I have long had a problem with identity politics. Based as it is on the privileging of dissimilarity, it necessitates constant boundary maintenance so as to always keep itself separate from that which it suspects of compromise or assimilation. It’s basic mode of discourse is a relentless criticism that can at times feel as if it’s going out of its way to find and locate any and every instance of deviation from its standard of ideological perfection. Within this context, identity markers can easily become sacralized, making internal group and self-criticism taboo, rendering any “outside” voices immediately suspect, and ultimately dismissing as collaborationist anything that does not live up to the most perfect of ideals.
Further, the perceived sacredness/specialness of the identity marker discourages identifying in one’s self or one’s group any lurking motives or desires that might be similar to those attacked in the oppressor. As such, it has a tendency to breed a hierarchical form of ideological purity, a strange competition that “others” those deemed tainted with an insufficient grasp of the pervasiveness of the problem. This is the Left or Progressive version of the “little monsters” Pope Francis worries about on the Right.
Unfortunately, at least in my view, such isolationist thinking is unhelpful for the kind of mass organizing and the kind of openness to structural and personal transformation – on the part of both the powerful and the powerless – that is needed to challenge and actually undermine the destructiveness currently being wrought under late, patriarchal and global capitalism. Rigid orthodoxy in any form tends to be unattractive to most people, and rightly makes them question what kind of situation they would be in were those with these tendencies to actually hold socioeconomic power – even if their overall views of social justice mesh with yours. Healthy partisanship and struggle in and through conflict need not mean sectarian purity, and the recognition and address of differing and unique forms of oppression need not require the undermining of solidarity.
Yesterday I was listening to an interview on NPR with Bill Ayers, founder and former member of the Weather Underground (called a “terrorist” by Sarah Palin). He said something to the effect that as he’s become older and more mature, he’s begun to realize that anytime anyone feels anything resembling self-righteousness – whether of the Leftist or Rightist variety – they need to step back. Indeed, he identified dogmatism and self-righteousness as the things fueling the actions of his younger self that he most regrets.
Ayer’s comments struck me. I often feel very self-righteous in my analyses (as witnessed above). I too have policed the “thought-crimes” of others, dismissing them for what I perceive to be an insufficient radicality on their part.
And so, a series of questions followed by a thought:
Is it possible to remain committed to justice and to socioeconomic transformation without becoming a dogmatist? How do we keep from the kind of “neutrality” that does nothing more than maintain the bourgeois status quo, and yet not become stiff little orthodox soldiers incapable of recognizing imperfection in ourselves as well as others? Do I simply respond to what I judge as dogmatism and self-righteousness with more dogmatism and self-righteousness? How do we stand for the rightness of something, and really know that it’s right, without demonizing or dismissing those who are in the wrong? How do we critique systems and structures without losing account of persons? How do we account for persons without losing sight of structures? How do we show a little tenderness in our truth-telling? How do we exhibit an openness and patience regarding change, conversion, and mercy rather than attacking anything and everything that does not immediately live up to our most idealistic and perfect of visions, and yet square this with a holy impatience that refuses to wait? How do we go about critiquing and changing the world in the very same way and with the very same values we wish to see instantiated personally, socially, politically, and economically?
Perhaps if, in the face of whatever it is I myself am judging as “less-than-perfect,” as not up to my own “ideological snuff,” I can try to always find and name those things, motivations, perceived intentions, whatever it is, with which I resonate, I can begin to more fully embrace and recognize the fact that I do not have access to the full picture. Even if I find myself still disagreeing, I perhaps can form even the smallest bond of human solidarity with my “opposition,” inching me closer to the kind of humility of which I myself would be happy to be at the receiving end.
Perhaps constantly acknowledging this ever present dialectic of similarity and dissimilarity is the only way to operate in the context of our humanity – where we are always both the Pharisee and the tax collector at the same time.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”