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?
Harris argued that people’s race, gender, national, or other collective identities do not prevent them from discussing factual or ethical questions regarding experiences outside their own. The facts of the case are intelligible to anyone possessing rational faculties. There is nothing problematic, then, about two white men (like Lilla and Harris) discussing the causes of the rate of black crime, or abortion, or the claims made by Black Lives Matter (BLM). Or so argued Harris. Lilla, however, did not feel comfortable endorsing this line of thinking. For Lilla, human beings are inherently tribal creatures: we are naturally attached to our collective identities, and these identities distort our thinking when we ponder the matters related to the tribal “in” group and when analyzing “out” groups.
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 or that power dynamics make it impossible for blacks to discuss racial issues with whites. 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.