Sunday, 20 September 2015

Identity politics and its limits

First up, sorry it’s been so long between blog posts. What happens sometimes is I get a post past the planning stage and I think, OK, I’m nearly done, I’ll have it finished tomorrow. Only the next day it’s not done, but it’s so close to done that I know I’ll have it finished the day after that, no big drama, no need to find something else to post about while I’m working on it. Sometimes, and this was one of those times, this can go on for weeks. And then just as I was finishing I came down with an unusually virulent upper respiratory tract infection, which kept me at home, away from the internet, for nearly a week. Content note: I discuss racism, homophobia, and ableism below, including repeating some slurs.

If you ever need confirmation that there’s more to politics than Left versus Right, utter the word “transphobia” in a reasonably broad left-wing forum and stand back and watch. (I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in a right-wing space; libertarians and conservatives take different views on how many gender identities and sexual orientations are legitimate, but they seem to agree that oppression only counts if it’s the government doing it.) If you do try the experiment, you can probably then count down under your breath how long it takes until somebody starts muttering about “identity politics”.

I don’t know. Maybe this was more of a thing five or six years ago, at least in this country, when the Left was still busy looking for something to blame the Right’s then-recent victory on. One thing a lot of people fixed on was the prominence of queer and feminist interests in the broad Left portfolio, which many claimed was a fatal distraction from the real troubles of the poor and the working class. Because, apparently, only bourgeois women mind being hit on by creepy men, and only the bourgeoisie ever feel attracted to their own gender or identify as a gender that doesn’t match their genital anatomy at birth.

But I think that was one manifestation of a wider political trope that goes: “Social justice struggles A, B, and C were about equal rights for everybody, but social justice struggles X, Y, and Z are about special rights for a bunch of whiners.” Struggles A, B, and C aren’t always in the past tense, at least not among the Left, but that’s the usual pattern. The “special rights” part is where “identity politics” comes into it. The idea is that the social justice movement gives people special rights according to their identity as women, or as people of colour, or as queer people or as trans people or disabled people or whichever one it might be today. And that, say the critics, isn’t justice. Lady Justice wears a blindfold.

Yes, but Lady Justice also carries a pair of scales. If one person misses out on a benefit that others are enjoying, when they’ve made no less effort to deserve it than those others, then that’s unfair. If the benefit is a basic human right, then that’s injustice. And if lots of people are missing out on it because of some aspect of their identity – be it cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, whatever – then Lady Justice’s blindfold has slipped. Fixing it will be measured by whether people of that identity are still missing out, and if you didn’t realize they were missing out then fixing it will look like “identity politics” to you.

So how likely is it that people are missing out on basic human rights and you didn’t know it? Likelier than you think. In the 1990s, here in New Zealand, experimenters played recordings to classfuls of teenagers (including me) of a bunch of different people reading the same short paragraph. We were asked to guess, from their accent, the speakers’ gender, ethnicity, nationality, and also things like how intelligent and friendly and trustworthy they were. Six or seven years later, I took Professor Donn Bayard’s sociolinguistics paper at university and learned what it had all been about. Among other things, whenever we listeners guessed that a speaker was Māori or a Pacific Islander, our estimates of their intelligence and other competence variables plummeted.

And none of us noticed. In fact I remember my classmates arguing it was racist even to ask whether you could tell someone was Māori from their accent. Now think about this. I’m now 37 years old; I have voted in seven general elections; I’m not an employer, but many employers are my age. How many people have been turned down for jobs because the interviewer got a better vibe off a different applicant? How many of those crucial first impressions are unconsciously due to factors like race or gender? Oh, maybe people just have this subconscious prejudice about accents, not other markers. Maybe it’s specific to markers of ethnicity, not gender or sexuality or class. Bets?

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: People know better than you whether they’re being hurt or not. If people of a particular ethnicity, sexuality, or gender say that something which doesn’t seem like a big deal to you is causing them to suffer, your first response should be to believe them, not assume they’re being crybabies for the sake of it. This is not – I have seen this objection seriously raised – because people belonging to minority groups have some kind of superior wisdom before which the rest of us must bow our heads; it’s because they, and not the majority group, are the ones actually experiencing the hurt. Their experiences are data. Medical and dental lecturers tell their students “The patient is the expert on their own symptoms.” Same principle.

Which sounds rather alarming, if you assume the doctor or dentist is supposed to be the expert on everything; but they’re not. There are plenty of things about my body which I would expect a healthcare professional to know more about than me, but my symptoms are not among them. Recently when I was at the Dental School as a patient, I started feeling the drill going. I urgently signalled my dental student that I was in pain. She wouldn’t believe at first that I needed more anaesthetic – fortunately the tutor put her right. (On subsequent visits, I really do need to be fair here, she’s been very good about this.) I don’t know why I don’t seem to respond as fully to mepivocaine as most people do; a pharmacologist might have a more educated guess. That’s expertise. But by gods, I’m the one who tells them whether I’m in pain or not.

So I can’t agree 100% with Ozy Ozymandias’ recent blog post against using identity as an argument:

“This can’t be sexist, I’m a woman.” “This is transphobic; I know, I’m trans.” “Listen to LGB people about what homophobia is.” “Actual people of colour don’t think that’s racist.” This is a terrible argument and all of you should stop.

Unfortunately Ozy’s blog is on Wordpress and for some reason my comments disappear when I try and comment on Wordpress blogs. I don’t know why, but it started happening a couple of years ago after I won an argument with a blogger called Richard Carrier on whether it’s rape when someone agrees to sex solely because you’ve got them drunk to the point of incapacity (he was claiming it wasn’t), and when I say “I won” I mean he misrepresented my position and then deleted my comments when I corrected him. I presume Wordpress keeps a list of commenters who’ve been spam-binned by bloggers. So Ozy, should this ever come to your attention, I’m not trying to be rude by arguing with your blog behind your back.

Ozy then enumerates examples of people who hold political views that are harmful to the minority groups that they themselves belong to, and I’m sure the list could be lengthened indefinitely. The equivalent, in my dental-chair analogy, would be if I didn’t realize that mepivocaine completely blocks pain signals in most people’s dental pulp for over an hour, or if I thought that analgaesia was not worth whatever risks accrue from increasing the dose, and concluded that I was obliged to suffer the drill patiently. I know of no culture where it is considered a moral duty to bear the pain of dental surgery without complaint, but there are analogous beliefs around many traditional forms of oppression; that’s why the oppressions have lasted long enough to become traditional.

But that covers only one class of the situations Ozy discusses. It shows that oppressed minorities don’t always see their own oppression, but it doesn’t show that they ever hallucinate oppression that isn’t there. It covers “This can’t be sexist, I’m a woman” and “Actual people of colour don’t think that’s racist” (provided it was a person of colour who said that), but not “This is transphobic, I know, I’m trans.” If I said the pain was tolerable, I might not have realized how little I needed to tolerate; if I say it’s intolerable, it’s intolerable.

The analogy only becomes stronger when you remember why we use anaesthetic in the first place. The whole point is that it shouldn’t hurt while I’m getting my teeth restored. My experience of pain, purely subjective though I freely admit it is, is what the mepivocaine is for. Likewise, the point of basic human rights is that people shouldn’t have to suffer in certain ways. If they are suffering in those ways, then they are not enjoying basic human rights. And if they’re suffering because of the choices of more powerful people, that’s oppression. The suffering, subjective though any measure of suffering must at least partly be, is what makes oppression oppression.

Ozy does take a stance very close to this further down:

Women should be able to leave abusive partners because abuse causes people pain, and it is bad for people to suffer unnecessary pain. The division between autogynephile and homosexual transsexuals does not reflect reality, and it is bad to have models that do not reflect reality. LGB people should be able to have orgasms because orgasms are nice.

...these statements having been denied by, respectively, a woman, a trans person, and some LGB people, all previously mentioned by Ozy. I agree, at least with the first and third statements; I haven’t seen enough evidence to judge who’s correct on the second one. For what it’s worth, I have only seen that distinction made by researchers who are themselves trans. Most cis people have not got as far as wondering how many different kinds of trans people there are. The question of whether a trans woman is really a woman has a right answer and a wrong answer, but as of this writing it’s still a live debate, even within feminism. By that I mean that there were recently some long and gruelling arguments about it on the feminist Facebook discussion group that I follow, which resulted in one person being banned and the word “intersectional” added to the group’s name.

Here is where Ozy’s argument comes adrift. Is a trans woman a woman? The right answer is yes; the wrong answer is no. But this is a question of definition, not of fact, so what is wrong about the wrong answer? It’s wrong because being assigned a gender that doesn’t match the gender identity in one’s brain causes suffering. (If it were a question of fact, of course, then all the suffering it caused wouldn’t make it untrue, but it isn’t.) The point is, this kind of suffering is caused purely by an identity mismatch. If identity is taken out of the equation, the oppression disappears. I cannot tell whether it is hurtful to say that a particular person is not a woman unless I know something about their identity.

Also, Ozy’s choice of examples sadly overestimates the empathy of our species. There are still people who believe that women, all women, will be happier if they’re stuck obeying their husbands and looking after the children, and if some subset of them have to put up with abuse then that’s still better than the alternative. These people are wrong. Not all women are happier obediently looking after the children. That is a question of fact. But one can only determine the fact by inquiring into women’s experiences. If these people accepted that women’s minds are generally similar to men’s, one might use men as a proxy; but they don’t.

All that being said, there are philosophical problems with the concept of identity, and like most philosophical problems they have repercussions in the real world. Also like most philosophical problems, they’re captured by the word “essentialism”. The human mind likes to put things into separate baskets with clear divisions between them (with labels like “women” and “men”), and then pretend that the baskets were out there in the world all along. The reality is that things in the world, including people, are scattered about in jumbled heaps. That’s why I’ve had to distinguish between questions of fact and questions of definition. Facts are about where things lie in the heaps; definitions are about which baskets we should put them in.

The problem about identity is that it’s basically the basket we put ourselves in. Once again, the baskets are in our heads, not out in the world. And yet we can’t seem to do without them – I’m male, I’m a New Zealander, I’m Pākehā, I’m an atheist, I’m a greenie, I’m a progressive, I’m a science nerd, I’m a folkie, I’m a nudist. The baskets labelled “gender” in particular seem to be tethered to us, so that it hurts to be put in the wrong one. As a result, some of the questions we are most concerned about have no factual answer.

Now as you’ll surely have spotted, this appears to invalidate a lot of what I’ve said above. The dental-surgery analogy doesn’t work so well when you realize that I’m claiming to know about someone else’s pain just because we happen to have been put in the same basket. Not every black person in the United States has been shot at, or even harassed, by the police. So (you might wonder) on what basis do black people who haven’t been harassed by the police claim to know more about police harassment than white people who also haven’t been harassed by the police?

Glad you asked. The answer, and this won’t surprise you coming from me, is about trust. If the police frequently harass and occasionally shoot at black people as such, then black people as such cannot trust the police not to harass or possibly shoot at them. You don’t have to have been the target of harassment yourself to know that you are one of the at-risk group. Even if a particular black person has been one of the lucky ones so far, they’re still at risk on account of being black. The fear and mistrust inspired by that risk is what parallels my experience in the dentist’s chair.

Well, I hear you retort – you don’t give up on an argument, dear imaginary reader, I like your kind – that’s all very well for identities like race or gender that are visible at a glance. Clearly if others perceive you to be different and their perception puts you at risk, you can claim to know something about it. But some of these identities are not visible at a glance. You can’t tell by looking whether someone is gay, or has a mental illness or disability. Well, you can if they choose to act in a way that makes it obvious, but most of the time you can’t. And those whose minority identity is invisible cannot, by definition, be at risk of being targeted for it. What does (say) a bisexual person who has never acted on their same-gender attractions know of homophobia?

Yeah, the phrase “by definition” should always ring a little warning bell. No identity is literally invisible. There are some things you can choose to hide, but always at the expense of your freedom to be yourself. Having a way to sneak under society’s radar is not the same as being able to trust society. Again, that fear, that caution, that experience of always having to look over your shoulder, that’s something that everyone who fits the “invisible” identity will share. It follows that those people are better placed to determine which aspects of society’s treatment hurt and which don’t.

One thing you shouldn’t do to oppressed minorities is called “appropriation”. Here’s an example. The New Zealand government’s latest public distraction tactic is an upcoming referendum on what we should change our national flag to, and (after that) whether we should change our flag. Left blogger Chris Trotter regrets that the Tino Rangatiratanga flag was not an option. As a Tino Rangatiratanga agreer – “supporter” gives me too much credit – I’m glad it wasn’t. If it became the national flag it would inevitably end up attached to mainstream Kiwi values like rugby, alcoholism, greenwashing, and kicking welfare beneficiaries. Then what would Tino Rangatiratanga do for a symbol?

So don’t take over symbols, including words, that minorities have created to express their own experiences. On the same principle, don’t take over conversations where minorities are talking about their experiences. (This happens even in face-to-face conversations, but it’s chronic on the internet.) And don’t go telling people what forms of oppression they have or have not experienced. But this is where the essentialistic nature of identity becomes a problem. Reality is distributed in scattered heaps, not tidy baskets. Identities are baskets. For any identity, there are some people who don’t quite fit either inside or outside it. And if you are sort-of-not-quite a member of some oppressed group, is their oppression yours to talk about, or is it not?

I am a lot better at some things than most people are, like learning languages and doing maths in my head, and a lot worse at other things than most people are, like following conversation, thinking what to say, and perceiving the passage of time. I find most human facial expressions enigmatic. I gather the reason the Mona Lisa is such a famous picture is that no-one can figure out whether she’s calm or smiling; well, to me all faces are like that. Also, I can’t aim to save my life. I have been beaten at pool by a child so small he had to stand on a stool to reach the table. I can’t play first-person shooter video games, let alone any ball sport (except ones like badminton or volleyball where you’re trying to miss).

In 2005, a final-year clinical psychology student at Otago diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome. According both to her and to the most recent Diagnostic & Statistical Manual, that’s an autistic spectrum disorder. I’ve also heard, from a psychologist, that Asperger’s is actually quite distinct from autism, and heavily over-diagnosed. So do I belong in the “autistic” basket or don’t I? Does the basket represent one particular cluster in the distribution of human mental ability, or does it cover a bunch of different conditions that don’t have much to do with each other? Some say that autistic people’s opinions should trump outside expertise. Well, my autistic opinion is that I want an evidence-based answer. You might not need an anchor for your personal identity, but I do. But if it turns out I’m not autistic, then my opinion doesn’t count, does it? But that would make me autistic after all...

Another example. Yes, me again. I feel a basic physical attraction towards many female and some male bodies. (No specifics now; I’ve consciously decided that this isn’t going to be that sort of blog.) Since I only admitted the male part to myself a few years ago, long after beginning what I hope is a permanent exclusive relationship, I can’t see myself ever acting on my male attractions. Even if it weren’t for that, the men I have been personally attracted to and the men who have expressed any kind of attraction to me have hitherto formed two mutually exclusive sets. So what am I? I’ve always identified as straight, but that’s because I was in denial about these feelings. Yet, after nearly two decades of giving lip support at best to queer rights, it feels like appropriation for me to suddenly start saying “I’m bisexual.”

But that immediately opens another whole can of worms. Because I gather there have been big arguments recently in the queer community over whether bisexual people count as queer, and whether they have “straight privilege”. Where do I stand in this? I’ve never been part of the queer community, so I can hardly complain about being excluded from it. Yet merely by saying that I open the way for someone to selectively copypaste me and go “There! That bisexual admitted that bisexuals aren’t really queer. Just waiting for the rest of you now.” Do I have “straight privilege”? Well, I can be with my partner in public with no-one attacking our coupledom; but on the other hand I am, right now, wracked with anxiety about how some of my family will feel about these last two paragraphs. And that question I asked before, about what someone in my position knows of homophobia...?

I was isolated at school. I avoided playing sports because my poor aim was humiliating, so I became unfit, so I avoided sports even more. Also I was dreamy and socially awkward. Also I have never yet learned how to make my dress and hairstyle land within the narrow range defined as “normal” (let alone “cool”). Also I didn’t join in when the other boys objectified girls, not because it was disrespectful but because it was sexual and, since marriage wasn’t the goal, therefore Sinful. In New Zealand in the 1990s, the sports thing alone was enough to have calls of “fag!” and “poofter!”, and often things heavier than calls, follow you around all day, every day. Whether they were also detecting cryptic signs of my actual bisexuality, I can’t say, but I really doubt it.

But I know homophobia from within as well. It’s common, when dissing homophobic conservatives, to theorize that they are themselves secretly gay and covering it up. To which I’ve seen the reply that this is itself homophobic, and I can see that. But I also know that when I feel sexual attraction in conflict with my moral values, the net result is revulsion. Last year, for instance, Googling to see whether the person who stole Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos had been caught yet, I stumbled on a collection of the photos themselves – and I felt my stomach contents rise, and I had to click away in a hurry. Well, my moral values weren’t always so progressive. I used to have that reaction to any reminder that men sometimes have sex with each other. And I suspect that my case is not rare.

Social justice discourse has tumbled to the same solution as every other form of expert discourse faced with the complexity of reality: a profusion of technical terms with ever-finer shades of semantic distinction. This is especially the case with queer identities – the LGBT+ acronym seems to keep on getting longer and longer. It is laudable to want to include everybody, but pouncing on people for not knowing the difference between “genderqueer” and “nonbinary” doesn’t achieve that. No-one is born knowing the terminology. Even if everyone ought to know it, there’ll always be newbies coming up who don’t yet. If that’s grounds for patience and compassion when the new knowledge is merely an amusing fact, then all the more so when it’s something we really want everyone to grasp.

The real problem, though, is that no number of conceptual baskets can actually capture the fuzziness of the heaps in the real world. What’s my sexual identity? I stand with one foot in the “bisexual” basket and one in the “straight” basket. Now suppose I decide that’s uncomfortable, which it is a bit, and that I want a basket I don’t have to straddle. So I coin the word “sesquisexual” (“sesqui” being Latin for “one and a half”), and let’s say it catches on and our culture has a new basket. Now people who previously sat comfortably in either the “straight” or the “bisexual” basket will find themselves standing with one foot in “sesquisexual”. If they in turn create new baskets that reflect their sexualities more accurately, we have still more boundaries for still more people to straddle. And so on.

Yes, words matter, but not for their own sake. What really matters is framing. Words matter because they can influence framing. In my teens, I didn’t frame my own same-gender attractions as “I’m gay” or “I’m bi”; I framed them as “Sometimes Satan tries to corrupt me with sick lusts.” Many slur words, especially ableist slur words, reflect failed past attempts to reframe various conditions. For instance, last century doctors started using the phrase “mentally retarded” to try and reframe those cruelly called “imbeciles” as people whose brains had just developed a bit slower. It didn’t work; “retard” merely became the new word for “imbecile”. Reframing requires argumentation, not just changing the vocabulary.

None of this makes any difference to our earlier conclusion, that each person is the best judge of whether they’re being hurt or not; nor to the general moral principle that you should avoid hurting people as best you can, which includes using the best available information as to what hurts them. Those two premises are sufficient to justify the social justice project, or “identity politics” if you insist. And social justice is quite right to have borrowed from postmodernism its suspicion of basket thinking, or essentialism as we usually call it. Problems arise within social justice when we don’t take the anti-essentialistic principle far enough. Unfortunately basket thinking is the way the human mind works, and we can’t turn it off. The best we can do is be mindful of it.


  1. It seems to me that if you simply accept any individuals own assessment of if they are being hurt or not then we would have to accept the assessment of Stormfront that white genocide is a thing. Unless you have already decided in advance which claims to take seriously by some other category than "each person is the best judge of whether they’re being hurt or not" (Which to be honest is what I think we should do and what as far as I can see everyone does).

    1. Well, that's why I used a clinical analogy. I don't claim to know the cause of my pain better than a dentist -- though in my particular case that's not the best analogy because I have taken three years of dentistry notes now, I might well beat a fourth-year student in a quiz. Racist ideas like "white genocide", I find, are invariably at least one step removed from direct experience. They're not like "My teeth hurt," they're like "I think my [insert ethnic slur here] neighbour has been slipping [insert contamination conspiracy here] into my toothpaste."

  2. Individuals are not perfectly qualified to speak for themselves, but they are better qualified than anybody else to speak for themselves. I have the capacity to make mistakes about my self, but anybody else has a greater capacity to make mistakes about my self.