Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Identity politics and contradictions in Leftist thought

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Identity politics is in many ways contrary to the ostensible ideals of the Left, yet it is currently a corner-stone of the politics of the U.S. Left.

Consider the similarities between nationalism (“bad”) and identity politics (“good”): The former, in somewhat stronger* forms, puts loyalty to a group based on birth at the center, trumping concerns like “who is better suited”, “which country has the better legal claim to this island”, etc. This is occasionally combined with a thinking that “being one of us” automatically makes someone better suited. The latter puts loyalty to a group based on birth at the center, trumping concerns like “who is better suited”, “who deserves the job”, etc. This is very often combined with a thinking that “being one of us” automatically makes someone better suited.

*“Nationalism” is a very wide term and can mean a lot of things to different people. It is by no means a given that a nationalist is keen on e.g. expanding the national borders or keeping foreigners out. Weaker (or more constructive…) forms can focus on, say, just wishing the own country to excel at this-and-that.

Hillary for President! Why? Well, it is high time that we have a woman as President… This is not one iota better than supporting someone because it is high time that “we New Mexicans” have a President from New Mexico.* The choice should be made based on factors like (perceived) competence, political orientation, personal integrity, …—not sex or (quasi-)nationality. This becomes the more absurd, even outright offensive, when those who do not fall in line are considered illoyal or even traitors: Why should a woman who does not support Hillary Clinton’s politics and/or does have an accurate assessment of her flaws even consider voting for her? If anything, those who vote against their own convictions based on superficial criteria are the true traitors—to themselves, if nothing else.

*Even voting based on state in a federation is a type of nationalism (albeit it a less interesting one) and the principle is illustrated well enough. Interestingly, Wikipedia on Presidents by place of birth shows a massive deficit of Presidents west of an imaginary geographic center-line: Guesstimating where the line would be on the map provided, only Nixon and Obama qualify. A more generous guesstimate might include a few others, but the disparity is glaring enough that the application of Leftist logic would mandate intervention… Similarly, why is it not high time to have an Atheist or Jewish President? (Cf. Wikipedia on religious affiliation of U.S. Presidents.) Etc.

Racism and identity politics is another absurdity: Racism is considered the greatest sin there is by large portions of the Left, yet identity politics often amount to exactly that. This in at least two ways, namely (a) the often intense focus on the own group combined with a feeling that this group is superior, (b) favoring the own group with arguments that imply that members of the group can bring something to the table that others cannot. The latter notably in the form of “diversity” arguments, where the presence of just one single woman or minority member will somehow magically* bring more value than a handful of White men. If we apply misdefinitions of racism popular with the PC crowd, e.g. that racial discrimination is automatically racism, then the list grows, starting with various forms of “affirmative action” and “racial preferences”. Of course, very similar arguments can be made around e.g. sexism and identity politics.

*Normally, no attempt whatsoever is undertaken to explain why diversity would be good in a given case or why this specific person would bring such additional value. Instead there is a quasi-magical assumption that more diversity brings advantages. To boot, this is usually limited to e.g. racial or sexual diversity, with e.g. diversity of opinion, educational background, whatnot, among White men counting for nothing. (But see an excursion.) If the attempt is at all undertaken, it is limited to claims about perspective, life experience, background, that can be shared by others, that are not automatically present among the “diverse”, and which are usually less important than other factors (see the aforementioned excursion).

Or how about diversity, integration, and tolerance vs. monopolization and segregation of culture? If diversity (etc.) is good, why is it wrong when someone tries to expand his understanding of others? Writes a book featuring someone not of his own heritage? What about the whole “cultural appropriation” nonsense?* This effectively disqualifies people based on (e.g.) race, keeps groups apart, and furthers “us vs. them” thinking. Instead of the proverbial U.S. melting pot, this creates a “metallo-racist” set of groupings: Iron—left corner. Copper—right corner. Get away from the copper, tin! We want no bronze here! From another point of view, identity politics holds the minorities back in their own development for very similar reasons. For instance, much of what is condemned** as “acting White” appears to be nothing more than being professional, being ambitious, trying to get a good education and job, having an interest in learning, and similar—and those who “act White” simply have more mature interests than those who do not. Replace “acting White” with something more behavior than race oriented, e.g. “acting professional”, and the whole issue looks different. (This is doubly beneficial, because far from all White people are “acting White” in these senses to begin with…***)

*I have a separate post in planning where I will address this and some similar issues in more detail.

**If not necessarily by e.g the Democrat party. It remains a portion of the identity politics, group thinking, whatnot problem, however.

***Indeed, a very similar type of anti-intellectualism or contempt for those more ambitious was readily observable during my own school years (in Sweden, where almost everyone was White to begin with), but with very different terminology. The use of e.g. “nerd” in U.S. fiction points to a very similar problem. Looking at scholastic achievement, the size of the one group relative the other might be considerably different from the Black community, however.

Or what about prejudice? There is likely no greater source of this than “us vs. them” thinking, and identity politics is exactly that…

Of course, identity politics also soon leads to the fellow-traveler fallacy, paving the road for future internal discord, conflict, and hostility: The indoctrinated portions of the female, Black, Latino, queer, whatnot, populations, might appear to be allies, fighting their (usually naive) version of the “good fight”. In reality, this is an unholy alliance, if identity politics is actually followed through: If being e.g. Black is an important part of one’s identity and there is a wish to further the Black cause, then sooner or later (likely sooner…) this comes into conflict with the Latino cause. Etc. Indeed, it is already well documented that “racial preferences” during U.S. college admissions have cost Asians students places that they rightfully should have had, based on objective criteria—not just White students. Then there is the question of what identity matters the most: Is it more important to be a woman, Black, or a lesbian, and what causes should be prioritized? Or do Black female lesbians form their entirely own group? The consequences of “identity thinking” are absurd.

Excursion on counter-arguments to “Hillary for President”:
A partially valid counter-argument is that “we need someone to look out for our interests”; and with strongly disadvantaged groups, promises to do just that can be an objective argument in favor of a candidate. However, when it comes to such important offices and someone who actually is one of “us”, this argument does not hold—the mere fact that a woman were elected U.S. President would be an extremely strong indication that women are not in such a dire situation. Even such a close loss is enough to invalidate the counter-argument. Ditto Obama and Blacks. In contrast, if some group has great problems with political representation, the support of a high-ranking politician who is not a group member can be quite valuable; a first few low-ranking politicians who are group members can be similarly valuable. Even in such cases, however, the voters should make a holistic choice, where “our interests” is just one of the factors considered—putting Hillary in further trouble (and ruling the likes of Mona Sahlin out entirely).

Excursion on discrimination:
The question of discrimination in the true sense repeatedly occurs above. For instance, “acting White” is not a matter of being or behaving “White”: Many Whites do not, very many Asians do, and quite a few Latinos and Blacks do too. These behaviors might be following a certain group pattern, when we look at aggregates, but they are not immediately tied to groups. Focus on what matters, like professionalism, ambition, …—not “Whiteness”. Similarly, “Hillary for President!” above uses poor discrimination—the criterion that she is a woman. Good discrimination would look for someone competent, honest, with sound politics, which all things that do not apply to Hillary. (Nor necessarily Trump and Sanders.) Indeed, even self-classifications that put being Black or being a woman before being a human (or even something more specific but self-chosen, e.g. being a member of a certain profession) could be seen as poor discrimination. (They are certainly bad ideas with an eye on e.g. self-development.)

Excursion on diversity, interdisciplinary teams, “Quereinsteiger”, etc.:
I have repeatedly worked with teams and/or businesses that were convinced that interdisciplinary teams with many Quereinsteiger* were better than more specialized teams. Mostly, they have been wrong… There are instances where having different backgrounds and experiences can be valuable to a team, but software development does not appear to be one of them. On the contrary, what is needed is a good head, the ability to think in the right way, conscientious work, etc.—either the Quereinsteiger has these characteristics or he does not. Tendentially, those coming from another STEM field has had them to a similar degree as those with a purer IT background; with very few exceptions, those from non-STEM fields have not. (Yet, the latter would be more valuable if the reasoning behind interdisciplinary teams were followed…) Notably, the specialist skills that Quereinsteiger might have been able to leverage from their original fields only very rarely were of direct relevance to the work at hand. Similarly, I have a very broad knowledge of topics even outside STEM—and they, too, are only very rarely of relevance.** In a reasonable analogy, if a mason changes careers to be a carpenter, his masonry skills will only rarely be of use—but more abstract personal characteristics like his professionalism will be very important.

*A German word with no obvious English correspondent. Roughly speaking, someone who enters the one field of work from another field or with an unrelated educational background. I am one myself, having had a focus on math and physics in college, with only some exposure to topics like programming and computer science, but I went into software development straight after graduation. (I did earn a Master in Computer Science at a later date, however.)

**Excepting those that have arisen through my work as a software developer/engineer/consultant/whatnot, including domain-specific knowledge relating to this-or-that project or some recurring topics like handling of issues around time (e.g. date formatting, calendars, time zones, complications around daylight-savings time).

Looking at diversity at work, this is far less of an issue in Germany than in the U.S. (for demographic reasons); however, I have not seen any sign that the presence of e.g. women or Turks would be beneficial to a team. They have brought nothing to the table that a White man cannot and have usually performed in the lower half. By hearsay, I am aware that my last pre-sabbatical customer had once had a major drive to hire women and foreigners, possibly ten years earlier. As I was told, of those hired back then, most were gone and the proportion of women had continually dropped—indeed, this was in conjunction with the last remaining woman of the IT department leaving… My own experiences with this customer covered five (?) years, on and off. Of the women of the IT department, I encountered three, two* of which were below average and one which was let go before I had had the opportunity to gain an estimate**. The foreigners fell into two categories: Eastern European, who where mostly above average. Others, e.g. Persians, who were mostly below average—including one of the worst software developers I have ever encountered…

*Which I believe were hired within this drive, but I could be wrong. At least some of the foreigners in the rest of the discussion, but not all, were remnants of this drive.

**The claim was lack of competence or performance, but the water-cooler talk, in all fairness, pointed to personal issues between her and her team lead.

In conclusion, I very strongly encourage the use of criteria that have an objective and/or intuitively plausible relevance over those that do not. In most cases, diversity, interdisciplinarity, etc., do not belong among the reasonable criteria.

Excursion on identity politics and “privilege”:
A somewhat related absurdity is the combination of strong identity whatnot with accusations of “privilege”. (Cf. a debunking.) If we assume that White people are privileged over Black people, why do so many people who are as much or more White than they are Black (in a truer sense) cling to a Black identity? Would it not make greater sense to try to be as “White” as possible, especially for those who are optically more whitish/pinkish than blackish/brownish in actual skin color. For instance, I was honestly surprised when I, in my late teens, first heard Mariah Carey referred to as “Black” (or possibly “African-American”), having just taken for granted that she was White, based on what little I had seen on TV at the time. Even those who look dark are often very far from a state where terms like “Black” or “African-American” make sense—Obama’s actual color is brown, not black*, and he is about as much “European-American” as he is “African-American”… In some ways, the Black community has appropriated the “one-drop rule” to build an identity cage around it self. (Of course, this nonsense will eventually have to cease, because in the fulfillment of time, almost everyone would be “Black”…)

*I have at some point heard the claim that “black” for brown people would be no worse than “white” for pinkish people. These falls on the problem that there are some African groups who actually are black—not brown. To boot, “brown”, unlike “black”, is a very reasonable average description for Black people, while e.g. “pink” or “pinkish” is not so for White people. In cases like Carey, the word “black” is absurd. (A slightly stronger case reasoning around “red”/“Red” and “yellow”/“Yellow” might once have been possible, but these and their variations have not been used on a larger scale for a long time.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 24, 2018 at 11:09 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is […]

  2. […] A while back, I published a text on “opinion corridors”. Since then, I have realized that this concept is just a special case of a wider phenomenon of corridors of compliance and similarity. Generally, there seems to be a strong human tendency to be hostile towards those or that which is different. While such a tendency could have made great sense in an older time*, it is rarely helpful and very often harmful today. Consider e.g. the relation between the words “strange” and “stranger” (noun; not comparative), the way children with the “wrong” clothes are often mistreated by other children, the “Tall-Poppy Syndrome” and its variations, and, obviously, various xenophobic attitudes. From another point of view, there is often a strive to create similarities in outfits, mannerisms, whatnot within groups that set themselves apart, e.g. in that members of a clique, a gang, a professional group, or some more formal associations match their clothing or adopt a uniform—culminating in the very formal uniforms used by military and police forces. (Also note the overlap with a recent text on identity politics.) […]


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