Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 1 of 4

The people who make up the social justice movement are more heterogeneous on closer inspection than its advocates and detractors will have one believe; the agendas that the movement contains are similarly varied. 

So far I have written about identity politics first here, and somewhat here, and the dishonest value neutrality I complained about here relates to identity politics, as well; I shall write about it more in the future, with briefer and more targeted posts, similar to this one. Together with Simone Weil, I see obligations as prior to rights, and so any movement that clamors for the priority of rights instead of the priority of our mutual obligations to one another is bound to be divisive and, in the end, unhelpful. One should consult Mark Lilla’s expansive and inclusive notion of citizenship in his The Once and Future Liberal for a good sketch of this kind of ethic of mutual obligation.

I study at a university that seems to advocate for many of  these ideas across many of its schools, and, I think, does the students a disservice in doing so; thus, it seems to me that my attention is obligated to understand this phenomenon. There are many laudable goals that social justice warriors have — if you aren’t interested in justice, if you don’t want to create an environment in which people feel cared for, if you aren’t interested in struggling to find ways in which those who are marginalized could belong, and which advocates for an ethic of caring, and which fosters sensitive engagements with people who are from cultures and contexts that are alien to you; if you aren’t interested in these things, you’re probably not part of a different ideology, but just a jerk. That said, the models of justice and the remarkably un-nuanced watchwords of the identitarian left seem to undermine most of the goals that the movement seems to have. The actual forces in play within workplaces and in society seem to be completely ignored by the naive idealism involved in the university-based advocates of identity politics, too, so it is helpful to strike a note of realism to redirect the energies of this movement.

Here, we’ll consider one way the movement seems to shoot itself in the foot, and that’s by championing the priority of impact over intent.

There will be four parts. First, here, a recent event that occurred at my university.

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Excerpt #22 — Steven Smith on Neo-Kantian Liberals & Their Neo-Hegelian Communitarian Critics

In some ways, this is a follow-up to an earlier post comparing Lilla and Fukuyama.

To recap: only now, in my third graduate degree at a major research institution, have I come across what is often known as the “social justice left”, and have found it maddening to interact with, very different from the liberal left (social justice movements are illiberal) with which I largely identify (with some communitarian sympathies). It turns out that the graduates of institutions that push this agenda are militant and intolerant, and carry this agenda with them into their workplaces.

It is, thus, imperative to make sense out of what it is, rather than fear it, or react to it. How to make sense out of it, its roots, its character, its principles? I began with Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, which I’ll probably review here sometime relatively soon. I then moved on to Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, which I enjoyed more. I am only pages away from finishing Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Appiah also wrote The Ethics of Identity, which I own, but have not yet read), and when I am done with that, I will immediately begin Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation for Failure, largely on the merits of Haidt’s many lectures I came across on YouTube where he sanely covers the issues involved in this movement. 

One of the tasks I set for myself, in order to come to terms with some of the issues brought up by one course in particular that I took, was to cover a particular transition of Marxist language into social justice contexts. The social justice folks seemed to use it differently than what I remembered reading in Marx.

Thus, I set out first to understand the transition from the classical liberal tradition to Hegel’s response. Secondly, I tasked myself to see how Marx emerged from the post-Hegelian tradition. Thirdly, I purposed to ascertain how and whether the Marxist-sounding language used by many of the authors syllabused (it’s a good neologism, and you heard it here first, folks) in the class I took –Marxist-sounding language used to support the social justice tradition– was aligned with Marx himself and the Marxist tradition; it seemed like it was not. 

I am starting with Steven B. Smith’s Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism: Rights in ContextIn the opening chapter, he makes some seemingly-insightful comments on how the tension between neo-Kantian individualists (on the one hand) and communitarians (on the other) is a “reinvention of the wheel”, and that Hegel’s critique of the liberal tradition can avoid the weaknesses of these two positions while absorbing their insights and praising the accomplishments of liberalism. When he speaks of neo-Kantians, he has in mind figures like John Rawls

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Fukuyama and Lilla on the Older Left vs. the Fractiousness of the Politics of Identity

Identity politics has been a hot-button issue lately, galvanizing people across the political spectrum, and the high-visibility responses it has generated have mostly been from the alt-right; I have seen very few good short articles that have been produced from moderates or those on the left.

Here, I cite from two authors regarding the fractiousness of current identity politics, one of whom is on the political left (Lilla) the other of whom seems to share that broad identity, even though he was once associated with Neoconservatism for a short time (Fukuyama).

The citations seemed to overlap; here they are.

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