The problem with identity politics
Say that an election is coming soon near you, but you don’t have any clue which party to vote for, let alone which individual to support. Under these circumstances, would you vote for a candidate solely because of the party they run under even if you disagreed with their positions, or would you vote for the other person, even if they might be labelled the opposition in your community? With groups on both the left and the right popping up and looking to demonize the other, it’s important to look at the effect joining a movement can have on one’s ability to think clearly.
If we look back from the previous century, a rise in identity politics identified social injustice and inequality such as the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. These social movements addressed affected individuals facing poverty, violence and marginalization because of their ethnicity, gender and many more social factors. Supporters of identity politics believe that someone’s identity is essential to their needs and must be politicized.
There are advantages created from identity politics, just like how a female politician would advocate for policies beneficial to women. On top of that, support for political causes usually requires massive participation from special interest groups in exchange for empowerment. An example would be the Pride Parade serving as the frontier for gay rights; individuals who identified themselves as being part of the LGBTQ community are part of a microcosm of social divisions.
According to Capilano University sociology professor Rita Isola, “Identity politics is a highly contested topic especially in cultural studies. Today all claims to identity are interrogated and the links between identity, politics and knowledge are questioned and critiqued.” It’s not enough to ask yourself who you are and which group you belong to in our society. Even if you can be easily grouped together with others who share your ethnicity, gender, class and/or faith, there’s no guarantee that they share the exact same quirks and interests you do.
“Identity politics both unites and divides communities,” said Isola. “An interesting case study can be found through the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Ironically, none of the Baptist organizations have any affiliations with the WBC due to its contradictory tenets from orthodox religion. There are those who claim that identity politics makes claims about identity that assumes identities are ‘real’. Others argue that all claims to identity obfuscate the internal heterogeneity of groups and that the processes creating identity lie entirely outside of the individual.” The simplest way to explain Isola’s elaborate interpretation is to observe the inner struggles of our sociopolitical landscape.
There has been a major concern with over-generalization, radically separatist and deterministic approaches to the politics of our identities. Also, as far as the whole identity politics thing goes, the problem arises when people aren’t thinking for themselves. Different ideologies and camps aren’t necessarily intrinsically bad, however they tend to foster tribalism and conformity. People in tribes will begin to thrive off the approval of their tribe and will start to conform to what the tribe expects. They may have formed their own opinion on a certain issue which lead them to their group, but as other issues arise they will be more likely to go with the herd.
This happens because most people still enjoy a sense of community and belonging because humans are social animals, and having to critically think about every individual issue is too much trouble for most people. Most people would rather do some general soul searching, find their group that matches that most closely and then just conform to that group. In the words of former US president George W. Bush, “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” A simplistic dichotomy like this statement is what prevents us from finding more common ground in a splintered society.
When it comes to strategically earning support from voters, the tactics to garner support from visible minorities appear to be ruthless and conniving for any politically aware individual. Yet, that will not stop political parties from being pragmatic in gaining effective and desired outcomes from their demographics. So long as the means justify the end results, nothing else can prevent the politicians and the party platforms from compromising the trust and integrity of a democratic society.
It is interesting to also note that the Chinese, Indian and Aboriginal communities all received apologies from the Canadian government; yet one ethnic group receives priority over another during election campaigns. Even though targeting ethnic voters can reap potential rewards for a political party, it does not necessarily guarantee a democracy will be in any way satisfactory. Promises will be broken and ethnic voters will serve only as a means to an end for major platforms to stay in power. Undermining the trust of the people also degrades the value of our democracy into a mere numbers game. So does that mean that by electing a representative candidate of your own race, you are doing the right thing for the wrong reason?
Or does that mean that by excluding the minority voices to keep the democratic system functioning, you are doing the wrong thing for the right reason? Moral ambiguities run deep in targeting ethnic voters, as politicians will need to make the tough decisions of whether to run an honest campaign with few but loyal supporters or run for office with multiple ethnic groups with a fragile alliance towards the cause.
Facts by themselves are irrevocably true, but the way people use them to justify their arguments can pose fallacious setbacks. Take the Black Lives Matter movement as an example; the statistics they cite are usually correct, such as the number of blacks killed by the police each year and the police brutality against blacks in America. The problem is that they either ignore other facts that would put the others into context (the number of violent crimes committed by black people) or add their own biased, anecdotal “evidence” to support their argument, such as being stopped three times by police in the same month for no reason, and drawing the conclusion that all police are racists.
Sam Harris commentated from his podcast, Waking Up, “If you are reasoning honestly about facts… Your identity is irrelevant.” Harris went on to remind his podcast audience that the nature of any argument is that its validity doesn’t depend on who you are. Beliefs often exist completely independent of any factual basis at all. People may form beliefs on information they believe factual, but they may also form beliefs on the basis of other preexisting beliefs, or personal inclination, or gut feeling. Prejudice and discriminatory attitudes can cause pre-emptive judgments, and outrageous insults like “typical white trash” or “she’s such a man-hater”.
The problem is that it is too easy for the interest group either to become or merely to be taken as a monolithic entity defined by the policies of its representative organizations, rather than a large number of possible rather diverse individuals.
“But identity politics can be destructive when it encourages people to fixate on, or exaggerate, their sense of persecution,” wrote Douglas Todd, reporter for the Vancouver Sun, in a 2013 blog post. Todd shared his concerns over how identity politics does not well address issues of economic inequality – and could often be a distraction from it. Indeed, a deliberate distraction can undermine the common good when pitting our complaints against each other and prioritize one group over others. In December 2016, Todd also made an observation of the USA election: “Some identity liberals continue to make the mistake of writing off Trump’s backers as racists, haters and white supremacists. Even though some extremists support Trump, stereotyping such a broad swath of voters illustrates liberals have not been listening to Main Street.”
Identity politics has the potential to encourage an “us vs. them” mentality among groups. The worst mutation of this is tribalism, currently exemplified in present-day America where 50 per cent of the country thinks the other half is evil. This is problematic because an open discourse between opposing groups is necessary for a society to advance. If a group truly believes their way is correct, they should be willing to argue their position against the best version of the opposing view. Instead, the opposition gets labelled as racists, sexists or nationalists and all healthy discourse is abandoned.
The problem is that it is too easy for the interest group either to become or merely to be taken as a monolithic entity defined by the policies of its representative organizations, rather than a large number of possible rather diverse individuals. Worse, as an interest group achieves some level of success, it risks becoming a mouthpiece of a political party at the cost of the members’ unique perspectives. The next time that a spokesperson claims to be representing you and people, ask yourselves this question: “Do they truly care about my issues or are they using me to gain power?”
This can easily generate political and ethical tensions, pitting the interest groups of identity politics against the basic tenets of liberal enlightenment. An example is the tension between the feminist drive towards higher convictions rates for sex offences and the right to a fair trial, and to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. In theory, identity politics serves its agenda well in the opposition, but loses its appeal once exposed.
In 2013, Premier Christy Clark has to admit and apologize for using a “quick-win” strategy to guarantee the security of her political position. If Clark’s party platform benefits only a specific demographic such as white civilians with higher income earnings and corporate power, she and the BC Liberals run the risk of alienating other voters who can keep the BC Liberals afloat. Earning votes from the highly populated group like the East Asians from Richmond or the Southeast Asians from Surrey is merely a part of her party’s contingency plan. Part of the strategy in winning the trust of the Chinese and Indian communities is by acknowledging historical wrongs such as the Chinese Head Tax (1885-1923) and the Komagata Maru Incident (May 1914). Clark and her lobby members soon face a political scandal that can potentially end their political careers; confidential documents revealed multiple controversial decisions involving ethnic voters.
It is unlikely that a party member will win his/her riding without appealing to the sought-after demographic. So how about electing a candidate who matches the specific criteria in terms of race and ethnicity? There is no surprise that Chinese voters are more likely to support a Chinese politician. That is not to say that Chinese voters have a discriminatory approach to politics; rather, the Chinese community would prefer to have a representative who can fully understand the culture and struggles that a Chinese-Canadian experiences.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s victorious federal election campaign is a parallel to Christy Clark’s provincial campaign when it comes to their identity liberalism. But how does the Canadian government take responsibility for their actions in manipulating voters into a false sense of collaboration and reconciliation? When Clark and the BC Government proposed to host a citywide yoga event on the Burrard Bridge, it was on the same day as National Aboriginal Day.
Not only did Clark ignore the protests of the Vancouver citizens, she sent out an egregious Twitter post online; her dismissal of the protesters as “yoga haters” added insult to injury towards the Aboriginal community. It wasn’t until corporate yoga sponsors faced public outrage and withdrew financial support that Clark had to cancel the yoga event. By prioritizing Indian culture over Aboriginal culture, Clark and her lobby demolished any further authenticity of reconciliation towards the ethnic minorities.
Campus Life Editor
Community Relations Manager
Arts and Culture Editor