In Favour of Identity Politics

This is a thought experiment that makes the case for Identity Politics as useful and desirable. It was inspired by Sam Harris, a thinker I admire and deeply respect but who I believe is at least partly wrong in his assessment of Identity Politics and other ethical matters related to privilege as it interacts with personal identity. I hope rational-minded people might find some arguments here attractive regardless of their current position in the conservative-liberal spectrum.

This is also an exercise in the principles delineated earlier in my writing (see, for example, Agora). I’m communicating as clearly and openly as I can to try to understand each other better, regardless of any a priori perceived agendas. I will begin by trying to state Sam’s position as well as I can; an instance of what is widely known as the Principle of Charity, and that I believe Sam himself is a fan of.

My current personal best mental simulation of Sam Harris says: Identity Politics is wrong, that is, it is of low effective value to our thinking. Identity Politics restrains our thinking to whatever space is provided by the identity of the thinker, which is very much tied to their personal history and their expressed phenotypes. Our race, for example, should not matter when it comes to making an argument or pushing a rational discussion forward: the opinion of everybody should count the same, as that will let us optimally explore the shared space of thinking. Collect as much useful knowledge about the world as we can, after Deutsch.

To that I say: Identity Politics is also needed. Identity Politics is a way of thinking; Identity-Free Politics is another, and both have their advantages. They are philosophical contexts: both provide us with the opportunity to explore diverse solutions and collect useful knowledge. It is desirable to use both, ideally each at their best time. Our discussion can ideally move forward to rationally listing contexts where each approach provides value: when to put each module to best use (in which mental context, after Weinstein). This is a subjective assessment, thus a matter of ethics, and our discussion must shift there.

Our knowledge of the world is imperfect. We must make assumptions all the time when thinking, for much we do not know; this goes doubly for our thoughts about people. How we make those assumptions — which heuristics we use, in algorithmic terms — clearly also has a huge incidence in the thinking space we get to explore.

Imagine we were forced by a specific situation to have to decide which single person gets to make an ethical decision, freely and without consequences, for a whole group. Imagine, say, that aliens came and saw that race is a huge open issue in the US, and that needs to be fixed, and they told us that we must designate a single person to decide exactly what happens next, within the resource constraints of the whole nation. Whether to establish reparations, institute a basic income, or build a colony on Mars. Anything that can directly nudge “Karmic balance” in the right direction, according to some reasonable definition of those terms.

Who should we choose?

Before we know more about each individual candidate, I’d fathom the guess that “black woman thinkers” should be very highly represented in the group to be considered. I believe this is an instance of Identity Politics that is rational and thus desirable according to many useful systems of ethics.

Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t then hold a healthy debate between candidates and get to known them all much better; listened to them, to their ideas, regardless of who they are. The best idea for what to do next might come from a white male. Listening to a white male talk about what to do about race is a bit awkward to many, but to exclude them altogether from a debate that decides how their future will look seems unfair. That means that at some point we want representation of thought regardless of identity; we can then judge people purely on their thoughts, as they are at some point in time, regardless of their history. This adds a degree of (trigger warning for some) free will to everybody’s existence. So in a sense we must always turn to Identity-Free Politics at some point in our rational debate to further test our assumptions. Remember, our information about the world is imperfect but we want it to become better. Nobody wants to miss out on the potential of a truly great idea; one that improves the world for all, and that all choose happily and freely.

Now, where is the point of confusion here? Why are we not all on the same boat, agreeing on what is essentially a middle ground approach that potentially allows us to work better as a society? The middle ground just requires us all to give our distinct frame of thinking a chance in open debate. Just talk to each other, and accept the other’s world views for a little while.

Why is Sam Harris not talking to Ta-Nehisi Coates?


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