric leftist who depicts IP activists as “individualists” who supposedly spend all our time virtual-yelling from our computers and vlogging about our identities, that tells me that they have never seriously attempted to engage a longtime IP activist in respectful dialogue. For instance, if they had approached me and sincerely asked, “Hey, would you mind explaining this whole ‘LGBTQ+ activism’ thing?” I would probably start with the fact that, for much of U.S. history, we were pathologized, criminalized, and completely ostracized from society. The only reason why we are now able to openly participate in society (although this still poses some serious risks) is because we started organizing together collectively. For those who harbor any doubts about this, here is a long list of LGBTQ+ activist organizations from the past and present.
And those collective efforts were not “gab sessions” where we incessantly droned on and on about our identities; rather, they tackled serious matters, such as (but not limited to) challenging queerphobic police practices, providing shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, community outreach to win over potential allies, efforts to depathologize our genders/sexualities, forcing the Regan administration to finally address the AIDS epidemic, working to elect pro-LGBTQ+ candidates, enacting anti-trans discrimination policies for workplaces and housing, making schools safe for LGBTQ+ youth, and repealing (or preventing) laws designed to criminalize us and prevent us from participating in society.
All of the aforementioned work was not only collectivist in nature, but materialist as well, in that those efforts materially allowed us to exist, and have lives, and have jobs, and access healthcare, and not have to fucking die or disappear in order to appease the straight majority’s prejudices. This, of course, is not unique to LGBTQ+ activism — it holds true for all IP movements.
People who dismiss IP activism as inherently individualist and frivolous have no fucking clue what they’re talking about. I suppose a few of them may simply be uninformed, in which case, I’d suggest that they read up on the subject. But frankly, I get the general impression that most people who make these particular claims are being willfully obtuse.
Does “identity politics” reinforce identities?
Another complaint that I’ve encountered is the notion that EC activists are working to move beyond identities whereas IP activists are “reinforcing identities.” While working on Excluded, I began referring to this type of argument structure (which often arises in leftist/activist settings) as the “reinforcing trope”; I explain why such arguments are generally awful and inane via that link (and references therein). In a nutshell, the “reinforcing trope” is almost always used to blame marginalized/minority groups for any oppression that they and/or others face, rather than the holding the dominant/majority group accountable.
In addition to that more general point, it is unclear to me how EC activism supposedly “transcends” identities while IP activism “reinforces” them. You don’t have to look very hard to find feminists and LGBTQ+ activists making the case that we should completely do away with gender and sexual identities/categories altogether. Analogous arguments about transcending identities/categories have also been made in other IP movements. Personally, I find such arguments to be somewhat misplaced. After all, identities are not inherently oppressive. For instance, I might identify as a guitarist, or a cat person, or a biologist. Those words, like most identities, simply describe aspects of my person. Like all language, identities and categories exist so that we can describe the world and communicate information.
I would love to live in a world where the word “transgender” serves the same simple purpose — a mere sharing of information about my life experiences — but unfortunately, it doesn’t. On top of being a descriptor, the word “transgender” is also politically loaded. But that is not my, nor other trans people’s, fault. As discussed in the last section, there’s a long history of people hating, ostracizing, and criminalizing us, and much of this history took place before words like “transgender,” “transphobia,” and analogous terms even existed. In fact, those terms were created in response to that marginalization, not the other way around. And even if I were to relinquish my trans identity, those people would still exist and continue to discriminate against me for supposedly being a sinner, or freak, or deviant, or for being delusional, or whatever other rationales they might concoct in order to justify their bigotry.
In fact, if I were to successfully “transcend” my gender identity, it would most assuredly hurt me far more than it would help me, because then I wouldn’t have any language to convey my experiences with marginalization. Seriously, how does one discuss injustices and inequities and without referencing the very people who are being screwed by that system? I mean, imagine the following scenario:
Me: Hey, I was harassed twice on the way to work today, then my boss fired me even though I’ve been very competent at my job!
You: Gee, sorry to hear that. Do you know why those things happened to you?
Me [lacking the words transgender, transphobia, etc.]: Um . . . because I’m different, I guess. Because they detest me for some unspecified reason.
You: Well, like I said, sorry to hear that . . .
It seems rather strange to me that some EC-centric leftists have problems comprehending this, as they often do the exact same thing. For instance, have you ever talked about how poor people suffer under capitalism? Or about how we need to politically organize the working class? If so, congratulations, you’ve engaged in identity politics! And hey, what about Karl Marx? I seem to recall him going on quite a bit about the proletariat — OMG, that dude was such an identitarian!
Back in the “EC-versus-IP false dichotomy” section, I promised to revisit the question of why many EC-centric leftists somehow view EC activism as entirely distinct from IP activism. I’ve considered this at great length, and there are likely multiple contributing factors. But I think part of the reason is that we’ve all been socialized to view economic class as somewhat fluid and not set in stone (as expressed in popular capitalist slogans about how anyone can simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and go from “rags to riches”). In contrast, we tend to harbor rather essentialist views of marginalized groups that fall under the IP umbrella, and this probably leads to some “othering” and a failure to identify with them (unless of course, we belong to those groups ourselves).
In considering this, I found myself returning to the recurring claims that IP activists are “wreckers” or being “divisive,” when we are simply raising issues that impact us. Notably, these particular words seem to presuppose that there is some unspoken “oneness” that exists on the left (or at least in the minds of those who make these claims), and that we (IP activists) are somehow “wrecking” and “dividing” that presumed “oneness.” Furthermore, whenever some leftist makes a sexist, ableist, transphobic, etc., comment, they may be critiqued or face pushback for those remarks, but rarely are they accused of “wrecking” or “dividing” the movement. These tendencies suggest that, on an unconscious level, many people don’t view these marginalized groups as part of this imagined “oneness” a priori. Something to think about . . .
Finally, is “identity politics” inherently liberal? (in which I pull a “reverse Nagle”)
I began this essay by debunking the EC-versus-IP false dichotomy. The main reason why people create binaries like this is to assign different meanings and value judgments to each of the two categories. I’ve already debunked many such assertions: that EC transcends identities while IP reinforces them; that EC is collectivist while IP is individualist; that EC is serious and materialist while IP is superficial and frivolous; that EC is objective while IP is self-obsessed; that EC is the primary contradiction while IP is merely secondary.
There is one more common assertion that needs to be put to rest: the notion that EC is radical/revolutionary whereas IP is merely liberal. While “left” and “liberal” are often used interchangeably in mainstream political discourses, within leftist/activist settings the word “liberal” generally refers to actions or positions that merely tweak or reform the existing system, rather than enact substantive change. While this distinction is clearly germane in certain contexts, it must also be said that “liberal” is sometimes used as a pejorative to undermine a person’s politics or commitment to the movement, even if the charge is not warranted. I discuss such abuses of the term in Excluded, although I’m sure that most leftists/activists reading this are already familiar with this tactic.
Given this, it is unsurprising that some EC-centric leftists paint IP activism as inherently liberal. Of course, one can always find single-issue IP activists who engage in liberal practices — such as advocating for their own inclusion in society, but not pushing for more fundamental changes — but that certainly does not apply to all of us. Many intersectional IP activists like myself want to see whole-scale change and the elimination of all forms of marginalization (including classism), so accusations that we are “liberal” seem entirely misplaced, and deliberately designed to dismiss us.
Furthermore, I reject the presumption that IP-related actions and positions cannot be radical or revolutionary. For instance, if a non-binary trans person insists that you refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns, or if someone with a disability insists that your event be accessible to them, you could mock their demands as being individualist, or frivolous, or ridiculous if you want (although I’d strongly disagree). But be honest with yourself: Any disdain or derision you might feel toward those demands doesn’t stem from the fact that you view them as itty-bitty liberal reforms that don’t go far enough; rather, it’s because they strike you as too radical.
All of which brings us to Angela Nagle. Her 2017 book Kill All Normies garnered lots of attention within EC-centric leftist circles, where it was lauded for its lambasting of IP activism. I will not be critiquing Nagle’s entire book here, as most of it focuses on the rise of the alt-right — that is not my area of expertise, and unlike some people, I know better than to position myself as an authority on matters that I am not particularly knowledgeable about. But I do know a lot about IP activism, and with regards to that subject, Nagel’s book is an absolute joke.
Most of Nagle’s criticisms of IP activism occur in Chapter 5, which begins with her pitting the serious-minded “materialist left” against what she calls “Tumblr-liberalism” — you know, because IP activists are not only super-duper liberal, but we are also individualists who spend 100 percent of our time obsessing about our identities on frivolous social media platforms. And of course Nagle dredges up the 2016 Democratic primary, referencing Hillary Clinton “using terms like ‘check your privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’,” the implication being that IP language (like Clinton herself) is unbearably liberal. [btw, wanna hear my intersectional activist 2016 election hot-take? Clinton was insufficiently progressive on EC issues, and Sanders was insufficiently progressive on IP issues. They were both too liberal for my tastes! Yet nevertheless, they both would have been a bajillion times better than Trump.]
Nagle’s depiction of IP activism only gets more condescending from there. Much of the chapter is dedicated to mocking transgender and disability activists — I’ll let you speculate as to why she chose us as her primary targets. With regards to transgender activism, Nagel spends several pages misinterpreting Judith Butler, likening our identities to otherkin and adult babies, and regaling readers with a long list (19 entries!) of esoteric gender labels with definitions (most of which I’ve never even heard of, and I’m a trans activist!) which she says she found on . . . you guessed it, Tumblr! I cannot fathom how *anyone* could mistake this for a serious or scholarly analysis of transgender activism, unless of course, they went in wanting to believe the worst about us. Seriously, all one has to do is fucking type the phrase “transgender activism” into a search engine, and the first thing that comes up is this Wikipedia page chockfull of the history of trans-related collective actions, lists of trans rights organizations, statistics on discrimination, transphobic violence, anti-trans legislation, and many other critical issues, all of which Nagle purposefully ignored. Instead, Nagle decided to spend her time combing through Tumblr posts by random trans people, looking for obscure neologisms like “daimogender” and “polygenderflux.” Because her primary goal wasn’t to accurately depict transgender activism, it was to encourage her readers to scoff at us.
I considered writing a more thorough critique of Nagle’s parody of IP activism, but others have already done this — I highly recommend these two long-read critiques, plus these three reviews make additional important points. So rather than reiterate that work here, I thought it might be better to illustrate just how incompetent and insulting her chapter is by pulling a “reverse Nagle.”
Here’s what I mean a “reverse Nagle”: Let’s pretend that I’m a jerk who is pro-IP but anti-EC activism. And rather than apply critical thinking to highly complex problems, I decided instead to just caricature EC-centric leftists as inherently liberal, narcissistic, individualist, superficial, frivolous, and overly sensitive (i.e., how Nagle portrays IP activists). What might that look like? Well, I’d probably start by cherry-picking horrible things that individual EC-centric leftists have said on social media (and there are plenty of these), and use them to create the impression that all EC activists are overly sensitive bigots who bully righteous IP activists with their divisive “call-out culture.” And rather than discussing the realities of ‘classism’ (which I would put in scare-quotes, just as Nagle does with ‘transphobic’), I could simply make fun of silly-sounding words that socialists sometimes use (“bourgeoisie,” “commodity fetishism,” lol!). And rather than discuss all the positive work that organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are doing, I could instead portray their members as individualists who are all obsessed with their “comrade” identities, and who forward liberal policies like ‘basic income’ (more scare-quotes!) because all they really want is more money for themselves to spend frivolously on popcorn and sodas at the latest Incredible Hulk movie. (My evidence for this, presented without citation of course, would be some random EC activist who casually mentioned on Twitter that they enjoyed that film.)
If you happen to be a fan of Nagle’s book, can I ask how this “reverse Nagle” would strike you, were I to actually publish it? I’d imagine that you’d find to be a ludicrous and belittling act of gross negligence that could potentially damage your cause (if some people are gullible enough to believe it). Well, that’s basically how Nagle’s take on IP activism came across to me. The only difference is, I would never actually write something like this! Nor would any other intersectional IP activist that I know. We would never write this, because we believe that EC activism is vital.
So my question to you is: Why do you consider IP activism (and those who practice it) to be disposable?
I’d like to think that what I’ve written here has helped convince some EC-centric leftists that they should be inclusive of IP activism — that was obviously a goal of writing this essay. But my other goal was to convince EC-centric leftists that it’s also in their best interests to be inclusive of us. To that end, I want to share the following anecdote.
Demographically speaking, I belong to “generation X.” When I was in my twenties, as I gravitated toward leftism (as a result of my concerns about EC, IP, and environmental issues), I ultimately registered Green Party, which I was affiliated with until the latest election (when Jill Stein’s awfulness chased me away). Back then (this was the 1990s), most people in my cohort also identified as greens, or anarchists, and/or as progressives. Hardly any of us called ourselves socialist or communist, despite obvious overlaps in philosophies and goals. And it wasn’t because we were fundamentally opposed to those ideologies per se. Rather, it was because my cohort was overwhelmingly pro-LGBTQ+. And if you were openly queer back then, socialists and communists would lecture you about how “homosexuality was a bourgeoisie vice.” They did this with a clear purpose. They were trying to convey that 1) LGBTQ+ people were not welcome in those spaces, or 2) if we did want to participate, we must remain closeted or else repent. Either way, it would conveniently create the appearance that there are no queer socialists/communists, and that it really was a bourgeoisie thing.
Anyway, things have changed since then. Lots of my younger LGBTQ+ friends (and some older ones) are very active in the DSA nowadays. And I’m honestly glad that they are accepted there. But to be clear, the reason why LGBTQ+ people are now able to participate in the DSA and similar organizations is not because socialism has an impeccable track record of inclusion. It’s because of IP activism — people working tirelessly (and collectively!) to shift public sentiment and improve the lives of minorities and women.
And that work sure as hell is not over. All forms of marginalization that fall under the IP umbrella still exist — if anything, they’ve only gotten worse since Trump has been elected. And quite honestly, they will probably never completely go away, as prejudice is primarily a cognitive bias that may surface even if we are not fully conscious of it. So, for all these reasons, it remains crucial that we continue to engage in IP activism. And yes, that includes “call-outs.” (Another term I dislike, because for some reason it’s only ever applied to IP activists, when in reality, everybody calls other people out! This entire essay has been a rebuttal of EC-centric leftists who have called-out IP activists as identitarian, individualist, wreckers, divisive, liberal, and so on. “Call-out” is simply shorthand for telling someone that you believe that they are wrong and causing problems. Seriously, it’s a relatively normal part of human discourse!)
It is true that some IP activist call-outs are unwarranted, or misguided, or unconstructive, or mean-spirited. (Nagle’s call-outs of IP activists in her book were all these things!) But many other call-outs are on the mark. And the solution isn’t to completely ditch IP activism, but to create more understanding about the purpose of IP-related call-outs, and how to deploy them in a judicious and effective manner (as I have discussed here and here and elsewhere).
If a critical mass of EC-centric leftists manage to successfully jettison IP activism from the movement, I can tell you what will happen. Prejudice will fester and, left unchecked, people will express it more and more, especially toward women and minorities. These latter groups will find such settings intolerable, and they will abandon them in the same way that radical feminists fled sexist leftist organizations in the 1960s, and how LGBTQ+ people eschewed socialist/communist groups in the 1990s.
This would be to the entire left’s detriment, so I entreat EC-centric leftists to reconsider their stance on IP activism.
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