Identity Politics Dismisses Shared Humanity
The last week of February the Ms Bulletin Board exploded with a crisis
of "identity politics" -- the approach that views group identity
as the foundation of political analysis and action. The
revealed the absurdities of this approach.
The short version of the explosion: a prominent anti-male
voice on the BB was "outed" as being transgendered: that is,
he/she had been born male and became female with medical
assistance. Or did he/she? The ensuing mudfest revolved around
whether womanhood was biological or constructed by society. The
Ms Board splintered, with one group calling for a WBW
(Woman Born Woman) Board to exclude the WBMs (Woman Born Man),
also known as M2Fs (Male to Female).
The Ms BB offers a microcosm of what identity politics
-- the politics of exclusion and group separation -- has wrought
upon society. Within feminism, it began by claiming males could
not be feminists because they did not share women's collective
experience. Then, "anti-feminist" females were dismissed because
their social indoctrination prevented them from realizing they
were part of the collective experience. From there, the
splintering continued. White women could not speak for
minorities, heterosexuals could not understand lesbians,
born-women could not be represented by transgendered ones who
could never be understood by cross-dressers.
Identity politics is an essential part of what defines
current gender issues, race relations, and the gay/lesbian
movement. It is applied in a self-righteous manner to the
pettiest of events. Consider the case of the
mom." A scuffle broke out when two (white) mothers became
tired of a third (black) mother habitually double-parking in
front of an elementary school where they all picked up their
children. Because of the language she hurled at the other
mothers, the black woman faces two counts of "ethnic
intimidation," which carry a possible 2-year sentence. In turn,
she hurled a yet-to-be-confirmed allegation of having miscarried
due to the scuffle. Rev. Horace Sheffield -- President of the
Michigan chapter of National Action Network, the civil rights
group founded by Rev. Al Sharpton -- has publicly declared,
"These white women have literally ripped this black child from
the belly of a black woman..." The incident should have
demonstrated that both races act like idiots under the sway of
traffic rage. But identity politics sees class conflict even in
A key assumption of identity politics is that only someone
who lives an experience can understand it and, thus, have the
right to speak of it. A politically neutral example of this
would be "only those who have had a brain tumor can understand
what it feels like." As far as it goes, that statement is
But, even a healthy person knows what pain and pressure are
and, so, has a basis on which to understand what is being
described. He relates and empathizes through a common, though
not identical, experience. Moreover, what about doctors who know
more about tumors than those afflicted by them? If only those
with brain tumors have a right to speak out, should doctors
The parallel in feminism is that, although a man does not
experience womanhood, he nevertheless understands injustice. He
may empathize with a rape victim more deeply than many women do.
Moreover, like the doctor, men can have perspectives on "women's
issues" which are valuable precisely because they are different.
And "womanhood" is not so fragile as to be damaged by listening
to the opinions of men.
There is nothing inherently wrong with dividing people into
separate categories or classes.
can be defined by almost any factor -- income level, hair
color, age, nationality, etc. The factor chosen depends on the
purpose of whoever is doing the grouping. Doctors often divide
men and women into different classes: they screen women for
breast cancer and men for prostate problems. But, in doing so,
doctors do not deny that both men and women share the same
fundamental biology: for example, they have the same basic
Equally, separating men and women for political purposes --
perhaps in order to discuss an aspect of abortion -- is not a
denial of the fact that they share fundamental political
interests. Both men and women enjoy the basic human
rights all people hold in common, such as freedom of speech and
In stressing the separateness and antagonism of groups,
identity politics dismisses the shared humanity that underlies
these secondary differences. The differences between human
beings become a source of bitter division rather than
Yet, even on this main point, identity politics contradicts
itself. Consider: if it is true that a person must experience
something in order to speak of it, then each individual is the
only person who can speak of his own experience because everyone
is unique. But identity politics deals with collective identity.
To create a group called "woman" out of a mass of unique women,
identity politics has to argue that the commonality of shared
womanhood is more important than individual differences.
Unhindered by contradictions in my approach, I would go one
step farther. The broader category -- the shared humanity of men
and women, black and white -- is more significant than any
secondary characteristics of gender or race. We are, first and
finally, all human beings.
Wendy McElroy is a weekly columnist for FoxNews.com, writing under the title "The ifeminist" -- a column that is widely reposted on the Internet. She is the editor of the feminist website ifeminists.com which grows by approximately 10% each month. McElroy is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and contributing editor to Ideas on Liberty (formerly The Freeman), The New Libertarian, Free Inquiry, and Liberty magazines. Her writing has appeared in such diverse periodicals as National Review, Marie Claire, and Penthouse.
by Wendy McElroy
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The Abolitionist Examiner - Identity Politics Dismisses Shared Humanity
Copyright © 2002 Wendy McElroy and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.