Walk this way, talk this way

27 11 2016

White people are mad that black people want to talk about race. Men people are mad that women people want to talk about sex.

White men people would prefer that women people and black people and Latinx people and queer people stop talking about things that white men people don’t want to talk about.

Or so it would seem from the latest volleys in the never-ending Wars of Identity, aka Battles of Political Correctness, aka Liberal vs. Illiberal Liberalism. I have some sympathy for all sides, although the greater part is with those who speak in the language of justice. That there is overreach on the part of the insurgents is to be expected—you don’t always know how far to go until you’ve gone too far—and should be confronted directly, and with some good grace.

Condescension is neither direct nor graceful, yet condescension is what Kevin Drum and Mark Lilla have on offer.

Drum argues that the term “white supremacism” is “faddish” and counter-productive: how can we get non-liberal people to take racism seriously if we keep talking about racism? Lilla goes back to the well to pull up yet another impression of identity-siloed collegiates, unaware of anything or anyone other than their own selves.

Neither discusses justice.

They do, however, talk about how all this talk about supremacism and identity is damaging to those who don’t like it. Pointing out everyday racism, says Drum, is like crying wolf: what will you do when The Racism really comes? And Lilla cautions that invoking whiteness is like saying Bloody Mary three times in a mirror: the incantation itself will conjure white-identity politics.

As if white-identity politics doesn’t already exist, as if The Racism isn’t already here. Lilla himself remarks that the Klan was an early manifestation of white-identity politics, but acts as if that manifestation were a distant island rather than the land itself. He wants a post-identity politics, one which appeals to Americans-as-Americans—as if Americanness is itself somehow innocent of history.

Note, too, the tactic both Drum and Lilla deploy: they seek to define the rules of liberal-left political engagement by decrying the efforts of others to (re)define the rules of liberal-left political engagement.

It is unsurprising that those who hold themselves above it all are unhappy with those who point out that they are, in fact, not above it all.

I noted at the outset that white people and men people are upset with non-white people and non-men people asserting themselves—this is, of course, an exaggeration. There are many white people and men people who recognize and are trying to understand that whiteness and men-ness are partial identities and what that means, among all the many other partial identities, and how they have been used in the unjust construction of those other partial identities.

Lilla wants us to get beyond identity—a desire which a suspicious hermeneut like me shares. But we don’t get “beyond” without recognizing “here”, a place in which some people historically have claimed a universal identity so as to define the particular identities of others, a place in which those with the particular identities are now seeking to define themselves, and claim themselves, as their own kind of people.

It’s a rough town, and a rough time, but we don’t get beyond without going through.