Sub­merged in a din of iden­tity

Tribal loy­al­ties have be­come the ‘fac­tions’ that Ge­orge Washington warned against

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

The hu­man an­i­mal seems hard­wired for trib­al­ism, and the ties that bind are shaped by our com­pelling need to group to­gether, obey­ing calls for loy­al­ties and ex­clu­sions. Some group­ings con­trib­ute not only to the grat­i­fi­ca­tions of bond­ing, whether in fam­ily, clubs, choirs or loy­alty to sports teams, but pro­vide the glue that holds a com­mu­nity to­gether.

But tribes be­come the “fac­tions” that Ge­orge Washington warned against in his Farewell Ad­dress, height­en­ing dif­fer­ences and ri­val­ries which the Found­ing Fa­thers hoped to di­lute through checks and bal­ances in the three branches of gov­ern­ment. In the age of the In­ter­net, trib­al­ism as­serts it­self in the flood of out­rage sto­ries that bom­bard us hourly, mak­ing us an­gry and hos­tile toward those with whom we dis­agree.

Barack Obama, who had all but van­ished from pub­lic life, opened a con­ver­sa­tion about iden­tity pol­i­tics in a speech the other day in South Africa, cel­e­brat­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the birth of Nel­son Man­dela, warn­ing that democ­racy is served poorly when iden­tity is the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple.

“Democ­racy de­mands that we’re able to get in­side the re­al­ity of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent than us,” the former pres­i­dent said, “so we can un­der­stand their point of views. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours.”

It’s tempt­ing to dis­miss an ar­gu­ment, even when it’s rea­son­able, of­fered by a former pres­i­dent and the cur­rent one, if we don’t like things they say. There’s no room for de­bate and every­one is quickly la­beled as ei­ther hate­ful or stupid for ex­press­ing a dif­fer­ent point of view. It’s “us” against “them,” and a mean spirit be­comes a con­ta­gion, splin­ter­ing us into sub­groups of an­i­mos­ity, left and right, cul­tur­ally and po­lit­i­cally.

“A shift in tone, rhetoric, and logic has moved iden­tity pol­i­tics away from in­clu­sion — which had al­ways been the left’s watch­word — toward ex­clu­sion and divi­sion,” writes Amy Chua, a Yale law pro­fes­sor, in “Po­lit­i­cal Tribes: Group In­stinct and the Face of Na­tions.” Face­book now lists more than 50 gen­ders (“sexes,” they used to be called) for ar­gu­ment, “from gen­derqueer to in­ter­sex to pan­gen­der,” as they com­pete to take equal op­por­tu­nity of­fense. The competitio­n for vic­tim­iza­tion has be­come a crowded field.

Jonathan Haidt, au­thor of “The Right­eous Mind,” who has stud­ied po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion since 2007, ob­serves that both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum show in­creas­ing dis­like for the other and think the other a threat to the coun­try. The par­ties, which once in­cluded an un­even mix of con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als, con­trive now to be so ide­o­log­i­cally “pure” that op­pos­ing voices within are quickly si­lenced.

The term “iden­tity pol­i­tics” is heard of­ten in the news and on so­cial me­dia to an­i­mate our own ideas and prej­u­dices, some good, some not so good, in our multi-cul­tural coun­try. But what does “iden­tity pol­i­tics” ac­tu­ally re­fer to? Whose iden­tity? Whose pol­i­tics? The ques­tions run through con­ver­sa­tions on the beach, at a bar and around the bar­be­cue grill, over­heard in the swim­ming pool or on a pic­nic blan­ket, ad­dressed ca­su­ally be­tween men and women of dif­fer­ent ages and in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions where peo­ple con­gre­gate.

Sum­mer brings peo­ple to­gether from many walks and places of life, back­grounds and tra­di­tions, and in a happy and laid-back sea­son they once could meet with­out the bag­gage that dis­rupts and angers de­bate in talk about pol­i­tics and cur­rent events. But now, not so much. Pol­i­tics seems to be per­ma­nently po­lar­ized. Af­ter old friends and sum­mer ac­quain­tances move through con­ge­nial con­ver­sa­tions about their fam­ily, re­la­tion­ships, work, play, base­ball and some­times soc­cer, the scorch­ing heat or the dreary rainy day, iden­tity pol­i­tics emerges as a com­mon theme. It as­serts it­self like a snake coil­ing around the base of a tree, and be­comes a dan­ger­ous dis­rup­tion of neigh­borly co­he­sion. Whether black, white, His­panic, Asian, male or fe­male, gay or straight, Jewish, Chris­tian or Mus­lim, iden­tity pol­i­tics forces us to think in terms of dif­fer­ences and not about the many good things we cher­ish and hold in com­mon.

The im­per­fect melt­ing pot that once united us as un-hy­phen­ated Amer­i­cans has boiled over into an in­di­gestible stew, giv­ing peo­ple heartburn and in­di­ges­tion, no longer pro­vid­ing a way for smooth­ing over dif­fer­ences. The tem­per­a­ture of so­cial dis­course in­evitably rises. Iden­tity pol­i­tics and the re­vival of a tribal men­tal­ity may be the most dele­te­ri­ous af­flic­tion we as in­di­vid­u­als and as a na­tion must con­tend with.

When Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights strug­gle, he aimed for a na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to re­deem an in­clu­sive Amer­i­can dream. Abra­ham Lin­coln, who sought heal­ing in the few days he had left af­ter the Civil War, urged us to lis­ten to the bet­ter angels of our na­ture. But those angels, as Lin­coln knew, are frag­ile, and eas­ily de­stroyed in the din of iden­tity.

The term “iden­tity pol­i­tics” is heard of­ten in the news and on so­cial me­dia to an­i­mate our own ideas and prej­u­dices, some good, some not so good, in our mul­ti­cul­tural coun­try. But what does “iden­tity pol­i­tics” ac­tu­ally re­fer to? Whose iden­tity? Whose pol­i­tics?

Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Washington Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.


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