Aaron Baker: What conservatives get wrong about identity politics

Sunday, January 13, 2019 - 5:55pm

Nothing evokes a more visceral reaction from modern conservatives than political correctness and identity politics. Conservatives often point to the annoyance of identity politics and political correctness as the reason for President Donald Trump’s election. Jonah Goldberg, fellow and Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at American Enterprise Institute, explained how identity politics are destroying Western civilization as we know it in his book “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy." Similarly, the popular intellectual Jordan Peterson decries political correctness and identity politics as “Marxist,” “totalitarian” and “postmodern.” Peterson is only right that political correctness and identity politics are postmodern, however, that shouldn’t scare conservatives. Most opposition to political correctness and so-called identity politics is rooted in misperceptions.

Conservatives and critics of political correctness and identity politics argue the two movements are symptoms of cultural collectivism. Political correctness and identity politics supporters, according to many conservatives, view life through the reductive lens of race, gender and sexuality in which everything is a power struggle, creating only the oppressors and the oppressed. To conservatives, those who talk about racism or sexism are only thinking about their membership in a group — a modern form of tribalism. It is this tribalism that challenges the pillars of Western civilization, specifically the Enlightenment values of individual rights and rationality.

When conservatives deride identity politics, they eschew any political discourse that touches on prejudice. All democratic politics are coalition-based in some way, requiring appeals to voting coalitions that are often, in some way, identity-based. What conservatives deem identity politics is simply politics that discuss racism, sexism, xenophobia or any issues created by prejudicial thinking in some way, and political correctness is simply an effort to use language and concepts that are more inclusive and fairer. The goals and effects of identity politics and political correctness are primarily about individualism, which conservatives rightly support. Of course, identity politics and political correctness can go too far, but the core ideas of political correctness and identity politics are valid and necessary.

The Enlightenment was a multifaceted intellectual movement that produced a wide array of ideas. I would say conservatives are right when they talk about Enlightenment values of individualism and rationality and the benefits they provide democracies around the world. The only problem is the idea of the rational individual that comes from the Enlightenment has historically been qualified and limited. White men were considered as rational, autonomous agents, but everyone else was perceived as inferior, less rational and less autonomous.

The fact that the Enlightenment championed empiricism and scientific discovery is something to be celebrated, as the human condition has improved immensely since the Scientific Revolution. But there were two problems. The first was that scientific knowledge in the 1700s was limited and flawed. Second was that the Enlightenment created scientism, in which scientific truths discovered and verified about the natural world are applied to social realities. The result was shoddy science used to justify oppressive ideologies that categorized humans and dictated how they should live and interact with others. This thinking ultimately produced Social Darwinism, scientific racism and biologically-justified sexism in the 19th and 20th century, the remnants of which are still alive in our society today.

Postmodernism says there are no absolute truths in social realities, only constructs and human inventions. There are truths in the scientific world, but they are irrelevant for how humans should live their lives. Biological differences between individual humans or groups of humans are largely irrelevant in a social or political setting.

As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” humans have used their cognition to imagine social realities, stories and structures since the so-called cognitive revolution some 30,000 years ago. These social realities allowed Homo sapiens to organize themselves in ways other animals were unable to, advantaging humans and allowing them to climb the food chain. According to Harari, this is the primary difference between humans and other animals: We can invent social realities that override our underlying biological impulses in determining human action and organization.

Postmodernism is cognizant of the construction of social realities — a process wherein language plays an important role. Therefore, political correctness and identity politics seek to use language to challenge historic schemas. These dictate human behavior based on group identities — race, gender or others — that were bequeathed to us from the scientism of the past. Postmodernism tells us one’s phenotype, reproductive organs, sexuality or other traits are irrelevant to an individual’s capabilities or personalities, leaving them to carve their own fates.

The individualism so many conservatives champion is thus an incomplete idea of what it means to be an individual. It is only concerned with individualism between citizen and government, as envisioned by the vertical social contract of John Locke. This is totally legitimate as the worst crimes against humanity have been committed by tyrannical governments. Liberty and individualism require examining the lateral relationships between people, especially where majorities can oppress minorities by creating social realities that limit, categorize and essentialize them. Conservatives can do a good job in acknowledging the former, but fail to do so in the latter. Likewise, liberals can be guilty of the opposite: succeeding in challenging oppressive social norms and language, but remaining unconcerned with unchecked government power and coercion.

There’s room for a middle ground in the polarized debate over political correctness. Conservatives who care about individual liberty should consider the possibilities of adopting postmodern ideas prevalent on college campuses. For social conservatives, postmodernism is likely a hard pill to swallow. But for conservatives who prioritize low taxes or an active foreign policy, political correctness and postmodernism don’t have to be strongly opposed. By ceding all postmodern ideas to liberals and progressives, conservatives are losing potential allies.

Likewise, liberals who engage in censorship and social media shaming are also losing potential allies. Harmful speech should be countered by better speech. Protesters who stopped Charles Murray’s speech on campus probably didn’t convince anyone who agreed with his pseudo-scientific, prejudice-enabling ideas. Forcing people to use the right language won’t convince them the ideas behind the changes in language are valid, and the oppressive concepts will persist.

Changing language and social norms can help alter unconscious bias, according to research suggesting language shapes the way we think. But if people don’t believe the change in norms or language is necessary or even valid, then different language will be adopted to produce the same oppressive effects.