The hidden trauma of identity politics
How did identity come to be political and cultural ground zero?
Begin with some uncontroversial facts emphasised most recently by protests, riots, and statue-trashing across the Western world. Sexual identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, and the rest of the pack have become essential to leftist politics—so much so that imagining today’s progressivism without these group identities or their agendas is an exercise in futility.
Legitimate global outrage over the killing of George Floyd is one thing. Its hijacking by activists intent on identitarian mania, such as ritualistic prostration, is another. Here as elsewhere, collective furore over the self is revealed as the signature political development of our time. The outcome of the next American presidential election, to name one prominent example, will depend in part on the struggle—already titanic within the liberal-left—between those who believe they can ride identity politics into victory, and those who demur.
Meanwhile, outside of national politics, ideologies of identity continue their spread into one cultural institution after another. Campuses across the Western world have become proscenia for the enactment of identity panic, complete with “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “appropriation” conflicts, and other intriguing linguistic innovations. The shouting down of speakers with unwanted views has become routine; shakedowns in the form of demands for extra “security” funding for supposedly controversial guests are so common as to be unremarkable; and speech on the quad and elsewhere is policed down to the pronoun for transgressions offensive to one or another inflamed subset.
As the campuses go, so do other flagships, from vaunted cultural spaces, like museums to essential academic fields including science, technology, engineering, and math. The human resources departments of corporations now operate in part as weaponised hall monitors, patrolling their bureaucracies and employees’ social media accounts for transgressions against identitarian codes. Fashion runways, Halloween, public bathrooms, libraries, food and drink magazines: it’s hard to think of a quotidian venue that hasn’t run afoul lately of prefix Puritans or “appropriation” scouts.
To acknowledge the ubiquity of identity politics is not to suggest moral equivalence among any particular groups. Neither is it to suggest a mono-causal theory of what unites them; the social forces in play are legion. But pace suggestions that identity politics is business as usual, it represents a tectonic shift. For many Western citizens, political desires and political agendas have become indistinguishable from the desires and agendas of the particular aggrieved faction with which they most “identify”—and the human beings outside those chosen factions are treated more and more not as fellow citizens, but as enemies to be eliminated by shame, intimidation, and, where possible, legal punishment. That is something new.
Another fact familiar by now is that many people deplore this unexpected and often incendiary new world.
The conservative-right of the political spectrum, as opposed to the minuscule alt-right, is nearly unanimous in opposing identity politics—at least as a matter of theory, if not always in practice. “Identity politics,” says Fox News host Tucker Carlson by way of example, “will destroy this country faster than any foreign invasion.” University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson calls identity politics “reprehensible.” Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, describes it vividly as “the kind of thing that convinces a black female Yale student from a privileged background that she is a victim because of the color of her skin, and that some toothless white Appalachian man on disability is an oppressor, because of his.”
According to the conservative critique, the unrelenting focus on identity infantilises the polity, substitutes victim-hood for citizenship, and subverts responsible self-government by turning E pluribus unum on its head, making many out of one.
What has also emerged during the past few years is that more than a few liberals agree with that analysis. Ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has called identity politics “one of the great evils of our age.” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, author of the anti-identitarian manifesto The Once and Future Liberal, argues that the ideology “fetishises our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we.” Psychologist and professor Steven Pinker, another liberal critic, says that when identity politics “spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values.”
In sum, the parties to the debate over identity politics, pro and con, are evident enough. What has not yet been illuminated, however, is the wider story of which they are all part. Whichever way one looks—to the left or to the right, to culture or to politics, across the United States or across the pond—a remarkable fact appears: the question Who am I? is now one of the most fraught of our time.
This brings us to a question that has not yet been asked, and needs to be: Why?
How has the matter of “identity” come to be emotional and political ground zero for so many people in the first place?
Here’s an answer. The modern clamour over identity cannot be understood without simultaneously grasping a cause that has been overlooked: the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens, especially though not only across societies of the United States and Europe, since the 1960s. This includes the most elemental fracturing of all: the unprecedented and now quotidian dispersion, shrinkage, and breakup of many families — trends that are now 60-plus years in the making, with no end in sight.
The engine of this great transformation is the sexual revolution, meaning the widespread social changes that followed the arrival the birth control pill and related devices delivering reliable contraception en masse for the first time. Not only in the United States, but around many parts of the world, the revolution ushered in the de-stigmatisation of non-marital sex in all its varieties, and a sharp rise in behaviours that were formerly rare, or stigmatised, or both. That list of particulars includes but is not limited to unprecedented rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup, and other phenomena that have become commonplace in the world since the 1960s.
Many people, back then and now, have believed in good faith that these familial mutations amount to a net plus for humanity, and that their own lives have been immeasurably enhanced by the freedoms that only the revolution could have brought. Yet the accumulation of evidence suggests a different case, also made in good faith: that these same changes have simultaneously undermined the natural habitat of the human animal, with radical results that we are only beginning to understand.
To grasp those consequences is not to take issue with any single act of individual choice. It is instead to assess the collective environmental impact of many millions of them, taken over the course of many years. Decades into the unintended and potent experiment of the sexual revolution, a great many human beings now live as if we are not the intensely communal creatures that we always have been; and systemic consequences of that profound shift are now emerging.
These include our increasingly surreal politics. To study the timeline is to see that identity politics, born in 1977 with a manifesto penned by radical black feminists, has grown in tandem with the spread of the sexual revolution—and not only in the United States, but across every society rooted in Western civilisation.
In post-revolutionary societies, the old ways of knowing who I am and what I’m for (i.e., by reference to family, extended family, and real-life larger communities such as churches) are growing weaker for many people, and no longer exist at all for some. For different reasons of modernity and postmodernity, all of these collective identities have deteriorated. In his landmark 2000 book Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert D. Putnam mapped the dislocations of declining communities and associations. What remains to be emphasised today is the decline of the first among equals of these: the primary community of the family.
Outside of wartime or other catastrophe, the organic connections of this unit have been sundered as never before. Vague talk of “family change,” of the kind that has become commonplace, does not do justice to the enormity of this reality. System-wide familial dislocations are now having repercussions at every stage of human life, as shown by new data about the steep rise in psychiatric problems among teenagers and young adults; decades of empirical evidence about the harms of fatherless homes (a literature as well-known as it is stoutly ignored); the “loneliness studies” now proliferating in sociology, spotlighting the increasing isolation of the elderly in every Western nation; related studies suggesting that people in their twenties and below may be the loneliest cohort of all; and the increasing atomisation of daily life in societies where there are ever fewer babies, ever later marriages, and other markers of a civilisation that is losing forward momentum.
Such post-revolutionary havoc has given rise to new social survival strategies, as people unmoored from kinship identity seek substitutes that will do what organic families exist to do — i.e., protect the individuals included in them, and give those individuals a place in the social order. This is where identity groups enters the frame. Identitarian groups function as virtual families and communities in an age when the real-life versions of both these essentials are in decline.
With Western men and women more isolated and estranged from their own than ever before, evidence also mounts of a serious breakdown in one of the family’s primary functions: social learning. The #MeToo movement still reverberating across the Western world is a case in point. Non-marital sex is now less consequential and less stigmatised than ever before. But the shrinkage and implosion of the family has meanwhile crushed the petri dish through which previous generations learned about the opposite sex: by observation of parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the rest of the familial mosaic. The ironic result is that the most sexually practiced generation of humanity may also be the most sexually illiterate—a paradox that the example of #MeToo, with its incoherent Rashomon stories, bears out.
In short, today’s authentic screams by so many people for answers to questions about who they are and where they belong in the world did not spring from nowhere. They are a primordial keening unique to our time, born of familial liquidation.
This essay is adapted from Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (Templeton Press). The book includes commentaries by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel.
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