It seems more and more intellectuals and thinkers like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and others are leading a charge against “social justice warriors” and all things “identity politics” – any attempt to wield political power based on identity traits like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Sam Harris, for example, went so far as to say “In 2017, all identity politics are detestable.”
The argument goes something like this: Social Justice Warriors, in their cries for diversity and equality, are driving a wedge between us all. They highlight the ways we are different, not the ways we are the same. They condemn individuals for crimes of their ancestors and their groups. They subvert the primacy of the individual by emphasizing our group identities. They are the ones who are insisting, through their politically correct policies, that they be seen primarily for their group identities.
There is some truth here for me. I do deeply want each and every one of us to be able to thrive as unique individuals, not be defined in perpetuity by our skin color, sexuality, gender, etc. I think most of us want this.
But I also see that identity politics has always been with us as Americans, deeply embedded within our mental models and institutions. People of color were enslaved based on their identity. Women were denied the ability to vote or own land because of their identity. The LGBT community was forced to hide itself at risk of being beaten or killed if they lived their lives out in the open.
This is all identity politics. And for centuries it has benefited straight, white men.
Harris, Peterson, and others seem to either 1) not acknowledge this reality or 2) believe that at some point in our history we sufficiently addressed these problems and that racism, sexism, etc. are no longer significant systemic challenges. In fact, they seem to actually blame marginalized groups for much of the divisions in our society today, as if society would be more equal if only “SJWs” would stop being so obsessed about their identity groups.
Like any social movement, there is plenty to critique about “social justice warriors”, especially those who are on college campuses and just coming into their adulthood. They are imperfect.
But to accuse those who acknowledge past and present divisions in our society as being divisive, to me, is nothing more than a game of “stop hitting yourself.” It is saying “stop thinking so much about your identity group” in a society that has insisted upon the importance of such categories for centuries. It is blaming a victim of sexual assault for making a fuss.
I choose to believe instead that our society has been and continues to be deeply divisive and unequal, down to its core. I choose to hear and believe people who cry for help, rather than ignore them or denounce them as “divisive.”