Identity Politics and The Illusion of Progress

Identity2

Anyone who has paid any attention to the cultural climate of the last few years has seen a shift in our discourse. Inclusiveness, political correctness, equity, social justice, regressive leftism, call it what you want.  A culture that is fixated on identity, diversity, and the equitable treatment of different groups of people.  In many ways, this change is extremely laudable.  Marginalized individuals, who for centuries, have been stereotyped, discriminated and experienced prejudice are finally being given a voice.  Because they are voices that society has often ignored or downplayed, I would argue that their voices are ones that we need to pay more attention to.

But there is a difference between paying more attention to a voice and automatically agreeing with it. Marginalized groups often have something new and important to say, but that doesn’t mean everything they say is right. Similarly, the voices of those who have not been historically marginalized, still have a right to their voice and may have important things to say.  Two things can be true at the same time: We can acknowledge that individuals of power and privilege may not fully understand or appreciate the difficulties that others face, while at the same time acknowledge that those same people of power and privilege may also have something worthwhile to say. To paraphrase MLK Jr., it’s important to judge the content of one’s ideas and not the identity of the person saying it.

According to a new poll, Canadians think that a gay Prime Minister is likely in the next 10 years [1] .  Not only is it not beneficial, but it is counterproductive to use the identity of the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for him/her. That’s not to say that having a gay Prime Minister would not be a testament to the progressiveness of our culture, but there is a fundamental and important difference between a society that elects a gay Prime Minister and a society that elects a Prime Minister because they are gay.  Electing a gay Prime Minister because they are gay would not be symbolic of a progressive culture, but rather, symbolic of a culture that wants to appear progressive.

There is a fundamental and important difference between a society that elects a gay Prime Minister and a society that elects a Prime Minister because they are gay. Electing a gay Prime Minister because they are gay would not be symbolic of a progressive culture, but rather, symbolic of a culture that wants to appear progressive.

People should not treat identity like Pokemon.  When electing or hiring individuals for positions, it’s not required that you ‘catch them all.’  Of course, if we see cases of either explicit, implicit, or systematic racism, steps should be taken to try and mitigate these effects, but that doesn’t mean that diversity must be guaranteed.  Once again, two things can be true at the same time: Diversity can be important for generating new, different, and important insights but that doesn’t mean that more diversity is always better.

Canada likes to pat itself on the back for having had a female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell.  Even President Obama has lauded Canada for having a female Prime Minister.  However, Kim Campbell only had the position for four months and wasn’t elected, she received the job after the previous Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, stepped down.

Having had a female Prime Minister has only provided the illusion of progressiveness, but at least we, as Canadians, are now able to check off that box and be proud that we’re so inclusive.  This is why basing decisions on identity can be counterproductive. It provides a license for us to think we’ve achieved equality, when in reality, we’ve only achieved the appearance of it. That’s not to say, we should now go out of our way to elect a female (or gay or black) Prime Minister, but rather we need to continue working on building a system that encourages that the best person for the job rises to the top, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.

When Barack Obama became President of the United States, some people suggested that there was clearly no more racism in America. If Hilary Clinton wins, it should be despite her being a woman, not because of it.

The great irony of promoting equality is that in order to ensure that people aren’t being treated differently because of their identity, you have to focus and treat people differently based on their identity.  But there is middle ground, between completely ignoring or accepting systemic discrimination and systematically regulating and promoting diversity. In many ways the pendulum has swung too far. On both ends, the group you belong to has becomes more important than who you are.

The great irony of promoting equality is that in order to ensure that people aren’t being treated differently because of their identity, you have to focus and treat people differently based on their identity.

To many, it feels that if you aren’t openly advocating for one extreme position, then you are promoting the other.  For example, Madeline Albright has implied that if you do not want to vote for Hilary Clinton because she’s a woman, then ‘there is a special place in hell for you.’[2]  Surely, people might not want to vote for Hilary Clinton because of her policies or character. I do wonder, did Madeline Albright vote for Sarah Palin?

A culture that promotes discourse like this, may get some people to pay lip-service to diversity and it likely encourages some people to act differently in public.  But it also can result in backlash and the backlash seems to be growing. If individuals are forced into these groups of us vs. them, it unnecessarily promotes division.  Returning to the Canadian Prime Minister poll, people seemingly feel the need to express that it’s likely to see a gay prime minister in the next 10 years, for fear of feeling or appearing homophobic, even if mathematically, it is unlikely.  To be fair, one may interpret the poll more positively, noting that it demonstrates that Canadians are not only willing, but anticipating a gay person to run for office, which I would argue is good social change.  But what concerns me is what happens when these same people are faced with the situation of voting for a gay person that they don’t like? How might they react if they are told that not voting for this person makes them homophobic? People don’t take kindly to having their character threatened and are subsequently likely to polarize in the opposite direction. I do wonder how many people are now motivated to vote for Trump, because they were told that they ‘had’ to vote for Hilary.

To deny the continued existence of racism, sexism, and homophobia – both overt and systemic would be ludicrous.  However, the solution to inhibit the thoughts and actions of anything that might be perceived as bigoted is also not ideal, and is often counterproductive.  There is a fine line when establishing norms of equality – too little and the systemic and explicit racism will continue, too much and individuals will further polarize into their respective groups.  We should be moving to a society where everyone is willing to vote, hire, listen, or interact with a person, regardless of their identity not because of their identity.  The goal should never be to act a certain way because of one’s identity, but rather to always act in a certain way, despite it.

 

Author Note 2: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at playdevilsadvocate@gmail.com

—-

[1] I am likely reading way too much into this poll.  It is more than likely simply symbolizes one’s allowance of a gay Prime Minister, not whether people actually think it is likely. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter whether the prime minister is gay and the poll may simply reflect that. But if taken at face value, the odds of a gay prime minister in the next ten years are extremely unlikely (gay people make up a small percentage of the population and Currently, only 6 of the 338 MPs are openly gay (1.7%)).  And if people truly believe that it is likely, they believe that people will vote for one, regardless of their qualifications.

[2] She has apologized for the remark – although not for the content, just the context.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s