Identity politics is a menace to democracy
Wokeness erases the rational individual and serves the interests of powerful elites.
Like many people, I have long struggled to fully understand wokeness and identity politics.
Now, as a half-Spanish / South American female from a rural, lower-middle-class background, not being judged on or confined by my identity sounded like a pretty good deal. After all, my grandparents and mother had ended up in Canada because the quota on Hispanics had already been reached in the United States the year that they emigrated. South Americans and southern Europeans were still an intentionally limited commodity at the time.
Then there was the sexism. ‘Life’s a bitch and then you marry one’, the gentlemen of the town philosophised, while magazines at the grocery check-out offered tips on being ‘the best sex of his life’ (inspirational stuff), and t-shirts advised men to look for someone who could be ‘a cook in the kitchen and a hooker in the bedroom’ (images included).
As all of this may indicate, I don’t really have a problem with woke per se. It’s not like I believe there’s some acceptable level of racism or sexism out there.
The problem is what I call ‘woke-jacking’ – that is, the doctrinal and close-minded perversion of wokeness that too often gets all the headlines. Unable to cope with even the slightest level of cognitive dissonance or uncertainty (both of which traditionally accompany breaking new intellectual ground), woke-jackers tend to take certain ideas and reduce them to oversimplified, often self-serving, gibberish. Many ideas have suffered at the hands of woke-jackers, but probably the one that has suffered the most is identity politics.
The identity trap
Identity politics starts off from the perfectly reasonable recognition of difference and the fact that sometimes people are subjected to subtle, yet highly detrimental, differentiated treatment. Woke-jackers, however, move from the recognition that difference can be used against you to preaching that there are unbridgeable gulfs between victims and oppressors, each of whom can be easily identified with absolute certainty via superficial group characteristics. This is then compounded by insisting on organising politics according to these intensely oversimplified theories.
This woke-jacked version of identitarianism cannot be reconciled with democracy or Enlightenment values, and it is creating some of the tensions we see in society today.
The more self-determination and agency individuals have in a society, the harder it is to predict any single person’s behaviour on the basis of his or her group identity. As a result, modern democracies, which give their citizens a wide latitude of personal freedom, probably have some of the most diverse and difficult-to-categorise citizens in history.
Woke-jacked identity politics, however, insists that we are so influenced by our group identities that individual personality ceases to play a role in forming our thoughts, character and opinions. Accordingly, I am trapped by my identity. Descriptive factors, such as gender or ethnicity, actually control me. I don’t like fashionable clothes and I’m a woman, I like fashionable clothes because I’m a woman.
When applied to politics, this gives rise to grossly oversimplified beliefs, such as that women make more empathetic leaders (Margaret Thatcher, case in point). Worse, however, is that not only am I trapped by my superficial identity, but this identity also gives others the right to make claims on me. I belong to my faction. I owe it loyalty. I should vote for female candidates in order to promote the ‘womanly’ interests we all share, rather than for people whose policies I, as a thinking and reasoning individual, agree with.
The corollary of this is that I can’t communicate effectively with or ever fully understand people of a different identity and they will never truly be on my side. They just have to accept things I’m saying about myself on faith alone and I have to accept the things they’re saying about themselves on faith alone, sometimes to the point where debate stops.
This conception of the world, in which we are bound by our identities and irredeemably severed from one another, creates problems for a liberal, pluralistic democracy. If I truly think things because I am a woman or an immigrant, the question poses itself: do I think at all? And on what basis can I claim to have a right to contribute to decision-making if not through my individual thoughts?
One of the most common arguments made against democracy today stems precisely from this woke-jacked, identity-politics view that we are not really capable of having individual thoughts. Instead, we have a group identity, we share the interests of that group and one person of that identity is interchangeable with any other.
For example, proponents of citizens’ assemblies (small legislative bodies of randomly selected citizens) often argue that it is unnecessary for an individual to have the right to participate in a political process as long as people who ‘look like them’ have been selected to do so. This theory, which is popular among some academics and activists, explicitly advocates for the non-existence of individual agency in favour of automaton-like role-fulfillment
But if identity is more important than an individual’s reason and thought, then the next logical step is to get rid of democracy. In its place, we would have faction chiefs who ‘represent’ certain identity groups simply by ‘being’. The award-winning and highly praised 2016 book, Democracy for Realists, by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, leans into this argument, advocating that we assess politics with a stronger focus on group identity due to individuals’ lack of reason and capability.
This view is overly pessimistic and harmful. By denying individual agency, it also denies accountability. And it is excessively defeatist, pre-forgiving people for succumbing to their baser tendencies, rather than demanding that they at least try to use their brains rationally.
People may not always live up to their potential, but they do have the capability to think for themselves rather than just blindly follow their group. In fact, we tend to make decisions based on a range of factors, from personal interests and convictions to a consideration of the abstract pros and cons of a policy for society at large.
All of these factors are subject to change and are susceptible to outside influence. This is why democracy has proven to be such a beneficial form of government to the fringe, weird and marginalised – all of whom have a consistent track record of convincing the majority to come over to their point of view.
Talking to heretics
However, engaging with sceptics and doubters is exactly what woke-jacked identity politics says we shouldn’t do. Such engagement is said to place an unfair burden on oppressed identity groups who must convince oppressor identity groups to go along with a particular idea or policy. Instead, argue the woke-jackers, the right thing should just happen. And while there is some merit to this argument, there are good reasons as to why this unfairness is still the lesser evil. If we do not make decisions together through common dialogue and voting, you have to ask yourself, who makes those decisions? And how are ideas scrutinised and refined?
This difficulty is compounded by the fact that it is fairly standard procedure for woke-jackers to claim that their every thought is ‘radical’. However, it is hardly surprising that the more ‘radical’ a proposal is, the more questions people are going to have about it. Criticism is, of course, sometimes maliciously motivated. But proponents of identity politics err in supposing that all of it is and that any follow-up scrutiny or debate is inherently unfair.
When JK Rowling penned an essay questioning transwomen’s access to ‘female-only’ spaces, such as changing rooms and women’s shelters, she was harassed on social media. Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of this topic, the idea of people born as men entering female-only spaces is a new one for most people, so they are going to have questions and reservations. Some people might feel very differently about unisex changing rooms in a department store than they would about transitioning sex offenders in a female prison, for example.
Harassing people who debate public policy, while insisting the ‘right decisions’ are just taken, undermines the principle of equal decision-making that our society is based on. Identity politics doesn’t recognise this because it suggests that only those with experience of being a certain identity should be allowed to speak on issues affecting that identity group. So, as a ‘privileged’ cisgender woman, Rowling is not entitled to have an opinion on issues affecting trans people.
However, personal immediate experience has never been a requirement for democratic decision-making. If it were, it wouldn’t work very well. I have no personal experience of being a millionaire, yet I get a say on the tax rates of the rich. And I’m probably the last person who would ever join the military, but I feel perfectly free to have my say on war and defence. Most violent crime is committed by men against men, yet we do not view the regulation of criminality as a uniquely male activity since it ‘disproportionately impacts’ them.
Much as I may lack a direct, immediate interest in a particular issue, democracy respects me enough as a human being to assume that my ability to reason and to think hypothetically is still functioning. Because if you can’t reason, if you don’t have agency, why should you have a vote?
Woke-jacking for the Win
Woke-jacked identity politics also undermines democracy in one final, somewhat more tangential, way, and that is by excessively focusing on status rather than intrinsic human dignity. Woke-jacking isn’t woke gone too far; it’s woke re-purposed to fit in with elitism rather than democracy.
Even the CIA can take part in this kind of identity politics, proudly producing an entire video series on its ‘intersectional’ staff. Since the woke-jacked interpretation of identity is superficial and lacks a commitment to egalitarianism, there is, technically, no conflict here.
Indeed, woke-jackers often obsessively attempt to leverage their identity to reach the top of niche hierarchies, whether that be as an outrageously overpaid (lesbian!) CEO; as a luxury (immigrant!) fashion designer; or as a (Latinx!) Black Ops Site Operator of the Year.
But while I would fight for someone to be my equal, I’m a little less sold on why I would fight for them to be my overlord. All in all, it’s kind of like demanding an LGBTQ+ Satan. Should Satan be able to be proudly gay? Of course! Still Satan though when you think about it.
Democratic universalism implies that the abolition of class and the caste system, while perhaps not fully reached, is at least the ideal you are aiming for. But what woke-jacked identity politics says very loudly is: rich people are going to be different colours now. Welcome to utopia.
It’s no coincidence that woke-jacking is largely a British and American phenomenon. Both nations are obsessed with elites and their main concern is how to diversify that elite, not how to stop having one.
Woke-jacking not only threatens democracy and reinforces existing power structures, it also all too often undermines ‘woke’ causes. This is a pity, because there are a lot of issues that do merit our attention, ranging in scale from police brutality and reparations for slavery down to a failure to credit minorities for their contributions.
But there are also solutions to those problems that don’t come with the gaping flaws that extreme identity politics does. Insisting on including minorities in the interview process for jobs doesn’t force you to hire anyone, but it does give people a chance to prove their qualifications. And the well-worn path of universal education has opened up opportunities for hundreds of millions of people without them needing to be particularly ‘special’.
By all means, protest, boycott and strike to your heart’s content. Form co-operatives, credit unions and mutual-insurance programmes. These things all have a great track-record of achieving change – and none of them requires obliterating democracy, equality or the Enlightenment values of logic and reason. Feel free to stay woke. Just don’t get woke-jacked.
Roslyn Fuller is the author of In Defence of Democracy (Polity, 2019) and Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose (Zed Books/Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
Pictures by: Getty