Grey Owl aka Archibald Belaney and Rachel Dolezal (Wikimedia)

Identity and Identity Politics

While at present there may seem to be a strong analogy between transsexualism and transracialism, these phenomena are treated very differently in contemporary culture. Self-identification is allowed to define one’s sex and gender, but not one’s race.

While at present there may seem to be a strong analogy between transsexualism and transracialism, these phenomena are treated very differently in contemporary culture. Self-identification is allowed to define one’s sex and gender, but not one’s race.

We hear complaints about identity politics. But what is it? How should it be defined? Identity groups are those within which significant numbers of people find their identity, based on a sense that group membership is a major aspect defining who they are. Politics in this sense is conducted with reference to sub-groups within the broader population, typically based on their sense of community, shared experience, and history. Much of what is shared is negative treatment broadly characterized as ‘oppression.’ Within Canada, we can think of women, Indigenous Canadians, Black Canadians, the LGBTQ+ Canadians (those not self-identifying as of heterosexual sexual orientation), Muslim Canadians, Asian Canadians, persons with disabilities, and others. We might wish to add intersectionally-defined groups—Indigenous gay men, disabled Muslims, Asian-Canadian lesbians, and so on. Identity groups such as these tend to form due to poor treatment they have received in the past and may continue to receive—whether that is discrimination, denigration, deprivation, or abuse. They communicate their dissatisfaction at being harmed due to their marginalized status, calling for recognition, changes in law and policy and, often, some form of redress. In identity politics, such claims exert powerful influence.

The existence and importance of sub-groups can change as needs and circumstances change. Some people define their community in terms of membership in such groups, deviating from past practices where community tended to be geographically defined. New groups could form on the basis of their treatment and needs. Consider, for instance, Indo-Canadians, western Canadians, teachers, or youth.

The practical implications of identity politics are that attention and resources will often go to such groups. There will be an increased awareness of disadvantages and harms that individuals within these groups have suffered in the past and could continue to suffer in the future unless serious changes are made. The most successful identity groups will garner media attention, resulting in increased public awareness, changed social attitudes, and resources from governing and opposition parties. Given expectations of self-identification and advocacy, groups may be limiting to some individuals who feel that projects and norms contrary to those they would choose are expected of them.

Identity politics is often criticized. When people identify as ‘us’—‘that’s who we are’—they at the same time construct a ‘them’, the outsiders who ‘we’ are not. Thus, practices of identity politics tend to further polarization, generating attitudes of resentment when identified insiders get something that identified outsiders don’t get or think they don’t get. Who can speak for whom? To speak on behalf of a group or its members, does one have to be an insider? The negotiation and juggling of competing claims of the aggrieved may result in diminished attention to costs and benefits considered in a more general sense. Attention to universal human rights norms may diminish with the particular claims of sub-groups. The message conveyed seems to be that there are no universals, only particular needs arising from particular histories of bad treatment. A competition as to who has been most seriously harmed and has the most pressing claims may result in an unproductive Oppression Olympics. When groups have formed around past ill-treatment, they may be given a kind of victim identity that makes criticism of members difficult to express, notwithstanding the obvious point that victims of some wrongs may be the perpetrators of other wrongs.

Some speaking for identity groups have gone so far as to argue for revision of norms of knowledge. The American Black philosopher Kristie Dotson is the author of a number of academic papers describing phases of testimonial injustice experienced by women of colour. Her analysis culminates in the recommendation that the “master’s tools,” used to construct “the master’s house,” require revision. Dotson is a recognized and knowledgeable philosopher, but reading her work I find myself with serious doubts about her account. I ask myself what has to change to leave the so-called master’s house. Norms of credibility, that’s for sure: skin colour and life experience will count for more, official credentials for less. But the scientific method of testing hypotheses to discover whether they can be falsified? Standards of sampling in statistical arguments? Other norms of argumentation? Standard logic? Should physics be replaced by poetry?

Writing online about identity politics, Sam Harris describes an individual/group dynamic that he understands as the (mistaken) foundation of identity groups and identity politics. He constructs his account in simple terms. An individual is mistreated or wronged in some way while at the same time another individual is not similarly wronged. The first person has been wronged, while the second, not wronged, is deemed to have benefited due to his ‘not-wronged’ status. These aspects are then generalized so as to yield a group of Victims and a group of beneficiaries said to be privileged due to their not-wronged status; those comparatively advantaged beneficiaries are regarded as Oppressors. Harris submits that such reasoning is profoundly mistaken. As I read him, there is first a fallacious inference (fallacy of Composition) where a feature of one or more individuals within a group is attributed to the group itself. But at the next stage, when individuals of the Oppressor group are collectively regarded as guilty of contributing to the wrongs and responsible for them, we find the converse fallacy of Division, wherein a characteristic of a group is taken to belong to each of its individual members. Wrongs are committed; there is an inference to the whole; the group is an Oppressor. Then, given this judgment of the whole, individuals within it are Oppressors and guilty as such. First, individuals to Group; then, Group to individuals.

Reading Harris and interpreting his claims through my own background interest in Composition and Division, I first found his account persuasive in its criticism of thinking central to identity politics. But further thoughts led me to doubts about his analysis. If an Indigenous person is wronged, that is, after all, not something that happens to her as purely an individual. Her heritage, name, and appearance are almost certainly major causes of the wrongdoing. And the same point can be made for so many other cases: if a disabled person is taunted, his disability is not a purely individual aspect of the case. It is pivotal, and it is a feature he shares with others. If a woman in the military is pressed for sex by a superior officer, her being a woman is not incidental in the matter. There is no inference from Individual to Group needed in such cases: the group aspect is there at the start.

James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose have written extensively and disparagingly about the implications of identity politics. Their recent (2020) book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody has been positively received by many reviewers who appreciate the authors’ extensive background research on post-modern theory; its applications to issues of race, gender, and ability; and its growing impact as ‘Theory’ beyond universities. Contrary assessments of the work may also be found online and come from defenders of identity groups, mainly on the political left.

Optical Illusion: Old or Young Woman

Optical Illusion: Old or Young Woman. Is social identity a question of perception?

It is easy to become puzzled about identity. The statement ‘everything is the same as itself’ is clearly useless. Until recently, philosophical discussions of identity were rather removed from politics. They explored problems of personal identity, mostly involving the endurance or non-endurance of changed persons through time. The major focus was on mind (or soul) and body. In the seventeenth century John Locke constructed the case of the prince and the cobbler. Suppose that one day a person with memories of a cobbler woke up to find himself with the body and physical surroundings of a prince, while at the same time a person with the memories of a prince woke up with the body and physical surroundings of a cobbler. Who would be the prince and who the cobbler? An artificial example, to be sure, but one that provoked considerable discussion over the centuries. Physical body, or memories; which should prevail as the essential basis for identity and survival? Locke thought memories; many agreed. However, given gaps in memory and various anomalies, puzzles remained. Later philosophers constructed further cases in more modern terms. Consider multiple personalities; cases where the two hemispheres of one brain become disconnected; conjoined twins sharing a brain but with otherwise physically distinct bodies; and other strikingly unusual cases. Mostly fictitious — but who knows, the dilemmas could become real.

Questions of immortality crucially involve personal identity—mind and matter and survival over time. If one’s physical body were to be destroyed, it would be only as a disembodied mind or soul that one could survive as a person. But what would it mean metaphysically for one’s soul to survive the death of one’s physical body? Could a soul survive as a conscious experiencing entity without a body? Would sensations of vision, sound, and touch still be available to such a soul? If not, what would its experience be like? If an immaterial soul were to survive, could it be identical to a previously physically embodied person? (The most plausible answers to that question are negative.) Until fairly recently, these questions about individual selves were the dominant philosophical problems regarding identity.

Clearly, political identity raises different questions: they concern the relationship between individuals and groups. We may identify with, or be identified with, groups for various reasons: history and common experience; ancestry, religion, and nationality; looks, treatment, acceptance, gender, ability status, or sexual orientation. Individuals may be considered members of various different groups. In many contexts, those group memberships are not considered either by themselves or by others to constitute their identity or define who they essentially are. I am a woman, a Canadian, a mother, and a philosopher. Although all these things are important to me, I do not regard any of them as essentially characterizing my identity. The categories are too broad and too negligent of my particular experiences and history. Furthermore, there are significant differences within each group. And I do not feel a need to base my identity on my social location within any of them. But perhaps that only signifies my good fortune. Should one of these groups be singled out, especially for mistreatment, I might think otherwise.

Let me briefly reflect in the philosophical tradition of considering contrived fictitious examples. Suppose that the federal government, in an effort to retrieve what it came to regard as useless educational funding, were to announce a $100,000 tax on philosophers, and in this context people who had been employed at universities had to self-identify as to whether they were philosophers or not. Philosophers might find public opinion rallying against us as government propaganda decried our ‘uselessness’ and publicized details on expenditures and apparently frivolous disputes concerning translations of Heraclitus or arguments about potentiality in Thomas Aquinas. As a group, we would be castigated and threatened. I could disavow my profession; if I did not, I would face unhappy choices. I could pay up, or participate in a newly oppressed group resisting the policy. As a result, at that point ‘philosopher’ could become a central feature of my identity, as I began to engage with other philosophers as a response to this denigrating treatment.

Yet the artificial nature of this case will seem offensive when we come to consider the gross realities of abuse suffered by women, Indigenous persons, Blacks, and non-heterosexuals. Wrongs to members of these groups have gone on for centuries and have been profoundly serious, calamitously so in millions of cases. Even in ostensibly equitable countries like Canada, many gross abuses persist. Daily, we find in the news stories of harassment, discrimination, and violence. These are by no means philosophical fictions. As one commentator said, a person’s embodied, experienced, and structural location in the world matters. In his recent book Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (2020), Thomas Homer-Dixon calls for global identity for human beings sharing a threatened planet. He describes changes in world view that could support such a shift, and the analysis is attractive—though to most readers ‘global identity’ is likely to seem remote.

How does a person identify, for identity politics? Given history and treatment including recent horror stories such as that of George Floyd, the centrality of Blackness for many identities is understandable. Is an individual a person who is Black? That is to say, a person primarily, a person with various characteristics including dark skin colour? Is she Black due to having even “one drop” of ‘black’ blood? Or is she, rather, a Black person, one whose Blackness of skin colour is a central aspect of her identity, defining who she is? The Black person is not something else; what she is not is white. (Or White.) We have seen that this implied Other may rise horrifyingly in resistance.

Lindsay and Pluckrose say, provocatively, that in identity politics both the individual and the universal disappear. The individual would disappear because her victimization arises from shared socially denigrated characteristics. The universal would disappear because of the shift from issues of universal human rights to wrongs to the particular concerns of denigrated identity groups. If it’s really true that individuals and universals disappear at this point, so too will occasions to commit the fallacies of Composition and Division. For Lindsay and Pluckrose these elisions are undesirable.

Reading Harris helped me understand what Lindsay and Pluckrose mean, but thinking further about Harris led me to question their account. Incorporating characteristics of sex, sexual orientation, race, and disability into the description of wrongdoing is not an error or fallacy because these aspects are there at the start: people really are badly treated because they are denigrated and marginalized.

Regarding issues of gender and sexual orientation, much current thinking takes self-identification to be crucial—more significant in the end than physical characteristics or birth status. We find broad sympathy for ‘trans’ persons who feel alienated from their assigned sex and gender, wish to shift, and do shift. Medical assistance in the forms of drugs, surgery, and counselling are provided, and norms of recognition for persons who have changed sex and gender are widely supported and promulgated. If a person born with male characteristics feels female and takes hormonal and other treatments to make a shift, then our society for the most part grants that the person is female, a trans woman, having defined herself as such. Cases such as those of Jan Morris and Caitlyn Jenner are publicized and acclaimed.

While at present there may seem to be a strong analogy between transsexualism and transracialism, these phenomena are treated very differently in contemporary culture. Self-identification is allowed to define one’s sex and gender, but not one’s race.

Yet self-identification does not work in this way for race and ethnicity. A significant historical case is that of Grey Owl (1888—1938) a successful environmentalist and writer who had constructed for himself history and self-presentation supporting a claimed Aboriginal identity. After Grey Owl’s death, he was exposed as Archibald Belaney, born in the United Kingdom and an immigrant to Canada. He self-identified as Aboriginal, lived for many years with Indigenous groups including the Anishinaabe, the Ojibwe, and the Iroquois, and eloquently expressed the importance for Canada of preserving Indian populations and wilderness lands. But self-identification was not sufficient in this case: Archie Belaney was deemed to be a fraud because he had lied about his birth, and the influence of Grey Owl’s writings on environmental thinking decreased dramatically as a result. A recent case is similar. Rachel Dolezal is a Caucasian American woman who altered her hair and skin colour and falsely claimed Black identity while holding a position with a Black advocacy group. She was exposed by her white parents and deemed a fraud. Born white, presenting as Black, she was not acknowledged as Black despite her wishes and presentation. Dolezal was widely criticized; she did not succeed in becoming Black because her ancestry defined her as white. Ancestry and community standards, not self-identification, were taken to define her racial identity. Similar recent cases are those of Jessica Krug (white/Black), Wade Churchill (white/Indigenous) and Joseph Boyden (white/Indigenous).

Historian Donald Smith quoted Archie Belaney as saying “I feel as an Indian, think as an Indian; all my ways are Indian.” (From the Land of Shadows, 1990) But this self-identification did not suffice to make Archie Belaney an Indian. At this point in time, the needed acceptance and social recognition are simply not there, and ancestry seems to be required. However powerful and conscientious your identification with a race or ethnicity might be, you cannot choose it for yourself. While at present there may seem to be a strong analogy between transsexualism and transracialism, these phenomena are treated very differently in contemporary culture. Self-identification is allowed to define one’s sex and gender, but not one’s race. Yet cultural shifts and medical technologies could alter that matter.

Philosopher Rebecca Tuvel argued that “reasons similar to those we accept with regard to individuals who transition to another sex extend to those who wish to transition to another race.” (“In Defense of Transracialism” Hypatia, Spring 2017) On her view, the analogy between trans-sexualism and trans-racialism is strong, and if self-identification prevails for sex, it should for race too. Culturally, it does not. The publication of Tuvel’s article in a prominent feminist journal led to a rare phenomenon: a scandal in academic philosophy. In response to sharply voiced criticism, the associate editors of Hypatia took the highly unusual step of writing a public letter renouncing Tuvel’s article and urging that it be retracted, despite its having passed through standard peer review. Then the journal’s editor took the associate editors to task, refusing to retract the piece. Many philosophers wrote in support of Tuvel and against the associate editors, appealing to their discipline’s traditions of contesting accepted ideas. The article was not retracted. Tuvel continues her research. Several of her defenders announced plans to start a journal of controversial ideas wherein philosophers could debate politically contentious themes while publishing anonymously to protect themselves.

If self-identification as a member of a group does not suffice to make a person a member of that group, what does? There are obvious possibilities including birth status (ancestry), appearance, acceptance by the relevant group, treatment by the general public, and status according to official documents. We could say, ‘well, it depends on the context and on the group.’ And that is plausible. But despite the shifting relevance of these various criteria in various contexts, one thing remains likely: if people are treated badly as members of a group, they will be likely to identify as members of that group. Recent events point to serious questions so far as ‘Asian Americans’ and ‘Asian Canadians’ are concerned. Sub-groups within this category (Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and others) have not tended to identify with each other and there are many differences of language, religion, and culture between them. But recently people have been physically attacked as Asians, events likely increased by the rhetoric of the ‘China virus.’ Members organize to decry the attacks and call for protection. A new group in identity politics results.

Both personally and politically, questions of identity are fascinating and debatable, and likely to remain so. Various criteria seem to fit various contexts; personal and political questions will persist. But one thing does seem clear: if we don’t want identity politics, we should change our patterns of treatment to avoid it. Optimists would say that has been happening as diverse groups are recognized. We can only hope they are right.