Identity politics came up during the presidential campaign, with Republicans accusing Democrats of using identity politics to divide the nation into competing interests while they were all about uniting everyone. There were a few articles and op-ed columns, then it went away – until the last several weeks. Now it’s all over the place. Right wingers of various stripes complain that identity politics, not racists and fascists, are the root cause of the civil disorder we’ve seen. Whoever is behind it, and surely there must be someone, intends to take us down by dividing us one against the other, while you-know-who is struggling mightily to unite us in common effort.
A Wikipedia article claims the term has been around since the 1970s, but it only gave a name to something much older. It’s not an ideology, nor is it a movement. It’s not even a well defined political tactic. At it’s core it’s giving voice to, and hearing the voice of, people whose voices had previously been ignored or suppressed. The Civil Rights movement projected some of those voices with power that shook the illusion of a national unity expressed by a single voice accustomed to suppressing dissenting views without fear of opposition. Feminist voices added their own decibels to the mix, as did environmentalists, and then dozens of others emboldened and wanting to be heard.
Things seemed to settle down to normal In the decades following the era of Vietnam and civil rights uprisings. Adequate progress had been made. Voices had been allowed to speak, sometimes heard, and occasionally given a seat at the table. All was well, the right voices were in charge, and then one of those other voices got elected to the presidency. Who the hell let that happen? It began to look like politics had become a game in which one identity group would win at the expense of all others, especially at the expense of those accustomed to being in charge. The last election nearly gave it up to yet another one. It didn’t happen, but it nearly did. Would American elections from now on be won by which identity group could beat the others? Something like identity playoffs in which there would be one winner, everyone else a loser? If candidates listened to the various voices in their constituencies, were they pandering to them, or playing them off against each other? Those who were accustomed to being in charge, speaking as if for all, thought they knew. Those whose own identities were sort of like the ones in charge also thought they knew. Identity politics was destructive of national unity under one voice.
All the talk about identity politics might have died away again but for the guy who got elected. It turned out his was a voice once identified with old gangster movies and novels about corrupt Southern politics. With consummate skill at saying the unthinkable with the worst possible timing, he unleashed storms of voices who couldn’t, wouldn’t keep their peace any longer. Among them were the voices of pure evil.
What a racket! What a chaotic, indecipherable racket! “Can’t we all just get along?” Can’t we all just go back to the way it use to be? Let the people who know how to be in charge speak for all of us the way they used to. The rest of you just be quiet, relax, chill.
It is a racket, and it is chaotic, but it’s also healthy. They’re not voices in competition with each other so that one must win and the others lose. With a few exceptions, they’re voices expressing genuine concern about important issues that need to be heard in the context of cooperative conversation with others. They’re voices that live in symbiotic relationship with other voices, and the health of the whole depends on the health of the symbiosis.
Hard to believe, but St. Paul had something useful to say about it. He wrote to the squabbling church in Corinth that: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. …If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Cor. 12)”
It doesn’t mean pathogens wont try to infect the body ,but I think you get the idea.
So here’s to identity politics. May we learn to love it as we live into it.