The Beginning of Identity Liberalism: A Response to Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism”

I’ve seen arguments similar to Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism” from a lot of liberals, and they really, really bother me. I’m going to try and express why I think this is an entirely wrong-headed response to this election. It is, in fact, an example of liberal white fragility, and the liberal “whitelash” to becoming a minority in progressive movements.

Most obviously, Lilla ignores everything else that happened in the course of the primaries and election and makes the liberal defeat entirely an issue of identity politics. The role of the logical fallacy, particularly false equivalency, cannot be understated. But that’s a somewhat separate argument; I mention it here just to say that Lilla seems a bit myopic in where he lays blames for the loss of the election.

More troubling is the fact that for a professor, the author seems to have actually engaged with very few college students. Perhaps that should be unsurprising, he is a successful author and likely teaches very little. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be teaching at all in the fall 2016 or spring 2017 semesters.

Instead he parrots what is essentially a Fox News view of “the state of youngsters,” asserting things about the state of political discourse among millennials that seem to contradicts polls, surveys, the content of social media, and the experience of actually talking to a millennial about politics. This notion that identity politics has displaced educational content is a favorite talking-point among people who see some sort of threat in diversity, and one that is always trotted out without any evidence. It is a claim carried by the ethos of the writer, and made substantive only in that it fits into the writer’s argument that the embrasure of diversity is causing problems.

But I think that Lilla reveals a contradiction in this thought process without even realizing it. When says, “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life,” he fails to grasp the way humans come to accept diversity. To wit: we empathize. This has been proven time and again, by numerous studies: Humans accept groups with which they have been given the opportunity to empathize.

The triumph of identity politics among the younger generation has been that millennials, through technology and education, have been allowed to empathize with ever broader groups of people. They are in fact more aware of conditions outside of their groups, which is how they empathize. That young Christians and Republicans generally support gay marriage where their parents do not is one small indication that they empathize with groups outside of their immediate “tribal” group.

The problem with this for men like Mark Lilla, is that the more you empathize with historically marginalized groups, the less you empathize with men like Mark Lilla. White men are the entrenched power group, and the default identity associated with achievement, power, success, intelligence, logic, thoughtfulness, etc. We have maintained this position by guarding it jealously. When people outside of that identity have attempted to join our institutions, we have denied them access more than we have embraced them. We have expended more energy fighting to keep them out than in welcoming them in. We do this, and then call it meritocracy. Our assertion of our own rightness in our actions has been the only justification we have needed for hundreds of years. We are not a group that it is easy to empathize with once one starts empathizing with the groups we have marginalized, or, in some cases, victimized.

As such, identity politics are as much a threat to Lilla’s way of life as they are to a Red-State Trump voter. The world and the disciplines he exists in, and has gained preeminence in, are challenged at their very foundations by a generation of people who believe in knowing the other as opposed to studying the other.

His argument about the fate of transgendered people in Egypt contributing nothing to an understanding of Egypt’s future, aside from being a bald-faced reductio, illustrates Lilla’s myopia. I agree, certainly, that American journalism has become very, very lazy—and worse, that it now designs its headlines and stories for maximum click-bait and social-media impact—but does that mean that reporting on the state of a marginalized group within a foreign country can tell us nothing about that country’s future?

Lilla fails to realize the sea change that is happening in political consciousness. Digital youth live in a world where the boundaries and histories of nation states are impediments to understanding and empathy. They mean that some people—people who these youth understand to be thinking, feeling humans of equal value to themselves—are trapped, subject to the vicissitudes of rulers who hate them, and beyond the help of American youth who feel great empathy for their suffering. Caring about the fate of transgender people in Egypt is an investment in the future of both that country and our own. Of how our relations will play out, and what shape the governments of our nations will take in the future. I would argue it has more impact on the future of Egypt than whether or not Morsi is executed.

It is also incredible to me that he implicitly asserts this empathy does not extend beyond LGBT rights, or similar. The empathy inherent in identity politics impacts positions on international conflict, because of its victims. On refugee rights, human rights, economic aid or sanctions. On working conditions in Shenzhen and in Detroit. On every situation where someone is systemically disadvantaged or victimized. At every turn identity politics asserts that the people are more important than institutions, and so it is threat to institutions. Including the institution of white academia.

One of the things identity politics has wrought is that those to whom it matters are singularly bad at the schizophrenic compartmentalization that has allowed generations of people to look at the horrors of the world and tsk-tsk and go about their day. Especially when in the course of the day they benefit directly, in one way or another, from those horrors. Lilla seems to think that empathy won’t create a political moment with implications for every aspect of global politics and economics. I think he’s as threatened as any Trump supporter, and responding with a dismissiveness that does him no favors.

Young people do feel they have a duty, and they do stay informed. Just because the thing they see as their duty is not what he would prescribe for them does not make him somehow inherently wiser or more right.

 

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