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The real reason Americans fight about identity politics

( Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

It's scarcely half over, but 2015 already seems to be the year that America officially got serious about tearing apart the fabric of ordinary life to search out the threads of discrimination woven into it. It's also the year when we got worried about just how many threads we were pulling, and whether perhaps we were going to end up with a pile of ragged scraps, and whether someone ought to stop the thread pulling before it gets completely out of hand?

This is the year of Black Lives Matter, of the Empty Chair, of Carry That Weight. Of Taylor Swift versus Nicki Minaj. Of trigger warnings. Of taking down That Flag. It's the year we found out that our air conditioners are misogynist and our cameras are racist. The year of Between the World and Me.

But this is also the year of L'Affaire Kipnis, and of All Lives Matter. It's the year the "Liberal Professor" was terrified of his students, and the year Jerry Seinfeld said he wouldn't perform on campuses any more. People have begun to voice their fears that a growing culture of "political correctness" might be stifling free debate and attacking academic liberty, and that marginalized groups might be undermining equality in their attempt to achieve it.

In other words, it's the year that the backlash against "identity politics" — the shorthand that is often used to describe critiques based in feminism, anti-racism, and the like — also became part of mainstream debate.

Confusingly, all parties to that debate seem to think they are riding to the rescue of the same set of values. Everyone on both sides of the "PC culture" debate, for instance, believes that academic liberty and freedom of speech are important — they just have very different visions of what they require. Likewise, the protesters holding Black Lives Matter signs are arguing against racial discrimination, but the people across the street from them holding up All Lives Matter signs claim that they're calling for racial equality, too.

So what's actually going on here? The truth is that they're not really disagreeing with each other at all: They're having totally separate conversations.

Are we making identity mountains out of identity molehills?

An image from the "I, Too, Am Harvard" photo campaign.

I, Too, Am Harvard

Years ago, a classmate came up to me after a particularly spirited discussion in our criminal law class and said warmly, "You talk in class just like a man. It's amazing."

I didn't know how to respond. On the one hand, from the context I was pretty sure the "just like a man" remark was intended as a compliment. It was no secret that law school discussions were often dominated by our outspoken male classmates. The comment seemed like it was meant as praise for overcoming whatever mental or social barrier was keeping other women from sharing their opinions. (The alternative interpretation, that I was betraying my gender with my unfeminine comportment, seemed too weird to really consider.)

But the comment, complimentary or not, was unsettling. After all, it basically relied on a negative judgment about the other women in our class, who weren't managing to participate "like men" in class discussions, as well as an assumption that masculine conversation dominance was the goal. I couldn't be happy about it without accepting those assumptions, which I wasn't really willing to do. But on the other hand, taking a compliment as an occasion to argue about deep-seated prejudice and gendered norms for in-class behavior seemed unkind, not to mention a rather unpleasant way to spend half an hour.

I'd just experienced a classic microaggression: a type of interaction that is, in many ways, the perfect encapsulation of the debate over identity politics.

For those of you who don't frequent the regions of the Tumblrverse where such things are discussed, a microaggression is a minor insult, usually based on gender, race, or ethnicity. It is, by definition, something hurtful but too tiny to be notable on its own, and it is almost always unintentional.

For instance, complimenting someone for being somehow superior to the rest of her race or gender — as my classmate did — is probably meant kindly, but it still implies that there's a real problem with the rest of the group.

Depending on your perspective, microaggressions are either the perfect example of how discrimination pervades everyday life — or the perfect encapsulation of how "identity politics" and "political correctness" have gotten out of control.

For those in the former camp, that these insults are small and unintentional is the point. Microaggressions are an illustration of the ways in which it is just consistently a bummer to not be a member of a group that's considered "normal" — to not be the person that society had in mind when it designed its norms and institutions, and to constantly be tasked with overcoming stereotypes and bias.

And even though each individual incident might be too minor to address, each is still unpleasant. The people on the receiving end of microaggressions are stuck deciding whether to just let them go, or to speak up and risk being seen as oversensitive or, yes, too "politically correct."

By contrast, people on the other side of the identity politics debate tend to see microaggressions as the ultimate example of how things have gotten out of hand. They are by definition tiny! No one thinks the aggressors in question mean to be hurtful! They're probably trying to be nice! How is this anyone's idea of an important problem?

To people in that camp, the insistence that microaggressions are an issue that needs to be addressed seems like a sign that interest groups on the left are now seeking to police even harmless, unimportant behavior. Viewed through that lens, the very idea of microaggressions starts to look like an ugly attempt to limit speech to only the most blandly uncontroversial statements. And that, understandably, seems threatening and wrong.

For instance, Jonathan Chait, in his January article decrying the dangers of political correctness, referred to microaggressions as "small social slights that might cause searing trauma," and claimed they are an example of one of the PC movement's "central tenets": "that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses."

As a characterization of microaggressions, that's a little bit unfair: The whole point is that these aren't "full-scale offenses." But it still reveals the real disagreement at the heart of the identity politics debate: How much should we limit our speech and change our behavior in order to avoid causing offense or harm? And how worried should we be about what we might lose in doing so?

The real "identity politics" disagreement is about how important it is to protect the status quo

The real dispute here isn't about whether discrimination is wrong or equality is good. It's hard to find many people who disagree that the answers to those questions are "yes" and "yes," respectively. Rather, it's about how important it is to protect the status quo, and whether identity-based criticism is chipping away at important parts of the culture we've already built.

The message of most of the campaigns that get grouped together as "identity politics" is that there's a problem with the status quo — that it's hurting members of minority groups, and therefore needs to change. Sometimes that means norms of behavior — the kinds that lead to microaggressions, for instance. And sometimes it's an institutional status quo, like a college curriculum that almost exclusively teaches works by white men, or a system of policing that systematically makes it more likely that black people will be shot during arrests.

Those campaigns tend to focus on institutional biases, and to see the status quo as a result of a long history of discrimination that privileged dominant groups like white people and men. As a result, they believe, the status quo often has a discriminatory, harmful, or dangerous effect on people who aren’t members of those dominant groups.

By contrast, people who oppose those campaigns tend to do so on the assumption that the status quo is a generally okay, merit-based system — and that demands for it to change are really demands for unfair special treatment.

Consider the "all lives matter" response to the "black lives matter" campaign against police violence, for instance. The "all lives matter" argument assumes that the Black Lives Matter campaign is demanding special treatment for black people. But the Black Lives Matter campaigners are actually trying to demand equality by drawing attention to the status quo's systemic bias against black people. Both, in other words, were demanding equal treatment. Your view of the legitimacy of those demands depends on your view of the system we have now.

Law professor Nancy Leong studies what she calls "identity capitalism" — the ways in which particular identities like one's race, gender, or sexual orientation have traditionally constituted positive or negative social "capital," and how the value of that capital is changing. She believes much of the backlash against so-called identity politics is really about a sense that the status quo is under attack, and fear that something worse might replace it.

She explained to me that it's really easy for people from dominant groups to assume that the status quo isn't biased, because they've never had to confront that bias themselves. And so when they see that an existing system is being changed to include minority groups or accommodate other interests, there's a tendency to assume that the natural order of things is being disrupted in some illegitimate way.

For instance, Leong pointed out, in the affirmative action debate she has noticed a tendency to assume that standardized test scores are inherently valid measures of merit — "that someone with a 160 on the LSAT is more deserving than someone with a 150 on the LSAT" — and that affirmative action that admits students with lower scores is therefore favoring "less qualified" students.

But that doesn't take into account ways in which standardized tests may themselves be an imperfect, even biased, measure of merit. Likewise, complaints that curricula now need to include certain books "just because" they are written by nonwhite, non-male authors assume that in the past, books earned their way onto the curriculum via objective merit, and that any replacements are, by definition, sacrificing quality in the name of diversity.

A bunch of PC killjoys?

Annoyed woman in office

No one said correcting structural bias would be fun.

Of course, there's another critique of PC culture that will ring true with almost everyone: that it's just really, really un-fun. As Jonathan Chait put it, "The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting." Constantly interrogating and correcting bias just isn't a particularly enjoyable way to spend one's time.

Being the sort of Cool Girl who can brush off street harassment or the sort of busy and successful person who's much too focused on Real Problems to be offended by microaggressions are both appealing prospects. And it's easy to see the allure of just laughing at jokes instead of wondering whether they promote rape culture or racial stereotypes. Doesn't that kind of breezy toughness sound, well, kind of great?

But unpack that vision a little, and it turns out to be a well-disguised version of the demand that people "have a sense of humor" about the statements or actions that offend them. It's presuming that the offense at issue isn't as important as the offended person or group thinks it is — and that everyone else should be allowed to laugh without criticism.

Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, has said he isn't interested in doing standup comedy shows on college campuses, because kids today are "so PC." In his view, the students "just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist.’ ‘That’s sexist.’ ‘That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about." That critical attitude, he said, is "hurting comedy."

But is it? As Leong pointed out, there's a bit of a "strange irony" to this particular critique of PC culture. The argument, she notes, boils down to the claim that "when people are constantly policing one another for not being politically correct, it stifles discourse," and that's a bad thing. But that's basically saying that "when people who have alternative identities speak, it silences us, so they shouldn’t speak."

In other words, people like Seinfeld are demanding that others get a thicker skin and a sense of humor about things they find offensive, but there's no such expectation that those making the jokes or offensive comments should get a thicker skin about being the subject of criticism.

Sounding a vital alarm — or just insecure?

Students sit on a green on Yale's campus.

This is about more than free speech on campus.


That suggests this isn't really about "discourse" or "free speech" at all, but about something a lot more pedestrian: the anxiety of people who aren't used to having their speech and behavior policed by rules that aren't designed for their benefit, but now suddenly find themselves experiencing just that.

The backlash against identity politics is really about insecurity, Leong believes: Groups that have traditionally enjoyed high racial capital in America, such as white people and men, are aware that they are starting to lose their disproportionate control over power and resources, but also over less tangible things like public discourse.

Taken together, those two things make "identity politics" feel scary. The insecurity means there is an inflated sense of how much status and how many resources are being reallocated to traditionally less powerful groups, as well as fear about what that means for white people and men. A 2011 study, for instance, found that white people tended to see racism as a "zero-sum game" and to believe that racial bias against white people must be growing as bias against black people decreased.

And the belief that the status quo is fair means that redistribution also feels like unfair special treatment. In other words, it seems like almost all aspects of society are becoming much, much less fair, and that no one is doing anything about it. (First they came for the air conditioners, and I did not speak out...)

That, perhaps, is the real worry behind the "all lives matter" debate. Or the dispute about whether police violence really does have a disproportionate effect on the black community. Or whether microaggressions are a way for minorities to tyrannize innocent people who are just trying to get on with their lives. And it's understandable that people who have never had to examine the privileges that come with their race or gender or parentage would feel unsettled by such changes.

But those changes aren't going to go away. As the arc of history bends toward progress in this country, the arcs of politics and economics are going to make it less valuable to be white or male. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote a few months ago, we've always had identity politics — it's just that white male identity politics used to simply be called "politics." Progress away from that status quo isn't reversible, but it will take some getting used to.

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