Vintage colour lithograph of Adam and Eve being cast out of Paradise, c.1880

Utopian dreams and totalitarian nightmares

Identity politics follow the same logic as racism and homophobia

Artillery Row

At the root of the identitarian Left’s politics is a form of self-contradictory morality that demolishes the presumption of innocence and uses coercive shaming tactics designed to “promote” good behaviour. Although identity politics trade on virtue and shame, nothing can be worthy of praise (nor blame) that is not a voluntarily chosen act (or omission) by a free moral agent in circumstances where she could reasonably be expected to have chosen differently.

One of Critical Race Theory’s canonical scriptures, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, exemplifies the logic of blaming people while simultaneously removing their agency. White Fragility is the brainchild of a white author who claims that all white people have unconscious bias. Robin DiAngelo’s message is that white people are racist and that it’s not their fault. For those who can accept this essentialist diagnosis of their heritable disease, there is a strong incentive to accept the cure. Healing restoration comes through acknowledging their condition (read: guilt), reciting CRT’s ideological doctrines and ceasing to evaluate them (since critical “denial” of the diagnosis is a key symptom of the disease). 

CRT short circuits any basis for communication between people of different ethnicities

The refusal to countenance any analysis of its claims is apparently not a sign of Critical Race Theory’s fragility, but a core tenet. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling CRT text Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is illustrative. She pre-emptively dismisses all white commentary on her theses as a power-play. With staggering irony, a self-proclaimed anti-racist is asserting that arguments are to be evaluated not on the basis of the individual’s reasoning, but by the skin colour of the person making the argument. This short circuits any basis for communication between people of different ethnicities and encloses us into separate ghettos and tribes, which is antithetical to what education (never mind anti-racism) is all about. 

In the real world, the presumption of guilt and the assiduous zeal to root it out plays out in myriad ways: in corporate diversity training (DiAngelo’s previous occupation), de-colonising educational curricula, media, culture and sport, and the micro-management, surveillance and policing of “diversity and inclusion” which requires an ever-expanding bureaucratic industry that conflates serious acts of racism (that can be measured in empirical ways) with more dubious and ill-defined “microaggressions” and “hate speech”. Local District “Diversity Councils” have popped up all over the United States overnight to enforce compliance and to announce and police the new “behavioural borders”. The following definition of potential infractions comes from a “Diversity Council” in Southlake, Texas that was presented to the local schoolboard for adoption in August 2020.

NOTE: Microaggressions are defined as everyday verbal or nonverbal, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized or underrepresented group membership. 

To understand what is politically suspect about a framework in which one does not have to do anything specific or intentional to be accused of a punishable infraction, it might be helpful to consider another case study. I have an acquaintance let’s call him “Robert”. Robert is a lovely young gay man who lives in Los Angeles and works as a comic actor. Robert and I grew up in the 1980s in the same small Midwestern town. We both had liberal, affluent parents who loved us unconditionally. We were both gay, although I am almost twenty years older than Robert so my experience of homophobia was probably more severe. 

Having been immersed in L.A.’s “woke” anti-racist culture for a good part of the past decade, and having read some of the foundational CRT texts in a sincere and earnest attempt to educate himself, Robert suddenly realised that there was a parallel between Critical Race Theory’s demands on white people and the demands that LGBTQI people could leverage on cis gendered heterosexuals. The logic goes like this: since outlawing race-based discrimination and creating equal opportunity isn’t sufficient to prove that white people are not racists, then nor is it enough for straight people to treat gays as equals and let them get on with their lives. If not discriminating against people based on their skin colour isn’t sufficient to cement one’s anti-racist status, then nor is allowing gay people to live their lives as they please enough to disprove one’s homophobia. 

With this illiberal logic in mind, Robert flew to his midwestern hometown to confront his two straight siblings. They were summarily reprimanded and lectured on how, as children, they had failed to focus their time and energy on helping their brother to cope with what they “must have known” was his victimised situation in a heteronormative society. After being told point blank that they “suck”, both were notified that he would no longer have anything to do with them, period. 

Robert’s siblings were guilty by default; they had the burden of proving themselves innocent

Robert’s siblings hadn’t let him down by failing to step in to prevent any particular incident of homophobia in which Robert was being bullied. Their “sin” was located in their failure to spend their childhoods actively worrying about their brother’s (then private) problems. Never mind that Robert was not “out” and probably hadn’t even realised himself that he was gay. The entitlement presupposed by Robert’s outlook is so colossal that the phrase “gay privilege” can’t even begin to do it justice. Robert was attempting to stake a claim to the time, energy and liberty of his siblings to assist him in pursuing his life goal of being happy or fulfilled. This is simply not something that any free citizen of a liberal democracy owes to anyone else. 

Robert’s assumption was not merely that others have a duty not to harm him but that they have an obligation to positively help him or to actively support his life goals. In a similar vein, identitarian Leftists treat any neglect or failure in this “duty” as a form of positive harm.

Ironically, Robert’s attitude followed exactly the same logic as the homophobic Christian parents of one of my first boyfriends. They could not accept that their son (my partner) had rejected their faith’s sexual norms. My boyfriend wasn’t preventing his parents from practicing their faith as they understand it. Nor was he persecuting them for their religious beliefs. His only “microaggression” was what he was not doing: he wasn’t living his life according to their conservative religious beliefs. This was the sole reason they disowned him.

In a similar way to these homophobes, Robert was ready to punish his family members for their neglect of his values. He assumed that he did not have the burden of proving his siblings worthy of his hostility. Rather, they were guilty by default; they had the burden of proving themselves innocent. The only way for them to do that was to demonstrate that they had devoted their past lives to LGBTQI activism. Robert’s intention in punishing them was probably to motivate some sort of contrite response such as an apology and commitment to positively agitate for gay rights, or (nowadays) LGBTQI rights (which many feminists and gay rights supporters see as a conflicting nexus). 

Robert’s outlook and his expectations raise many questions: 

(1) Why should his siblings have had an obligation to actively work to root out homophobia from their town, as opposed to, say misogyny, racism, poverty, pollution, political corruption, unemployment, child abuse, drug abuse, or any other social ill? If all of us have an obligation to work towards ending any or all of the social ills that exist at a given time or place, we would have precious little time to do anything else. We would be expected to create a Utopia and any shortcoming in achieving that perfect ideal would be a crime. 

(2) Surely Robert’s siblings had suffered too. If he suffered because of a generalised atmosphere of homophobia, didn’t his sister also suffer because of the town’s ingrained machismo and sexism? Did Robert have an equal and reciprocal obligation towards her to root out sexism in every interaction with his male peers? If so, did he fail in his duties towards her? Could his sister disown him for his failure to constantly work towards the eradication of sexism? Could his brother, a writer, hold him accountable for all of the times he failed to promote the appreciation of literature in their little town? Hadn’t Robert thus made himself “a part of the problem” by passively tolerating a boorish environment in which reading was devalued and culture was limited to high school football, beauty pageants and the County Fair? 

(3) Are all of us guilty (until proven innocent) for everything we don’t do, as opposed to being innocent (until proven guilty) of actual harms we commit? If so, we could only earn back our innocence by selling ourselves into permanent servitude to a Utopian ideology in which we ceaselessly strive to make the world perfect (according to someone’s fallible idea of what constitutes an “ideal” world). 

Managed morality is little more than slavish obedience, motivated by fear and self-preservation, not virtue. In its dependency on a vast bureaucracy of public surveillance, monitoring and intimidation (if not downright violence), identity politics is more like theocracy or a Maoist Cultural Revolution than a genuine improvement in social justice. 

Liberalism works better. It brings about gradual social changes that are deeper and more stable, because they involve genuine conviction and transformation of the individual’s character, not just his or her outward behaviour or socially mediated rhetoric. Under liberalism, individuals are persuaded by appeals to reason, not coerced by instincts like fear or cajoled via endless public propaganda. 

The names of private individuals have been altered to protect their identities. 

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