By Hinnerk Frech
When the last call for submissions by the Critical Edges Editorial Board was published, my first thought was: wow! Such an interesting topic, I should definitely contribute. But then I thought about it again and remembered the first time I truly started to engage with identity politics. Which was – confession time – through some YouTube videos of interviews with Jordan B. Peterson.
Maybe as a white, privileged, heterosexual, European, middle-class individual, I am not necessarily the best person to write a piece on identity politics.
But, then again, maybe I am. A while ago I, too, wondered: what is all the fuss about identity politics? Didn’t we have quite a high level of equality already in most Western societies? Weren’t we having more important problems to discuss that we were forgetting now? Well, today, I have changed my view on these questions quite a lot. That’s why I am maybe a good person to write about identity politics anyways. And I hope that my change of mind can be instructive to those, who are still wondering what identity politics is all about, and show them why I think differently.
A lot of men I know are concerned about identity politics and are warning of the disastrous consequences ‘western society’ would face. In recent years, a number of prominent authors have started to warn loudly about identity politics. Of course, there is Jordan Peterson, but also individuals like Douglas Murray, who published the bestseller The Madness of Crowds. And most recently the Danish Sociologist Henrik Dahl, in his book Den sociale konstruktion af uvirkeligheden – Forurettelse og anti-liberalisme i det 21. århundrede (The social construction of irreality – injustice and anti-liberalism in the 21st century). As summarized by the Danish conservative newspaper Weekendavisen, the book argues how “modern identity politics is damaging the country’s academic institutions, the enlightenment and ultimately, democracy.”
A few years ago, when I first encountered Jordan Peterson, I believed that his arguments, ultimately re-emphasised by Henrik Dahl above, sounded concerning. I got interested in the discussion because I was worried about the populist rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies around the world. And Jordan Peterson strongly warned against one that he saw. Now, three years later, my perspective on identity politics has fundamentally changed. I am still worried about discussions concerning identity politics – but the reasons have changed.
Today I believe that critics such as Peterson and Dahl, at times, misunderstand and misrepresent the ambitions of certain movements that are broad-brushed under the banner of identity politics. While they may have some reasonable arguments with regard to radicalized parts of such movements, unjust generalization takes place. This (mis-)representation is part of a wider problem in a society during discussions about identity politics and minority rights. The issue arises from the generalization of one-off, extreme cases. In other words, there is a tendency to overlook nuances; thereby seeking confrontation rather than a compromise. Complex phenomena are reduced to binaries: pitting one side against the other. However, there is also a propensity to get provoked and cry out loud before listening to the ‘other side’ carefully; before questioning one’s own position. And this, in my opinion, is a truly worrisome tendency which goes far beyond identity politics. So, in this piece, I want to discuss in detail on how my thoughts on identity politics transformed over time.
Encountering Jordan Peterson
The first time I ‘met’ Jordan Peterson was in the now-famous interview with British Channel 4. At the time, I had read several articles on the crises of men in many Western countries, i.e. the massive overrepresentation of men in statistics on suicide, mental health issues, prison population, crime, drop-out-rates from schools and universities. Moreover, I became aware of research that populist voters seemed to be male, to a large extent. Intuitively, I connected these two issues: many men were having a very bad time due to the challenges just mentioned, so could they be blamed for voting for people who were promising better times again, jobs, stability, a sense of belongingness and of importance? In discussions about Donald Trump’s voters we have seen the stereotype of such men time and again: single, non-college-educated, often unemployed; frustrated with the present society, conservative political attitudes, living in the past, and distant from the pulsating urban areas. At the same time, the first MeToo-wave arrived in Germany. I was in favour of gender equality and was shocked by many of the stories that were circulating at that time. Discussions with female friends made me aware of the massive challenges women face in different areas of society and I thought that it was extremely important to do something about these issues. But on the other hand, I was also concerned that the MeToo movement was getting all the media attention, while nobody was talking about the issues men faced. I still believed that it was important to tackle these issues. However, I got caught in the same trap as many others, as I will argue later, for the likes of Jordan Peterson. The trap of not being able to acknowledge that talking about one problem does not mean to deny the rest. I fell into the trap of black and white thinking, of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. So, at that time, I was frustrated that nobody was speaking up for the issues of men.
Well, then I found Jordan Peterson on Channel 4. Calm, composed, convincing, rhetorician par excellence and true to the good, facts-based argument no matter how provocative or misleading the questions of the moderator were. That was my first impression of Peterson. Not only did he acknowledge the issues of (young) men, he also offered them a way out in his book 12 Rules For Life, on his YouTube channel and in his podcast series. I certainly would still agree with some of the advice from his book, even today. Rule 9 for instance: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. What a useful rule. An invitation to openness and curiosity. But yet, there was also something else, beyond his psychological project of helping people to get back on track (or on better tracks) in their lives. A political project. The fear of groups fighting for equality of outcome, the fear of identity politics. The fear of authoritarian tendencies, the end of freedom of speech. The fear of chaos. In this essay, I will focus on this political project.
For the Danish speakers among us, I can recommend the brilliant podcast Manderegler in which Emma Holten and Anders Haahr discuss Peterson’s psychological project.
Back to the political project: in a short summary, Peterson is warning of groups that are determined to model contemporary society in such a way that there is an equal outcome (for instance in selection of profession, salary, leadership positions) based on certain markers such as identity, gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality. And this, according to Peterson, is highly dangerous and means the end of competence and the beginning of chaotic arbitrariness. When everyone is forced to be equal, the spectre of totalitarian communism becomes a reality, he claimed. Even worse, the markers of identities are fluid and even intersectional, thanks to the post-modernist school of thought. Allegedly, you could just find your small identity marker, construct one, to take it to the extreme identity as a mermaid, and claim equal representation of mermaids in the board of your company and force your way into leadership based on nothing but arbitrary role-construction. All of this sounded worrisome to me, and the picture of a competition about jobs and positions in a hierarchy based on totally random, fluid identities sounded crazy and hilarious, absolutely like total chaos. Chaos, for Jordan Peterson, is a crucial issue that contributes to the destabilising of our societies and leads to uncertainties that “many people feel about the meaning of life and about their position in the world”(1)
The (very) short answer to this problem: order. Arrest the rise of identity politics, and the mantra of the Western culture as a tyrannical patriarchy; stop telling men that they are doing nothing but reproducing patriarchy. Preserve societal hierarchies based on competence and facts.
This argument sounded logical to me. The complexities of the modern world are undoubtedly unsettling for many of us. Rights-based movements around the world are surely contributing to a sense of chaos and uncertainty, especially for those whose privileges are being challenged, for those whose ways of organising society are being questioned. Still, I had believed that Jordan Peterson is spot on: these movements create a lot of uncertainty. The way in which our societal structures are questioned by feminist movements, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the LGBT-movements and so many others are deeply unsettling, especially if one takes seriously the enormous implications of their claims: our societies are way more exclusive than we think; our societal structures are oppressive and many, especially men, have gained unjust privileges. And this does not even include the critique(s) of Western societies and capitalism as grounded in colonial exploitation. Especially when you are on the stand, constantly criticised, on the verge of losing privilege, such fundamental critique is deeply unsettling. And even if one agrees with these critiques as a privileged member of Western society, to hear these fundamental critiques of our societies is troubling. Nevertheless, I came to realise that the supposed ‘order’ in western society was so ‘orderly’ and ‘calm’ only because all these voices of feminists, members of the LGBT-community, People of Colour (POC) and so forth, have not been heard. The chaos has always been there – but it was suppressed. Therefore, the analysis that these movements are deeply unsettling for our societal structures is right. But the answer provided, i.e. going back to our old order, is utterly conservative and can only lead to the same oppression of marginalised groups again. That is what our order has been based on, as for example Judith Butler has brilliantly argued for in her books Frames of War and The Force of Nonviolence(2)(3)
Understanding Identity Politics
First of all, what is identity politics? Some definitions first: identity politics is “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group“(4). According to Stanford University: “Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination”(5). These two definitions seem to have quite a different emphasis. While the first seems to exclude the character of identity politics, the second focuses on the political struggle of marginalised groups for increased self-determination.
This definitional ambiguity highlights one of the issues with the arguments and warnings of Jordan Peterson and the likes. From my perspective, it seems as if the criticism of movements allegedly fighting this dangerous fight of identity politics is often too generalising. One finds what one looks for, so to speak. To me, it seems as if the critics of identity politics often misunderstand and represent the goals of, for instance, feminist movements. For many feminists, the issue at hand is, of course, the promotion of the specific interests of women based on well-documented facts: that women still face sexism and gender discrimination while seeking opportunities. We are therefore not dealing with a particularistic claim to special rights, or a claim of special advantages, but rather with a claim to equal rights, the actual enforcement of equal rights.
As Judith Butler puts it in her book Frames of War, political coalitions that deal with multiculturalism and politics of recognition, i.e. many of the movements that Peterson, Murray and Dahl would frame as problematic identity-political movements, are bound together less by issues of identity. Rather, she argues that they are bound together by “forms of political opposition to certain state and other regulatory policies that affect exclusions, abjections, partially or fully suspended citizenship, subordination, debasement and the like”(6).
For some movements, special advantages or equality of outcomes can be a temporary solution to counter-balance structural disadvantages or exclusions, but this is definitely not the same as a totalitarian, dangerous vision, which these movements are so frequently accused of. The same holds true for movements for equal rights of ethnic minorities or LGBT movements. For people like Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray or Henrik Dahl it may seem like these groups are trying to carve out unfair advantages based on an imagination of a particularistic identity. But this is a massive misunderstanding. For the most part, these groups fight for the enforcement of equal rights and for equal opportunities. They remind our societies of the fact that equality of opportunity on paper, or by law, is very much different from everyday experiences. In other words: for them, equality of opportunity is still something that they can only aspire for.
Of course, these experiences are terrible to hear and for some, they may even come as a surprise, because we, as privileged individuals, can easily have the impression that our societies are equal and fair. Moreover, since this is ensured on paper through law and articulated so frequently, we can be mistaken and believe that our condition is valid for everyone. But this notion is being challenged and we should listen to these people and their experiences and take them seriously. They tell us where practice differs from paper, where society has blind spots and where further work is needed. We should take seriously the claim of groups that feel disadvantaged – just as the men that Jordan Peterson is worried about want to be and also should be. We need to have the capacity to discuss challenges of different groups at the same time – there must not be a competition between groups that feel disadvantaged, society should avoid pitting such groups against each other. In short, we need to develop a capacity for ambiguity and pluralism – instead of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ thinking in simplistic terms.
There will always be radical groups that are going too far – and of course, there are groups in the realm of identity politics that do so, just as there are groups like that on the margins of any other political struggle. But it is naive to look at the groups that are going too far and create the image of the whole struggle based on this perception. Moreover, one should always ask the question: Are the radicals really that radical? Are they going too far? Or does it only seem like that because I have not truly understood the claims, not given them a real chance, or because some things that I have taken for granted are suddenly challenged by these groups?
The closer examination of these movements in the realm of identity movements then leads to the conclusion that most of these groups are actually fighting for equal rights of self-determination, not for an exclusionary, authoritarian-like state. In some cases, that is what they are actually fighting against (for instance, the United States under President Trump). To us privileged people, especially men, it may often seem that feminist groups, People of Colour (POC) groups or LGBT+ movements are fighting for special rights that we do not even have ourselves. Especially if one does actually not feel privileged. But the more seriously we listen to ‘rights-based’ movements, the more we find out that this notion of special rights gets challenged, the more we may realise that the claims we perceive to be special are demands for the enforcement of the equal rights already granted on paper. We must ask ourselves, if what we perceive as a particularistic struggle for identities is not, in reality, a legitimate fight for equal treatment.
Further, on an individual and societal level, we need to learn to build capacities to handle multiple struggles at once and especially not to make the mistake that fighting for the rights of one group means denying another group’s rights.
How can we get there? For this, let me come back to Jordan Peterson’s rule number 9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t“. No matter whether we are conservative, liberal or non-inclined, we should pay more attention and listen to each other, even though we are of radically different opinions – or at least believe to be so. To give a little, maybe constructed example: in such a way, followers of Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray and Henrik Dahl could find common ground with some feminists, ethnic movements, LGBT movements on the aim of creating equal opportunities for everyone. They would likely still differ a lot regarding the path to achieve this – but some common ground is a good starting point for progress. On the other hand, radical feminists may be able to put Jordan Peterson’s political project aside for a moment and think about whether some of his 12 rules for life could be worthy for some further consideration. The crucial point here is that the discussion about identity politics seems increasingly polarised, radically charged, and verbally violent. In such an atmosphere, it is no surprise that participants seek for disagreement, rather than agreement. One presupposes arguments, misinterprets to confirm one’s own views and does not listen carefully to the opposing party.
Let us take another example. Judith Butler is often taken as the advocate or example of a radical feminist propagating identity politics, something repeatedly taken up by Jordan Peterson in interviews, YouTube lectures etc. But what does Butler herself suggest? In Frames of War, she tries to develop, among other things, a critique of state violence and argues the following.
“Second, the focus would be less on identity politics, or the kinds of interests and beliefs formulated on the basis of identity claims, and more on precarity and its differential distributions, in the hope that new coalitions might be formed capable of overcoming the liberal impasses mentioned above”(7)
In this book, Butler calls for alliances based on the acknowledgement of precarity, rather than on identity politics. Surely this one quote is just one small example taken out of the context of one book and a larger academic project and it does not mean that Butler is against identity politics in general. But the point is to show that it is important to look at arguments more closely. After all, Butler’s call for the acknowledgement of the precarity and vulnerability of human beings could also encompass and speak to the audience of Jordan Peterson, and some of her suggestions may very well be worth taking into consideration regarding the crisis of men as well. But this does not happen. Instead, as soon as it is believed that someone belongs to the other camp, civility is lost, and discussions derail. Someone like Butler is put into the camp of radical, dangerous feminists without further consideration.
This is not a phenomenon that is limited to discussions about identity politics alone, but rather an issue of many societal discussions at the moment, both on the right and the left. And this is where I believe the dangers for the society as we know it exist. If our point of entry to a debate is to seek disagreement, the debate will lead to nothing constructive. If we want to be provoked, we will be provoked. If we want to believe that people with other opinions are radical, we will find proof for that to be true. Actually, in many public discussions identity politics is played vice versa: peoples’ attitudes and arguments are presupposed based on their (group) identity.
This kind of polarising environment for discussions is dangerous. In my opinion, this is where Jordan Peterson, Murray & Co are off: it is not identity politics that is dangerous, it is the general climate of discussions during debates on identity. We see the consequences of polarization and the difficulties to find common ground at the time of my writing: the US-Elections. Precisely, this is just a symptom, the final consequence of a society that seems to have become extremely polarised. Of a society that has lost its sense for any common ground and replaced it with a sense of disagreement, of seeing an enemy in anyone that disagrees. This is the consequence, among other things, of a debate culture that has lost attention to nuances, possibilities for compromises or common ground. A debate culture that rushes to draw conclusions based on a binary logic: ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. This is steered by commercial interests and algorithm-driven mass media ‘empires’ that favour lurid, scandalising and polarising content, just to generate more clicks. The heated debates about identity politics reflect this kind of debate climate – with radical ends of both sides. In such a situation, radicalisation, provocation, and simplistic statements may seem like the only options to make oneself heard. Because that is what is heard. However, this is what damages and endangers democracy.
In 1992, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas foresaw some of the tendencies that I just described. “The more societal complexity increases and originally ethnocentric perspectives widen, the more there develops a pluralisation of forms of life accompanied by an individualisation of life histories, while the zones of overlapping lifeworlds and shared background assumptions shrink”(8). What we experience today is exactly such a widening of ethnocentric perspectives. PoC-movements, BLM, feminist movements and so forth ask us, force us to do so. With the increasing number of social groups claiming for their rights today, we may also recognise what Habermas calls the pluralisation of life forms, the individualisation of life histories. Sometimes, it can be difficult for us to understand the perspectives of ‘rights-based’ movements, because we do not experience the same challenges, the same discrimination in our lives. But we should avoid polarisation, and not let the society break apart. Habermas himself calls for a strengthening of democracy, for an inclusion of the marginalised for a constructive, inclusive dialogue.
Therefore, we should take a step back, pause, and not position ourselves to be provoked. Instead, we should look for nuances, look for a common ground, grounds for wider agreement. In the very first place we should start to seriously listen to each other and make an effort to understand and empathise, rather than make an effort to offend ourselves. To borrow from Butler, we should acknowledge each other as vulnerable beings. Many of us are in one way or the other live, or from time to time experience, precarity. Take the current pandemic as an example. We are dependent on each other in our complex societies. “Precarity cuts across identity categories as well as multicultural maps”(9). Everyone faces problems, everyone has their own set of battles to fight. Unless we acknowledge this basic commonality that unites us, we may not find it easier to listen, or to understand each other. We may ultimately not agree on many issues – but we might find few intersections to overcome polarising thinking and debate. Maybe, it could even help us find constructive pathways to discuss our social issues, without hesitation and room for taking offence.
- Youtube: Jordan B. Peterson | Full interview | SVT/TV 2/Skavlan
- Butler, J. (2016). Frames of War. When Is Life Grievable?. London: Verso.
- Butler, J. (2020). The Force of Nonviolence. London: Verso.
- Merriam Webster (n.d.). Identity politics
- Heyes, C. (2020). Identity Politics [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Online].
- Butler, J. (2016). Frames of War. When Is Life Grievable?. London: Verso. Page 147.
- Habermas, J. (1997). Between Facts and Norms. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Butler, J. (2016). Frames of War. When Is Life Grievable?. London: Verso. Page 32.
Illustrations by Dhrupadi Ghosh
About the Author
Hinnerk Frech, 23, doing his Masters in Political Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is interested in a variety of different issues from philosophical discussions in the social sciences to the influence of social networks or smart homes on society, and enjoys writing about these issues and discussing them. Hinnerk is a climate activist in Den Grønne Studenterbevægelse (The Green Student Movement), for which he has participated in both TV and radio debate programmes.