In late 2017, Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture at the Manhattan Institute in which he discussed identity politics. He loosely defined the phenomenon as the political mobilization around group characteristics, and continues by describing how identity politics are not specifically the issue. Instead, it is the in-group versus out-group thinking that occurs as a result. Politics on the left and right argue the usefulness of identity politics.
One side essentially states that there is no utility in the philosophy, because focusing on group characteristics is shallow and inevitably leads to tribalization. Also, there is an infinite number of ways to characterize and, in turn, tribalize our society on. Race, class, gender, religion, tall, short- the list goes on.
The alternative argument is that we must focus on group characteristics in order to cast out inequalities in our society. Without focus on the group characteristic of gender, we may never have had women’s suffrage. Without focus on race, there is no civil rights movement. The political left and right present arguments that coherently speak of an axiomatic truth which makes both sides polarized, yet fundamentally arguable.
The right-wing argument against identity politics speaks truth in the identification of the dangers regarding it. As with anything, this philosophy can be taken to a very dangerous and deadly extremity. To centralize our political and ethical conversation around the collective ideal is to see any group outside of one’s own as hostile. This is what Haidt refers to when he references the in-group versus out-group thinking. This type of thinking being characterized as viewing ideologies as a benevolent or malevolent binary; each member of each group believes themselves to be the hero of the societal narrative. If identifying with a group and acting in accordance with that group’s interest is ethically prioritized over decency to individuals regardless of group, then in-versus-out group thinking quickly develops.
In addition, society now becomes a battleground for power between groups of people each acting in the best interest of their collective allegiance. Exacerbated group loyalty is dangerous because, once you have multiple groups under the ideology of in-group and out-group thinking, these groups will tend towards violence as a means of gaining power over other groups. They will justify these tendencies with the belief that their dissenters are the malevolent actors in society.
The evidence for this psychology is littered across history, domestically as well as foreign politics. I believe Nazi Germany to be the pinnacle of atrocity by the hands of group.
Let’s assume we negate these tribal tendencies by altogether avoiding groupthink as a solution. How might that play out? We begin to atomize our society, only viewing people as individuals and not members of a group. This gives power and means to an institutional tyranny, because across time the civilian collective has been used as a tool to fight against institutional tyranny.
The civilian collective is the voice that speaks against institutions that play false narratives of benevolence, saying “we only act in ways that benefit our people and only look towards bettering the advantages of the individual.” To trust solely the surrounding institutions to act in the best interest of the civilian populace has also historically proven to result in tyrannical catastrophe.
In addition, the in-group versus out-group train of thought is just as easily developed with institutional loyalty as it is to the group character loyalty. Institutions tend to accumulate power to a higher degree, which morally should subjugate them to even closer ethical evaluation.
Russia is a prime example of what begins to happen when the general populace is silenced. Masha Gessen, a writer from Russia, was expelled from her country for writing dissenting articles on dictatorship and pro-gay rights pieces. The danger of tyrannical institutions is as real as tribal tyranny.
The question as to what to do with these psychological extremities is something societies have yet to perfect. It seems that we can begin by first understanding the utility and proper roles of the voices that speak on each side of the political spectrum. We want to keep a close eye on our institutions as to minimize the probability that they begin to act tyrannically and oppressively.
With that being said, we need them because they provide structure for our society, both meaningfully and economically. We have to keep in attention how disconnected we become from our society and structure. If we do not, inevitably this leads to people finding places they deem is in the better interest of them as individuals and hold the society outside their group in contempt. Which, in this day and age, happens to be the loyalty of groups who share common characteristics with you and this potentially leads to tyranny as well.
Moderation is a bit of a blurry line at the moment but can begin to be defined, by defining the parameters.