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The Cost of Identity Politics

We hear a lot about identity politics these days. Maybe there’s power in numbers or maybe it’s a case of misery loving company, but people seem to be hellbent on being members of one group or another. Or if one doesn’t qualify to be part of a group, one can at least be part of the cheer squad for a group and derive a vicarious sense of accomplishment and self-worth by being a cheerleader.

Belonging to a group has its advantages: it can enable people with a common cause to develop strategies that best meet their goals and needs that they could not do as individuals. When the motives of group members are about the common good, they can achieve much. However, when motives are questionable, such as when group membership is used to build one’s identity, problems begin.

With most identity politics, identity is based on having an assumed disadvantage or suffering some perceived injustice simply because one can claim to be a group member. I’m not suggesting that some members of these groups don’t have legitimate needs or are not unfairly done by, but far too often group membership compromises individuality, as a disproportionate focus is given to only one aspect of one’s being rather than the whole person.

Identity Politics Promotes Separatism

An additional problem of identity politics is that it promotes separatism, and when this happens everyone loses, even if there are the temporary wins of, say, gaining a designated safe space, or the banning of some image, cartoon, or speech. Where there is separateness there are feelings of disconnectedness. Where there are feelings of disconnectedness there is vulnerability, and where there is vulnerability there is fear. Where there is fear there is defensiveness and attacks on others believed to not belong to one’s group.

Under identity politics, each group claims to have needs that make them more special than the rest of society’s ‘ordinary’ members. When this happens, group members and their cheer squad begin to war against those who are not affiliated with their group. Anyone questioning the claims of the group members is automatically seen as being prejudiced, racist, or having a phobia of some sort.

But in fact the needs of group members are best met by viewing the whole person. And when people are viewed as whole people, it is quickly seen that the commonalities between individuals of different groups far outweigh differences.

When you strongly identify with a particular group, the perceived needs become exaggerated, both in severity and in prevalence – suddenly every member claims to have the affliction assumed to be associated with the identity that qualifies them for group membership, and all are thus deserving of special treatment.

Identity Politics and Victimhood

I believe that underpinning identity politics is the desire to play the victim. Each group we see in the age of identity politics is able to claim victim status in one way or another. Group members believe they are the victims of anyone outside of their group, of history, of government, or of the anglophone world. And questioning their victim status is proof positive for them that you are the enemy. Once defined as the enemy, accusations of hate crime, homophobia, racism, or whatever thought-crime, are sure to follow.

So you might be asking “Why would anyone wish to identify as a victim?” Before I answer that question, it is important to distinguish between genuine victims and wannabe victims, or the ‘me-too’ victims of identity politics. For genuine victims, their suffering or disadvantage is real and not just wrapped up in their group identity. It’s not just proclaimed hurt feelings, the distinguishing feature of the counterfeit victims.

Victim status can be powerful. As a victim, your opponents can be silenced, responsibility can be abdicated, and special treatment can be expected as of right.

We are All One

Thankfully, there are people who qualify to be members of groups by virtue of their race, gender, sexual preference, or sexual identity, yet they are content to just be individuals. They are to be admired, especially given that they can become the target of much hate from the group they qualify for, if they choose not to ride on the victim identity gravy-train. They are seen as traitors and sell-outs.

Let’s acknowledge differences where they exist, but never forget that we are part of one human race and that we are not defined in terms of differences. Let’s strive for the common good and not be complicit with identity politics. Identity politics consumes far too much energy that could be used for solving the real problems, the ones that affect us all, regardless of what group we can be slotted into, or attach ourselves to.

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