Identity Politics’ Dark Side

Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Pasadena, California


Identity Politics’ Dark Side

Movements like feminism, black power, and gay rights have positively changed American culture. They effectively organized people through identifiable traits or beliefs. In these instances, for example, the first identified people by their interest in women’s rights, and the other two respectively by their skin color and sexual orientation.

However, these identity-based, political movements have a shadow side.

I highlight three significant dark aspects–objectification, homogenization, and us-versus-them dynamics.

These identity-based groups risk creating the very objectification they seek to eliminate. By identifying a separate group, i.e. people devoted to ensuring women are treated fairly, they imply the existence of another group, those who presumably mistreat women.

The resultant, simple polarity dangerously oversimplifies a highly complex situation. These issues are not reducible to a bipolar, digital split between the abused and the abusers, the racists and the non-racists, the pro- and anti-gays.

Using gay rights as an example, people who mistreat gays exist on a broad spectrum. Some are homophobic and fear their own homosexual tendencies. Others are narcissists who struggle to understand gays, lesbians, or anyone other than them. Still others are overtly abusive, even violent, towards homosexuals. Lumping these complex variations into one anti-group results in, ironically, precisely the kind of objectifying process the pro-group seeks to avoid. The become one—the bad, the same.

Similar to the objectification risk, identity-based groups also over-generalize, ignoring the unique singularities of people. The Me-Too movement, for example, while significantly bringing much-needed attention to a variety of men’s abusive behaviors, blots out immense individual differences. The behavior of a man committing sexual assault differs significantly from a man flirting excessively at a party. Splitting the world into Me-Too proponents, and Me-Too opponents, flattens consideration of the many, varied contextual features of individuals. It throws subtle human differences into a blender spitting out bland, tasteless caricatures.

Finally, these types of identity-based movements trigger an us-versus-them propensity which, according to academic psychologists like Steven Pinker, are inherent in our human DNA. In other words, we have an innate tendency to organize ourselves into groups, identify our group as positive, and view outside groups as negative.

Psychoanalysts would consider the us versus them phenomenon as including projection. Uncomfortable with whatever we find objectionable in ourselves, we tend to project these features out, often onto groups of people. We then discount, demean, diminish them. This simplifies our inner lives. Projection transforms intra-psychic (internal) tensions into interpersonal ones. We feel better because we identify badness as outside of us.

Seeking to avoid such splitting myself, I emphasize, again, that these identity-oriented political movements often change society for the better. But like all movements, or like all human individuals, they come with negatives. On the one hand, they may be crucial to correcting certain political injustices; on the other, they risk create collateral damage by objectifying others, ignoring personal differences, and igniting our genetic propensity to engage in us versus them patterns of thought and behavior.

Perhaps social injustice would be best served by looking inward, and striving to integrate our own split-off darkness, before enthusiastically joining with like-minded, identity-oriented political movements. It would allow us to better see the spectrum of individual persons in the other group; it would allow us to fully appreciate the range of good and bad existing within.

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