Picking the right side in identity politics

David Kelly

Vilifying a group of people by their race instead of their political beliefs.

Don Lemon, a celebrated news anchor from CNN, has called for a halt of the demonization of people while simultaneously vilifying white men. The logical inconsistency here could not be more obvious, yet Lemon has unapologetically doubled down on his statement, cherry picking some statistics to justify his racist comments.

Despite uttering a severe moral hypocrisy within the same breath, Lemon specified that we should be mostly concerned with white men who happen to be far-right. He cited a 2017 report from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and the Centre for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, which found that from 2008 to 2016, there were almost twice as many terrorist incidents carried out on U.S. soil by radical right-wingers compared with Islamic domestic terrorists.

Ironically, the fundamental problem with Lemon’s statement is identical to the fundamental problem of Trump’s rhetoric. Lemon proposes, whether intentionally or not, that people and white men are somehow separate.

Johnathan Haidt, an American moral psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, refers to this phenomenon as “common enemy identity politics”, something distinct from “common humanity identity politics”.

By creating a dichotomy of people and white men, Lemon is positing that white men are the enemy of the people, not dissimilar to how people accuse Trump of vilifying groups such as Mexicans, or Muslims. Rather than identify the problem as being political, he does so on racial terms.

Lemon identifies a reasonable problem of right-wing extremism, not white men. Trump identified a reasonable problem; illegal immigration, not Mexicans. It is critical that those in the public debate be precise in their speech. The alternative is further polarisation.

When Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his brilliant ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, he didn’t vilify or exonerate a group based on their race. He didn’t call for division or resentment. He asked the people to search for the common humanity in us all.

King used rich, evocative language that united white and black people under the banner of humanity. This rhetoric, permeated with Judeo-Christian values, was the foundation of one of the most successful civil rights movement in history.

This is what Haidt calls “common humanity identity politics”. This is the philosophy that those who claim to support tolerance and diversity should be using. The problem with the far-right and the far-left is not that they play identity politics, but that they play the wrong kind of identity politics.

Common enemy identity politics is essentially a form of tribalism. Historically, tribes have viewed their tribal identity as paramount, and often view outsiders with suspicion and hostility. This is antithetical to the values that activists such as King put forward, values centred around the divinity of the individual.

Realistic conflict theory posits that tribal groups fight due to the actuality or perception of the world being a zero-sum system. Common enemy identity politics is a manifestation of Marxism, an ideology with a similar theory.

Marxism is a political ideology that posits that there are two categories of people, oppressed and oppressor, and that society is a constant conflict of power between these two groups.

Common enemy identity politics pits tribes against one another in a zero-sum contest for power. This is not how progress is achieved. We need to identify the humanity that unites us and solve problems as one group of sacred individuals, not as tribes doomed to conflict.

David Kelly

Image Credit: Ramzpaul.com