ThoughtStorms Wiki

Context : IdentityPolitics, TheLeftWing

TheLeftWing are famous for splitting into bad-tempered factions that spend more time hating on each other than their real enemies. (TheLeftTheoryOfDisagreement)

This is partly TheNarcissismOfSmallDifferences. But I think Identity Politics and Competitive Victimhood are particularly strong drivers of this.

Basically you have a bunch of people who all generally agree on defending the oppressed and empowering the powerless. And "punching upwards" where punching needs to be done at all.

And probably agree on doing so for all the powerless they come across.

However, if you manage to get them into an argument about "who is the greater victim" when two victim identities are in competition for some special treatment, or who is "more powerful" when some power-related punching is required, then those who see themselves as champions of the rival groups will start to tear each other apart.

Undoubtedly most feminists are also supporters of LGBTx rights. And vice versa.

But one group of feminists becomes biologically "essentialist" about what "women" (who need to be defended from "men") are. While trans-rights supporters, upset at a long history of trans-people's preferred genderhood being denied, double-down on the insistence that trans-women are fully women in every significant way and that denying them access to women's spaces is perpetuating the prejudice.

Soon they are more at war with each other than either is against the patriarchy that both have a common interest in opposing.

Similarly, the left has a long tradition of supporting Jewish people against antisemitism. And, of course, Jewish writers, thinkers and activists are prominent on the left. But once Israel was created, with all the messy realpolitik it entailed - and all the "nationalist" feeling any "nation-building" project engenders - the problem of how Israel treats the Palestinians it displaced becomes acute. Supporters of Israel remember that Anti-Semitism is still an active force and active danger in the world. And that opposing it, and having a refuge from it, is still a necessary project. Every expression of anger or violence towards Israel is taken as a further symptom of hostility towards Jews, deserving zero indulgence.

Supporters of Palestine see the Palestinians and their allies very much "punching up" against a superior oppressive and violent force. And a state / population now utterly corrupted by religious extremism and ethnic supremacism. All anger and violence is deemed justified in such a fight.

And so both sides escalate.

So ... what is to be done?

My suggestion to everyone on the left, at a personal level, is as follows.

First simply become aware of this principle. It's good to be concerned by the plight of the oppressed and the victims. Righteous indignation is warranted. BUT ... by definition, righteous indignation is prone to falling into this kind of war with people are very close to you, who differ over very specific issues / degrees of victimhood.

If you do find yourself being pulled into one of these fights, take a pause and think. Do you want to be drawn into a huge civil war or would you all be better off avoiding that and co-ordinating your opposition on "far enemies" with who you have greater and more significant differences?

Recognise that mere strength of outrage / degree of anger is not in itself a sign of virtue. Dispassionate commitment can care just as much, and might get more done.

If you are aware of the principle, can name it, or at least point it out and talk about it dispassionately, you have a better chance of figuring out how to out-manoeuvre it and avoid some of the worst damage it will do to you.

By pointing out the principle, and standing back and considering it, and talking about it, you do not have to actually give up your own position or your own side. I am not talking about choosing a bogus "centrism" or "split the difference" or "both sides" type position. No, you can still, at one level of discourse, defend and give reasons for your position in favour of one faction. While also, at another level of discourse, acknowledge that this is the kind of argument you are in, and that your "enemies" are those who only differ on the specific points.

This gives you a chance to identify, and perhaps even agree with your enemies, about what the specific points of disagreement are. What institutions, policies are the cause of the problems. And figure out how to bracket them off / "agree to differ" on these while continuing to pursue other shared ends collectively.

Undoubtedly, with identity politics "symbolism" is important. But sometimes the symbolism is all there is.

  • For example, many words are spilled about whether trans-women should be accepted in women-only refuges. Or whether this endangers the other women / makes them feel less safe. In practice, for many years such refuges have been making practical, on the ground, decisions as to who to admit. And have often recognised the victimhood of trans-women and admitted them without this worrying anyone. Anyone running such a space already has to make pragmatic judgement calls as to who to admit. If a woman is hiding from an abusive lesbian partner do you think that the refuge automatically lets that partner enter simply because she's a biological woman? Of course not. There are dozens of such practical / pragmatic decisions being made all the time. The "insoluble problem" of "trans-women in women only spaces" is largely cooked up by distant theorists trying to invent some simplistic rule book. Rather than accepting that it's a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis by those on the ground.

But why do people try to make simplistic rules? Because "symbolism".

  • For trans supporters, a space "for women" that excludes trans-women, perpetuates the idea that trans-women are not really women.
  • For TERFs, accepting that biological males can "become women" undermines a whole cosmology in which the dichotomy between male and female underpins their understanding of female empowerment.
  • Supporters of Israel feel that criticisms against it are asymmetric, holding it to a higher standard than its opponents, and revealing a sly antipathy towards Jews.
  • Palestinian supporters see every asymmetry in the death / destruction rate as a sign that Israeli violence is more tolerated by and acceptable to the world than their own.

As leftist individuals, we should be aware that all maximalist interpretations of the "symbolism" of specific policies or acts, are attempts to drag us further into these ugly and local "identity wars". We should always reserve our right to reject such appeals to "symbolism" in the name of a more pragmatic standing back from getting involved.

It's not that symbols aren't important. And we do need to consider how others will interpret what we say and do. But we should also discount claims of how significant symbolic effects are in the long term or wider culture.

What other people will think and do in the future is both influenced by us but also filtered by time and the actions and speech of many other people. The average action does not have much symbolic influence.

  • So what if a particular refuge decides it doesn't want to accept a trans-woman?
  • Or a particular feminist writer can't quite give up her cosmology that requires men and women to be essentially different?
  • Or conversely, a particular publisher decides that this writer's Tweets are such that it no longer want to be associated with her?
  • So what if a politician who has taken an interest in the Palestinian cause happens to speak at an event where Palestinian terrorists are also speaking?
  • Or that a particular actor speaks about Israel's "right to defend itself"?

These are all minor things. They only seem big when you insisted on asking what they "mean"; what they symbolize on some cosmic scale.

At which point, we are probably better off just not worrying about what they "mean".

This leads to another principle to be aware of, that I discuss on ThePyramidOfHate, that we know that small evils add up to big evils, but that this doesn't necessarily give us a good indication as to what we do about such small evils.

Again ... to avoid being drawn into fruitless fighting we can perhaps insist on the following.

To assert that the small evil is small, and perhaps reject its importance. Even to assert that it is tolerable or forgivable, is NOT to deny that the big evil is very evil and important and not tolerable. Or even to deny that the big evil is indeed made of small evils. It is merely to challenge the degree of contribution. We cannot deny the role of quantification in ethics. To try to collapse all evils into "the same" regardless of scale or quantity, is not to help us take morals seriously, but to make them all equally trivial.

(That last paragraph really going to get me into trouble isn't it. And is, I accept, particularly pompous sounding.)

Anyway, I've run out of steam now. However, if anyone on the left tries to drag me into a narrow but bitterly vicious identity war, I can now point them at this page and say "I see this for what it is, it's one of those."

And I'm going to refuse to be drawn on it. That doesn't mean I don't have sides. I have opinions on Israel and the Palestinians. And on feminism and trans-rights. I will happily defend them.

But I won't be dragged into getting all upset because someone who is generally well intentioned and intelligent about such things, has a slightly different opinion / interpretation of the relative strengths / weaknesses / justice on some specific questions

A couple of further points on "Both Sides"ism.

I claim that my above stance - being willing to identify an "identity war", and stand back from it - is NOT "both sides-ism". Because it doesn't involve giving up your own position on the rights and wrongs of a question. Simply allowing a meta-level of discourse which which you recognise that the differences are about small and specific things, in a context where there can be, and often is, wider agreement. And therefore being willing and able to discuss those differences in a controlled way.

It doesn't hold that both sides are equally valid or right / wrong.

OTOH, it can allow that both sides have valid concerns and arguments. Not that they necessarily do. But that taking a stance in favour of one side doesn't mean that on specific questions you shouldn't recognise the concerns of the other.

It's not "both sides-ism" to see both sides :-)

The 'back of mind' antisemitism accusation against Corbyn


Watching the clip here I'm thinking how frustrating and sad this whole debacle is.

And why this kind of IdentityPolitics critique is so dangerously effective against the left.

If someone said : ''Of course X has UnconsciousBias against black people. Look at his actions. Now he doesn't necessarily realize it or feel explicit animosity. But could certainly use some unconscious bias training'' this would probably pass almost unnoticed on the anti-racist left. For whom ideas like unconscious bias are well established shibboleths. (ThePyramidOfHate again).

And ''unconscious bias'', like ''original sin'' is something which is almost impossible to refute or deny the accusation of. It is there in our society and upbringing. Of course we all need to be better aware of it. And of course we should strive harder to purge ourselves of it.

Now if Baddiel had phrased his critique of JeremyCorbyn in those terms, then I think almost no-one on the left would or could have objected to it.

However if Baddiel had phrased his critique in those terms, it would have had little traction with the anti-Corbyn right who don't really subscribe to concepts like 'unconscious bias'.

Because if it were put in those terms, in good faith, it would immediately become obvious that it was not a specific problem of Jeremy Corbyn but part of general societal failure. It would not even be focussing on Jeremy Corbyn, given the context of all the other things he's said and done and from which you could triangulate a better idea of his real 'back of mind' beliefs.

The reason Baddiel's attack looks (to people like me) in bad faith, and part of the proverbial 'witch hunt' is that it's not aimed at exploring and fixing the general problem of unconscious bias of anti-semitism in society. It's targeted at an implied individual failing of Jeremy Corbyn. Note how Baddiel concocts a sui generis vocabulary of 'front-of-mind' / 'back-of-mind' distinction to avoid using the terms 'conscious' and 'unconscious', which simultaneously might trigger the right-wing. But also has no great shaming potential for the liberal centre. 'Who of us,' the average Guardian reader might ask, 'doesn't need to top up on a bit of extra unconscious bias training from time to time?'

But no. Corbyn's alleged antisemitism must be of a different type : a personal and individual crime of an order of magnitude which is out of the ordinary. Beyond the pale. Well outside the Overton Window of ordinary politicians in the UK. It must be greatest shame that the Labour Party has ever known. Otherwise it won't serve it's purpose.

But the bigger picture here is that, it's true, that the left pioneered this kind of appeal to 'unconscious' racism etc. So it's hard for the left to defend itself against accusations of it. Because to do so implicitly negates a framework which it usually supports, and which is part of the justifications for much of its own critique.

Now don't think that the right hasn't noticed this and isn't gearing up to use it again and again to attack progressives with. The right-wing are going to gleefully keep using this kind of attack on the left. Turning the tactics of appeal to unconscious prejudice against it. The anti-trans witch-hunt grabs as much feminist discourse as it can. Because it wins either way. If the TERF-talk convinces people to support the right, they win. If TERF-talk ultimately discredits much feminist discourse they ALSO win.

(See also ThroughTheLookingGlass)

What about Ukraine?

The RussianInvasionOfUkraine2022 isn't quote "identity politics" in the way I describe it here. But it certainly another "wedge-issue" which is opening up the left. With, again, people who have a lot in common finding themselves in bitter conflict on opposing sides. (eg. PaulMasonVsTheAntiWarLeft)

Another good example

I tried to wear my pragmatic hat in a group of cycling fans. I'm pro cycling and anti-car, but this SocialMediaPerformance really blew up on me.

The issue is that to assert that carrying stuff is the reason people don't cycle, is to seem to play down or deny the role of dangerous cars and lack of cycle lanes. Which is to get the seriousness of the victimhoods in the 'wrong order'

Also, I was accused of agism for presuming that older people have less physical capacity than younger people. Of course, such presumptions are over-simplistic stereotypes and I was presented with many 60 / 70 + year olds who could cycle to the supermarket and carry shopping successfully. Also many bikes designed for cargo.

And while this is true. And I was wrong. And perhaps trading in stereotypes, to worry about this,IMHO, misses the point. OTOH, it's the relative importance of these perspectives which is at stake in an argument like this.