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Rejecting the Left’s Conversation-Ending Identitarianism

Late last year, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris hosted Columbia Professor Mark Lilla on his podcast, “Waking Up.” The topic under discussion was the state of American liberalism. Although Harris and Lilla identify as liberals, both have criticized the strain of leftist identity politics that has taken over political discourse at universities. But despite agreeing on the undesirable character of identitarian campus activists and the professors who enable them, Harris and Lilla differed on a more fundamental question: where should we draw the limits of tribal identity?

Conservatives should have no trouble conceding Lilla’s point, such as it was. As Roger Scruton often notes, it is perfectly okay for humans to develop attachments to their surroundings—to their families, to the countries in which they are raised, to the faith in which their souls are nourished, to the cultures in whose literary and philosophical traditions they are educated. In the absence of such non-rational attachments, humans would be reduced to a sort of “homo economicus,” interested only in survival and the pursuit of narrowly defined economic goals. Lilla is right: our collective identities matter and influence our thinking in ways both conscious and unconscious. There is nothing wrong with that.

But we must go no further. The trouble comes with the notion, implicit in Lilla’s logic, that because our identities influence us, it is impossible or imprudent for us to comment on matters outside of those identities. This identitarian notion is what animates the feminist cry against “men attempting to legislate what women are allowed to do with their bodies,” as well as those writers who have argued that whites and blacks cannot be friends [1] or that power dynamics make it impossible for blacks to discuss racial issues with whites [2]. It’s what’s animated a recent trend in literature that has seen critics condemn the work of writers who portray cultural experiences different from their own.

Recognizing the importance of our identities is very different from saying that our identities provide us with certain empirical or ethical truths that are inaccessible to them—that is, to people who do not share those identities. A black person might know the sting and pain of racism as only a black person can, but that does not provide him with infallible insight into, for instance, the complex causes of black poverty. A woman might know the joys and difficulties of motherhood as only one who has been pregnant can, but that does not confer upon her an unerring authority on the entirety of women’s reproductive issues.

It might be useful here to examine a specific argument made by Black Lives Matter. The website “The Movement for Black Lives” (an umbrella for BLM-affiliated groups) declares: “While [our] platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.” One does not have to be black to recognize that this platform merely rehashes Marxist political economy with some commentary on race. Regardless of whether BLM’s claims are correct, anyone can investigate the global impacts of capitalism, the history of American foreign policy, and the economics of gender.

The identitarian notion that a black person necessarily has more authority than a white person on any given race issue, or that a woman necessarily has more authority than a man to comment on gender issues, assumes that people are only capable of thinking with their epidermis, or with their genitalia. Although the way we view the world is surely impacted by such factors, it is possible (if perhaps difficult) for people to use their critical faculties to transcend the limitations of their humanity. None of this is to deny that it is important to include, for example, black voices in our discourse on race, or female voices in our discourse on gender, so long as we do not presuppose that they have exclusive authority on those subjects. Personal experience matters, but in the end the true test of expertise has much less to do with demographic characteristics and much more to do with wide reading, critical thinking, and, above all, intellectual honesty.

Christian Gonzalez is originally from Venezuela, but was raised in Miami, Florida. He now studies political science at Columbia University. He can be reached at cag2240 at columbia dot edu.

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "Rejecting the Left’s Conversation-Ending Identitarianism"

#1 Comment By connecticut farmer On February 7, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

Well written, reasonable commentary. Thanks for this, sir.

#2 Comment By J On February 7, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

Excellent clear piece.

#3 Comment By Youknowho On February 7, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

Yeah, I agree, men should be able to comment on gender issues – explaining how men fell about it.

When men presume to tell us what women think or feel then they should be reminded to talk about what they know.

I had enough of my share of men telling me that because I was a woman I was supposed to “think this”, “believe this” and that “I would not be really happy until I followed their script”. So I have limited sympathy for men who are told to shut up. I wish I could have said that years ago.

#4 Comment By andy On February 7, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

The only reason that this is enough of an issue to be worth writing about is that the opinions of certain people have been dismissed BECAUSE OF their skin color, how they use their genitalia, etc.
It really won’t cause white males any permanent harm to take a deep breath and listen for a bit.
Of course all voices need to be heard, but more important, all speakers need to listen- you have two ears and one mouth, as the saying goes.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 7, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

Youknowwho is up to you know what again. One could as easily, using the same irrationales, to tell women to shut up about whatever some man considers his own proprietary interests.

#6 Comment By Alex Ingrum On February 7, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

Or more simply, we can all follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

If we treat all people with respect, fairness, kindness, and compassion, then their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and class status should not matter. We can listen to each others stories and perspectives with an open mind and an open heart.

Maybe that’s too naive and utopian a sentiment, but it’s easy to put into practice if we try.

#7 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 7, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

“Personal experience matters, but in the end the true test of expertise has much less to do with demographic characteristics and much more to do with wide reading, critical thinking, and, above all, intellectual honesty.”

Well considering that the overwhelming majority of white people only interact with other white people on a personal level and certainly don’t spend time reading widely about the experiences of non-white people, I fail to see why most of their arguments about cause should be taken as informed opinions. They are welcome to their opinions but as a general rule, they don’t actually know what they are talking about when they describe “the black community” or “black culture”. You need only read the comments frequently posted on this site to find that out. If you’re a white sociologist who studies these issues, that is an informed opinion that should be taken seriously but that’t not a common viewpoint expressed.

As an aside, it’s interesting that the author is a student at Columbia, an Ivy League school which many a commenter and post here have referred to as “Shinola holes”.

#8 Comment By Alex Ingrum On February 7, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

Or more simply, we can all follow the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Maybe we can try to treat each person we meet with respect, fairness, kindness, and compassion – no mater their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or class status. We can listen to each other’s stories and perspectives with open minds and open hearts.

#9 Comment By Rebecca Zicarelli On February 7, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

The problem isn’t that men can no longer opine on gender issues, it’s that other opinions also count where, not to long ago, only men’s opinions counted.

It’s not that they can’t have opinions, it’s that they need to develop the respectful habit of listening to and considering opinions on gender from those who are not men.

As a woman, listening to men whine and nag that they’re being left out, I can only say, “No, you’re just not the only game in town, now.”

#10 Comment By Robert Paulson On February 7, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

Refreshingly clear and concise. Thank you.

#11 Comment By Lert456 On February 7, 2018 @ 4:13 pm

YouKnowWho;

I hope you know that goes the other way too.

#12 Comment By Jon On February 7, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

When one speaks of inclusivity, I think of exclusivity. And diversity likewise is a buzz word limited to particular groupings of humanity. Hence the code word inclusivity implies its opposite and diversity may not be construed as so diverse.

Such are the times when human folly transmogrifies speech to the point of Orwellian opposites. It would seem that two plus two indubitably makes five. And now I await the torrent of expletives and the name-calling as those who disagree hide behind ad hominems imprisoned as they are in ideology coiled on a very tight spring.

Oh and BTW, the blog above is well formulated and to the point. Kudos to its author!

#13 Comment By Countme-a-Demon On February 7, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

“assumes that people are only capable of thinking with their epidermis, or with their genitalia.”

Does it now? I’ll give you that you seemed to have employed more than your skin and your pudenda coming up with that, because it is moderately clever.

When I look around, as a heterosexual man, I see a country that, far from stifling male epidermal and genitalic expression, elects the mansplainers to high office while simultaneously elevating them to victimhood.

I’m a man, but I believe women should tell Rush Limbaugh to shut his mouth too.

“Shut up” is free speech.

No doubt the moderators here might well tell me just that.

#14 Comment By mike On February 7, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

“Men should have the same right to opine…”
What about the rights of civilised women?
They endure even more cruel bullying and vicious persecution than men who speak out against the feminist-marxist power.

#15 Comment By Whine Merchant On February 7, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

Old graybeard here again. One of my academic research areas is culture and mental health. When I teach the postgrad students about engagement, assessment, and case formulation with patients who are culturally diverse, I emphasise that a genuinely thorough assessment and comprehensive formulation will account for whatever we need to know. It will, by the nature of being comprehensive, identify any cultural aspects or issues. If the clinician needs to more than slightly modify what we do to be culturally accurate in health care, then the starting point is inadequate. [‘How’ we do this may be significantly influence by culture, language and interpersonal norms, but not the ‘What’.]

Sort of like being courteous and polite to everyone. If we are genuinely pleasant and honest, little modification will be required to communicate with just about anyone. I may use slang with friends and professional jargon with colleagues, but with the general public, using mainstream English with orthodox grammar, spoken clearly and courteously, usually keeps me out of strife and gets me pretty far –

Thank you –

#16 Comment By WorkingClass On February 7, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

This new “left” and especially Academia has abandoned the Enlightenment. Until you understand this you will continue to try to “reason” with them.

#17 Comment By liar’s poker On February 8, 2018 @ 5:38 am

“The identitarian notion that a black person necessarily has more authority than a white person on any given race issue, or that a woman necessarily has more authority than a man to comment on gender issues, assumes that people are only capable of thinking with their epidermis, or with their genitalia.”

It also assumes that we can trust those who claim such authority.

But given that gender and race are matters of choice now, and that it is almost impossible to verify choice as an internal state, invisibly made, how can we be sure, for example, that someone claiming to be a woman has in fact chosen female identity. Or that someone who appears to be black in fact identifies as black, rather than as white? In other words, without some apparently impossible guarantee of truthfulness on the part of those claiming authority based on identity, how can we evaluate statements or claims made on that basis?

#18 Comment By CHARLES C HECKSCHER On February 8, 2018 @ 9:29 am

As a liberal (white male), I entirely agree with you. It’s difficult, though — these are always “difficult conversations,” as a current buzzword has it. We need to understand and recognize the feelings of others, including anger and pain; but that’s just the start.

#19 Comment By George On February 8, 2018 @ 10:46 am

Excellent article Mr. Gonzalez. Best wishes on your studies at Alma Mater. I would be interested to hear more of your experience about what men are allowed and not allowed to say on gender issues in Spectator, Bwog, and other campus publications.

#20 Comment By simon94022 On February 8, 2018 @ 11:14 am

Good article.

And when only certain people are permitted to talk about a given issue, there is absolutely no reason why the rest of us should bother to listen.

#21 Comment By Paul De Palma On February 8, 2018 @ 11:48 am

“The trouble comes with the notion, implicit in Lilla’s logic, that because our identities influence us, it is impossible or imprudent for us to comment on matters outside of those identities.” I recall nothing like this in Lilla’s book, implicitly or explicitly. For a liberal to argue as he has done is nothing short of courageous.

#22 Comment By Allen On February 8, 2018 @ 11:55 am

The Scientist 880 says, in the same breath: “The overwhelming majority of white people only interact with other white people on a personal level and certainly don’t spend time reading widely about the experiences of non-white people” AND “They are welcome to their opinions but as a general rule, they don’t actually know what they are talking about when they describe “the black community” or “black culture”.” So it’s ok if he as a black man claims to know what an overwhelming majority of white people do or don’t do, but white people cannot make the same claims. Only black people can know the thoughts and actions of other races, no one else.

And yes, by questioning the logic of his reasoning, I expect to be called a racist. Par for the course.

#23 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 8, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

Allen,

Here you go, here is the data backing up my assertion that most white people only know other white people closely.
[3]

As far as for myself, I am a kid from a working class background who won a lottery at birth and was bused out to the wealthiest town in Massachusetts that is damn near all white (90.26%) I then went to Georgetown which is 55% white but I majored in cellular biology which is significantly whiter than the population of the school overall. I then went on to work at Harvard doing HIV research which was also mostly white and then to graduate school for my MBA and MPH both of which were in majority white classes at Boston University and Harvard. I am sure I have far more experience with the views of white people than you have with the views of black people. It isn’t some anti-white conspiracy to state that most white people don’t actually know non-whites so most don’t have informed opinions about what they think. It is impossible for a successful minority in this society to not have experience with white people however.

#24 Comment By J.R. On February 8, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

Yanno…
I’m a cisgendered hetero man who drives truck for a living. I have ZERO problems talking identity politics or gender issues with people. Why? I speak the language. I am fluent in political correctness.

It’s not even hard to learn. The Right should give it the ol’ GED try.

#25 Comment By Michael Price On February 8, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

“The problem isn’t that men can no longer opine on gender issues, it’s that other opinions also count where, not to long ago, only men’s opinions counted.”
No that’s not the problem, and if it was the case it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is that men are specifically being told not to comment on gender issues. This is directly said to men who have in some cases a decade of research into some of those issues, or things that affect those issues.

It’s not that they can’t have opinions, it’s that they need to develop the respectful habit of listening to and considering opinions on gender from those who are not men.

“As a woman, listening to men whine and nag that they’re being left out, I can only say, “No, you’re just not the only game in town, now.” ”
Ah shaming language, the sign of a person in power who doesn’t want to hear the argument. No men are being left out, deliberately and openly. Misandry is the cultural norm.

#26 Comment By dont forget the boys On February 8, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

As a woman, listening to men whine and nag that they’re being left out, I can only say, “No, you’re just not the only game in town, now.”

Rebecca,

Are you sure you are listening to the men/boys? The mantra that “girls and women can do anything boys and men can do” has inherent in it an “and better” appended to it simply because one would be castigated for propounding its opposite “boys can do anything girls can do”.

#27 Comment By St. Columba’s ghost On February 8, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

Up is now officially down and I’m pretty sure right is left now, too. These leftists are so obsessed with race and gender and identity in general and they take offense to so much that I honestly wonder how the hell they get through a day.

In one of the links at the start of your article, a “woke” black woman should let her son befriend whites, and she’s supposedly an anti-racist activist for taking such a stance. Meanwhile because I support Trump due to his anti-globalist stance, I tell my kids that skin colour doesn’t matter and that character does, and I’M the racist?!?! Only in Intersectionalityville!

The reasons for blacks to support Trump are numerous. Economic prosperity, first of all. And global govt will be worse for the already impoverished black communities than for anyone else, so support a non-racist nationalist!

They flap their gums about racism but it’s all over petty outrage type crap. I mean, he hates PC culture and can be a bit of a dick sometimes, but he’s no racist. Trump has received awards for his service to the black community and been loved by blacks for years. And I know that Trump is trying to MAGA for all Americans regardless of colour!

#28 Comment By MM On February 8, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

Sci-880: “It isn’t some anti-white conspiracy to state that most white people don’t actually know non-whites so most don’t have informed opinions about what they think.”

No, but you’re drawing conclusions from dubious statistics in order to make a negative judgment about millions of people you don’t even know.

The methodology in the article you linked to states: “Assuming the average white and average black American each have 100 friends.”

Most Americans don’t have 100 friends, certainly not close friends. When Gallup last surveyed Americans, white and black, on their social circles, it found that the average number of close friends someone had was 10 (median of 5 close friends). Gallup also found that a large majority (70-80%) were satisfied with the number and closeness of friends they had:

[4]

Additionally, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 50% of all black Americans (20 million total) lived in just 8 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. Only about 1/3 of all white Americans lived in those same states.

Methodology does matter. Geography does matter. But it doesn’t seem like you took those into account…

#29 Comment By Rebecca Zicarelli On February 9, 2018 @ 9:04 am

@Michael Price, were you left out? When I disagree with what you have to say — when I tell you that I think you are wrong — is that misandry? If so, does that make your rebuttal — shaming language — misogyny?

Our culture resides on is men’s opinions, all of written history is men’s opinions, without much consideration for women’s opinions or experience until just a few hundred years ago.

That’s why my grandmother couldn’t vote when she came of age; why my mother couldn’t get access to birth control until after she’d already had five children, why I couldn’t expect equal pay in my first three jobs; why it was okay for one potential employer to tell me, “I’d hire you, but I’m afraid you’ll just get pregnant and leave me in a lurch,” and another offer me the job but only if I’d have sex with him.

That’s what the history of men’s opinions when it comes to women.

I wonder if you think I’m nagging and whining? There’s reason for me to suspect that, since ‘nagging’ and ‘whining’ are adjectives typically used to describe women, they’re feminized. Are they shameful when used to describe men, instead the more gender-neutral ‘annoying’ and ‘complaining’?

“No men are being left out, deliberately and openly. Misandry is the cultural norm.” Sounds like an annoying complaint to me given actual history.

#30 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 9, 2018 @ 2:19 pm

MM,

“Most Americans don’t have 100 friends, certainly not close friends. When Gallup last surveyed Americans, white and black, on their social circles, it found that the average number of close friends someone had was 10 (median of 5 close friends). Gallup also found that a large majority (70-80%) were satisfied with the number and closeness of friends they had:”

What is your point? Of course most people don’t have 100 friends. This is simply a way of making sense of the number of friends each group would be likely to have because it comes out as fractional when you look at the real number of typical friends people have.

“Additionally, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 50% of all black Americans (20 million total) lived in just 8 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. Only about 1/3 of all white Americans lived in those same states.”

Again, what is your point here? How does this refute any of what I have said? Most white people don’t know ANY non-white people closely, not just blacks. You’re simply explaining why this may be. I am not saying it is because most white people are racist. I am saying that because of that lack of exposure, whatever the cause may be (racism, or simply living in states that are homogeneous), white people as a general rule have no insight as to why any minority group feels the way they do or what their cultures are like. You can’t know these things if you don’t actually interact closely with the targets in question. They are free to have whatever opinions they care to have but no one should mistake the vast majority of these opinions as informed.

#31 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 9, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

MM,

Let me state what I mean in a different way. I have had a bunch of Indian-American friends over the course of my life. I studied STEM so you end up hanging out with a lot of Indians and Chinese in my line of work. My exposure to Indian-Americans and even some immigrants of VISAs doesn’t give me insight to what the feelings and preferences are for people back in India though for 2 major reasons. The first reason is I am interacting with a massively skewed group of Indians. There are more illiterate people in India than people in the United States. My exposure to this group of highly educated individuals in no way gives me any sense of what the politics is like and the nuances in thought in India. The second reason is that I am also interacting with these people on unequal terms. We are meeting and talking in MY cultural context where they constantly feel the need to explain why certain things happen in India and why they believe certain things. This isn’t an exchange that will lead me to be exposed to true feelings of individuals as they will on some level be on guard.

None of this requires me to be racist or hate Indians. The only reason why I am even aware of this dynamic personally is because I was bused to an all white rich neighborhood and had the same sort of “fish out of water” experience my entire life. The white kids were NOT racist and were always nice people but they never knew us because they never interacted with us on anything other than their own cultural terms. They could never have said “black people feel X way” and had any real clout through no fault of their own and the same goes for me with Indians.

#32 Comment By MM On February 9, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

Sci-880: “Most white people don’t know ANY non-white people closely, not just blacks.”

According to the article you linked to, most black Americans don’t have any non-black friends (slightly less than 2/3).

By the same token, you could and should argue that most black Americans don’t know much about how white Americans feel or live.

I fail to see the point of ANY of your points, frankly.

Since you don’t care about the hypothetical assumptions and geographic considerations that this research fails to address, I’ll end with this:

To expect all white Americans (250 million) to have at least one close black friend, among 40 million black Americans who largely live in only certain states, every 6 white Americans would have the same black friend.

Bizarre. Things don’t naturally work out that way in life…

#33 Comment By The Scientist 880 On February 10, 2018 @ 7:40 am

MM,

Did you even look at my source? The average black person has a friend group that is 8% white vs the 1% of the average white person.

What is this bad faith strawman argument you are putting forth where I “expect” white people to have black friends? I made very clear what my point is and what my background is. The average white person has very little experience with ANY non-white groups so as a rule of thumb, if they are attempting to tell you what non-white people think, or prefer or what their outlook is on a specific issue, don’t believe it unless they are actual sociologists or have some highly unusual experience where they grew up mostly around said minority group because odds are extremely high that they don’t have enough datapoints to make any kind of nuanced statement. Like I said, I was educated for 22 years in majority white schools. I lived in an all black and Hispanic neighborhood but I spent 8 hours a day from 1st grade till I graduated high school around white people. Now I work in pharma and with the parents of the rich kids I went to school with. I also work with angle investors who are almost all white with a few Indians and Chinese involved on the side. I grew up immersed in upper middle class white culture and speak it as fluently and feel as comfortable there as I do in my native working class black culture. Clearly most black kids don’t have my experience but there are far more black kids like me than white kids who have the opposite experience. There are programs like mine in lots of places.

I’ve made it clear that this isn’t about white people being racist. You just choose to be defensive. I even gave the same kind of example with myself and my Indian-American friends. I even stated that it’s not white people’s fault that they don’t notice that lack of understanding the have for other people because the only reason why I notice my own for my Indian friends is because I’ve been on the other side of it.

You seem to want to be aggrieved here. Again, the point isn’t that whites are expected to have friend groups with X number of minorities (you keep focusing on blacks but they don’t have minority friends of any race really). The point is that you can’t talk about people you don’t know as anything more than caricatures.

#34 Comment By Agent P On February 10, 2018 @ 10:44 am

All politics is identity politics. Relevant social science research dating back to the 70s confirms this.

The comments here by white males anecdotally confirm it. When white males feel threatened by cultural change as white males, that’s identity politics.

Condemning “leftists” for identity politics from a stance itself identity politics, is just folly. It shows a lack of self-awareness.

Despite the fact that women are half the adult population, men overwhelmingly control the economic, social, and political machinery.

So, yes, men should shut up when other people are talking. As I tell my kids, “When the mouth is open, the ears are closed.”

#35 Comment By Youknowho On February 12, 2018 @ 1:50 am

I would like to posit this rule

“First hand knowledge trumps second hand knowledge”

And the lived experience of blacks in white society, and women in a male dominated sociaty should carry more weight than the observations from the outside from whites and males, no matter how sympathetic.

In other words, if you lack experience, keep your mouth shut and learn.

#36 Comment By MM On February 18, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

Pseudo-Sci 880: “Did you even look at my source?”

Your source does not describe the average black American, or any American for that matter. It’s hypothetical.

And the Washington Post article you linked to clearly says this:

“PRRI’s data show that a full 75% of whites have ‘entirely white social networks without any minority presence.’ The same holds true for slightly less than two-thirds of black Americans.”

If you cite this rubbish again around here, I’m going to keep pointing this out until you respond and explain why any of this matters.

#37 Comment By MM On February 18, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

YKW: “In other words, if you lack experience, keep your mouth shut and learn.”

I’m glad I live in a free society, rather than one where critical thinking is attacked with pseudo-scientific rubbish, like your ideal society clearly would be like…