Leiden International Studies Blog

How Identity Politics Disempowers Individuals

How Identity Politics Disempowers Individuals

Identity Politics robs us from individuality and detracts us from ominous issues affecting all identities: global warming and nuclear armament.

Identity Politics has two laudable goals. To promote awareness about the collective suffering of certain identity groups. And to advocate policies which compensate for that collective suffering. Unfortunately, it comes with one major caveat. Promoting identity interests makes group identities more salient. This exacerbates differences and inflames tensions. And we end up where we started: a divided population.

Think of ‘Zwarte Piet’. The movement against it sought to reduce prejudice against black people. Yet by doing this, it has further established people’s colour as an identity marker. It has cemented being black as a defining attribute of individuals. The same applies to any other identity i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual preference. This might seem fine at first. We create awareness of racism and hope that this reduces discrimination in the long run. The importance of pursuing this is undeniable.

In some cases, identity politics is not the cause for making certain attributes defining characteristics. For instance, it’s not that being black was unnoticed before BLM, or that being female was irrelevant before #MeToo. In other cases, it can. Catalonian independence or adherence to Islam have become defining markers as the result of political dynamics. Much praise goes to identity politics. But it comes with a drawback which is often overlooked.

Identity politics divides. Whilst justice was the end-goal, circular debate is the outcome. People are reduced to the ‘team’ they cheer for. Individuals are defined uni-dimensionally: black, female, Japanese etc. Politics becomes a stage for teams, where the actors are team-representatives, and–as a result–the issues that affect all teams are overlooked.

The debate at Leiden University seems to be the latest symptom. People jostle for influence on the debate, indirectly neglecting issues that affect supporters and opponents of Zwarte Piet alike: global warming, wealth inequality, nuclear disarmament.

I don’t mean to imply that promoting the rights of a group identity is wrong. To the contrary, it seems like one of the few viable ways to actively fight against societal prejudice: Shed light on information, eradicate discrimination. Instead, the point I want to stress concerns the latent consequences of identity politics. When identity politics gains prominence, we start seeing Jay Z not as a rapper and producer, but as a black rapper and producer. When identity politics gains prominence, we start seeing Hillary Clinton not as a (in)competent candidate, but as a female candidate.

And this mentality trickles down to the personal, it is not confined to public figures. Thus, with identity politics, our math-genius classmate turns into the gay classmate; our middle-class neighbour turns into the Asian neighbour. So on and so forth. Whilst promoting awareness and advocating for equality, identity politics has the paradoxical effect of perpetuating prejudice.

Perhaps with time, this paradoxical effect can wither. I am not the one to predict that. What I do see is that individuals are increasingly reduced to things that are beyond their control: their collective identity. No one chooses their race. No one chooses their sex. No one chooses their country of birth. Neither does anyone choose the stereotypes associated to their collective identity.

To cling on to collective identity is to give up power.

Because whatever traits people will define you by will not depend on your idiosyncrasies, but on the ignorant and reductive impression that the observer holds of whichever collective bunch you belong to. You will not be you. You will be Asian, male, heterosexual, Buddhist, and Cambodian. Ultimately, identity politics is robbing people of their identities. Not empowering them. Other benefits might outweigh this disempowerment–that is not for me to judge–but the consequences of an excessive focus on identity politics need to be stressed. It comes at a cost.

Picture yourself as a Martian looking down on earth. What do you see? An entire species. Most of which looks roughly the same to you. Some have bigger noses, others pointy ears. But nothing that you cannot neatly model with a distribution curve. You also observe that this species is incessantly debating about these minor differences, missing the bigger picture: they are all human, and two ominous threats gloom over them.

Their home is collapsing due to their own mischief.

For once, there exists a consensus: the consequences of global warming are devastating. At face value, advancements seem promising. Carbon taxes are tentatively coming on the agenda, and the awarding of the Nobel prize in economics to research on sustainable growth constitutes a major political statement. But the gap between policy reports and legislative policies remains. The United States is the most blatant example of environmental policies being drawn back but even most Asian or European countries have quite different issues on their agenda.

Their leaders keep buying weapons of mass destruction.

The UN secretary general’s warning have gone unnoticed: “our world is as dangerous as it has ever been.” The Nobel prize winning association iCan conducted polls in four EU countries, which showed major public disapproval of nuclear weapons. The US 2018 nuclear posture caught the headlines in February. It plans to further invest in tactical nuclear weapons suitable for localized attacks. This is a trend dating back at least as far as the Obama administration – which launched a nuclear modernization programme projected to cost over $1 trillion. Yet, again, denuclearization hardly constitutes a hot topic.

These two issues combined form a threat to all humans, not just those with small ears or dark pigment. Identity is not unimportant, but if often clouds public debate. I see this especially at university campuses, where identity-related articles occupy an immense proportion of publications. That global warming and nuclear disarmament are not discussed in facebook groups is concerning. I speak as an undergrad student, whose experience at campus is one of thorny debate on identity.

Global warming and nuclear armament put humanity in jeopardy. And whilst identity politics serves its own commendable goals, it obfuscates these greater issues. It allows those profiting from the current state of affairs to divide and conquer, leaving global warming and nuclear armament in the hands of powerless activists and underfunded NGOs.

It is the responsibility of all public intellectuals, academics and students alike not to sweep these issues under the carpet; to give identity a commendatory second place on the priority list. For failure to do so will have everyone worse off–regardless of identity.