Acknowledging difference, rejecting division – a critique of identity politics

Race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class and ability: some of the loaded breaking points that shape identity and experience. These categories have always loomed large in my political life and are rarely navigated comfortably, even within radical communities.

I first became politicized in a radical way in college having conversations about privilege and oppression that seemed to quantify human suffering into categories of identity and analyze how the actions of dominant groups and systems prevented any sort of broad based social justice. I gained a lot of knowledge about how privilege and oppression manifest in the world and in my own life but I really didn’t know what to do with that knowledge.

As a result I tried to be constantly vigilant, agonizing over every social interaction in my life and berating myself for not accepting the burden of my privilege fully enough. The result was that it was harder for me to relax enough to have genuine connections with people and I had no way of gaining social self-confidence without feeling like I was being an oppressive white man. On the flip side any sort of existential crisis I was having was legitimate only if it could be understood as coming from my experience being queer or fat or left-handed.

I am not talking here about being uncomfortable acknowledging how the current allocation of wealth, power, and privilege has been built on a history of domination and abuse. I am talking about the way that people in radical and activist communities often take in this information without having a model for how to live with it sustainably. One of the worst things about this society is the way that it divides and alienates people from themselves and each other. To adhere to a type of identity politics that denies the validity of experience outside the frame of identity serves, in a weird way, to reinforce the profundity of this alienation; training people to respect and maintain the very boundaries that divide and dehumanize them when they could be trying to transcend those boundaries.

After I left school, and moved to the West Coast, I was exposed to radical people who were critical of ‘identity politics’ for many reasons that seemed valid. At some point I remember stepping back from worrying incessantly about how my actions either subverted privilege or reinforced oppression. I tried instead to connect myself to my own desire and use that as the basis for building affinity with others.

It is easy to find fault with the way that many conversations about identity and power play out. It is much more difficult to acknowledge that the issues addressed by those flawed conversations remain. Learning to say ‘the framing of this debate is flawed and I choose not to engage with it’ is one thing, but if that stops one from ever framing any debate, then heavy and important things remain uncommunicated and the process of engaging with life honestly is stifled. Being constantly aware of the way that you are affected by privilege and oppression can get in the way of having organic relationships with people. On the other hand, trying to connect with people across lines of difference without having a way to address the elephant of identity also limits the potential for real intimacy and understanding.

So here I am; I know that many of the issues raised by identity politics are important but many of the conversations that happen around them no longer lead me to a place that is useful. Despite this I also know that I live in and am supported by a society built on the exploitation and destruction, past and present, of people, cultures, and ecosystems. It is along the lines of this exploitation that the need to cling to identity was born.

I guess for me the important thing is about what I choose to do with the knowledge that I have. Am I compelled to see people primarily as a collection of identities or do I strive to connect with people as complete entities with all of their experiences intact? It is the difference between declaring myself anti-sexist, going around self-consciously seeking out women to have ‘anti-sexist relationships’ with, versus allowing myself to connect with and support strong and beautiful people in my life, no matter what gender because, on some level, I love them. The first instance often inhibits intimacy, while the second uses organic relationships as a lens through which to understand how the experiences and opportunities of people in our lives are shaped by identity.

Sourcing my politics from my own desires and experiences is a much stronger model for me than setting the greater good of social revolution against my desires. It is not that we can’t change the world at all; it is just that the model of how we do it needs to be different if it is to be sustainable. It means that meeting my own needs is something I should be able to do without guilt. I do not believe that we live in a zero sum world where my happiness always comes at the expense of somebody else’s. I have a desire for my life to amplify connectedness and well-being through my own well-being, rather than to contribute, through my own isolation, to the isolation of the world. Sacrificing my own happiness will not, in itself, change anything about the institutions and power dynamics that perpetuate oppression. If I choose to believe that we live in a world where everyone is either hurting, angry or complacent, then letting go of pain and anger dooms me to complacency – I prefer to believe that there is a whole spectrum of emotions accessible to people that continue to engage reality and that the question of selling out is not so easily answered.

This does not mean there is no concern for people who are outside of ones own life and experience. I may read an article on the genocide of people I don’t know halfway around the world and be moved to tears and trembling – but that response for me stems from my own lived experience, from the understanding that the people suffering are as real as the people in my life, that their desires are no less valid and their pain no less felt.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out. Living a life I can feel satisfied with is still about discomfort. I think that if issues around identity, oppression and privilege ever seem simple or easily navigated, it will be because I have disengaged. For me, right now, staying engaged means maintaining a tension between knowing and feeling the unvarnished reality of suffering and remembering the capacity people have to build networks of mutual love, respect and support without letting the power of one of these thoughts erase the truth of the other.