White privilege, mansplaining, and the pathologies of identity politics
How far has American political culture descended down the rabbit hole of identity politics? So far that the first thing many commentators thought when they heard about a low-stakes standoff in rural Oregon between the feds and a ragtag group of anti-government ranchers was why the authorities weren't going in with guns blazing. You know, the way they supposedly would if a group of armed (or perhaps even unarmed) black protesters had occupied a government building.
Others wanted to know why "we" (meaning the media and government spokespeople) weren't referring to the ranchers as terrorists and calling for a quasi-military response. You know, the way we would if the troublemakers were Muslims threatening violence in the name of Allah.
And there you have it: the identity-politics-addled mind at work. Its first thought is always an ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological category, like "white privilege," which it uses to size-up the world in an instant. Next comes judgment, usually quick and severe, using a single measure: relative power among the various ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological groups. And then there is the final ingredient: the moralistic edge tinged with grievance that makes the American style of identity politics so potent and distinctive, an obsessive fixation on justice understood as equality.
Put it all together and we're left with the only form of moral evaluation that identity politics can manage: the indignant denunciation of double standards.
Such thinking isn't always wrong or pernicious. Some critics who drew parallels between the ranchers and black protesters or Muslims had important points to make. But to be smart, those points had to be nuanced, measured, concerned with the details of numerous hypothetical situations. Have Black Lives Matters protesters really been treated harshly by police? In all cases? Or just some? Do we see a pattern in the differences? Is the hypothetical standoff happening in a high-population area or in a wildlife refuge roughly 30 miles away from the nearest town? Is there a chance of negotiating an end to the standoff, as may be the case in Oregon? Or are the occupiers Islamists out to murder as many people as possible to advance a world-historical theological goal that can't possibly be negotiated?
The problem with thinking in terms of identity politics isn't that it's worthless but that it's lazy, overly rigid, and morally obfuscatory. It can also be so monomaniacally focused on the pursuit of equality ahead of other moral considerations that it leads to outrageous suggestions — like that the unjust resort to violence against black protesters should be replicated in responding to the Oregon ranchers. Because, apparently, it's better to commit two injustices than to commit just one on an inconsistent basis.
Similar problems arise whenever identity politics dominates moral thinking and judgment.
Take the comparatively trivial example of "mansplaining" — or rather, the charge of "mansplaining," leveled by a certain sort of feminist against, well, any man who presumes, in the presence of a woman, to monologue authoritatively on any subject for longer than, say, 30 seconds at a time. Back in the old days — meaning up until about 3 or 4 years ago — this might have just been considered innocuous if slightly irritating rudeness. ("Oh, you know Bob," colleagues might have said discreetly, "he just loves to hear himself talk.") But now it's sexism in action, and perhaps the most insidious kind of all, since it isn't explicit. It relies on an unspoken, presumed deference of women to the authority of any man who sees fit to pontificate.
Does this sometimes happen? Sure. Should a woman who thinks a man is going on too long and adopting an unwarranted authoritative tone say something, interrupting the presumptuous and implicitly condescending monologue? Maybe. Probably. Depends on the situation.
But is the situation best handled — and more importantly, will our understanding of the social dynamics involved be advanced or hindered — by describing it as "mansplaining" and thereby imputing a conscious or unconscious sexist motive to the offending party?
Clearly, obviously, incontestably not.
Or rather, only if you believe that less outspoken men never find themselves in a one-sided conversation with a male talker who just can't seem to shut up. Or that women and men alike never experience a loquacious woman presuming to explain something in tedious, exhausting detail.
And what about the fact that sometimes the "mansplainer" is full of it, while at other times he has something worthwhile to say or explain? (I'm assuming, of course, that even those feminists most committed to fighting mansplaining would concede that not all men who speak authoritatively about a topic in the presence of a woman are guilty of a moral transgression.) Discerning the difference between the different kind of talkers is difficult; it's a judgment call that will vary from person to person and situation to situation. Which is precisely why forcing every person and situation into the same sexist category will not do.
For a final example, this one from the opposite ideological direction, consider Donald Trump's legion of white working-class supporters. It's safe to say that one of the things they find most appealing about him as a presidential candidate is how he validates their sense that the country has lost its way, promises to "Make America Great Again," and defines this process of national rejuvenation in explicitly ethnic terms.
Just as many on the left believe the U.S. is shot through with double standards that benefit whites and disadvantage the members of racial minorities, especially African-Americans, so Trump's supporters apparently believe the reverse. From overly lenient immigration policies that let millions of Hispanics into the country to compete unfairly for jobs, to affirmative action programs that give blacks a leg up in life while stacking the deck against everyone else, the country is rigged against the white ethnic groups that once flourished in the U.S.
Once again, the practitioners of identity politics have a point. The white working class is indeed in relative economic and demographic decline. When an affirmative action program gives a boost to a black college applicant, a white applicant may be comparatively disadvantaged. When large numbers of immigrants cross the southern border, wages at the bottom of the income scale can stagnate and the ethnic mix of the country changes.
But are members of the white working class really the victims of a pro-minority, pro-immigration, anti-white double standard imposed and upheld by the nation's elite? And are those minorities and immigrants really thriving in the way that Trump and his supporters appear to believe?
The answer is no.
The decline of the white working class is a significant problem. It has many overlapping and mutually reinforcing, complicated causes — economic, political, social, cultural, and technological. But it is not the product of an elite-driven conspiracy to bring about the deliberate immiseration and humiliation of a formerly flourishing ethnic group. And so neither can the problem be adequately addressed by promising to get the nation's elites to stop unfairly benefiting other ethnic groups.
Only a mind that's been muddled by identity politics could believe such a thing.
Unfortunately there are an awful lot of such minds in America today.