Self-righteousness, Dogmatism, And Such

pharisee and publican

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 waitHow 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.”

24 responses to “Self-righteousness, Dogmatism, And Such

    • Well, I’m glad you have a comprehensive grasp, a full understanding as it were, on the whole “power” thing. Just ignore my insufficiency, my ignorance – oh wait, you did so by calling my analysis a joke.

  1. Seriously, read the post again. Is this really not intended as white dudebro satire? I don’t know what more of a response you would want. You have suggested (especially with your links) that POC who are theorising white supremacy are ideological nitpickers who are unfairly (or is it ungodly?) empowering themselves though persistent critique of white supremacy.

    • So, to critique certain kinds or modes of critique (whether of white supremacy or not) automatically places me in the white dudebro category? I am not, and nowhere in most post do I, suggesting that all critique be done away with. I am suggesting that identity politics type critique is ineffective. The links in the post do not represent all POC or all critiques of white supremacy, rather, they represent a certain kind. There’s more than one approach to dismantling the master’s house.

      • OK, I am not even sure what you mean by identity politics (and the links only confuse the matter for me) but the post seems to be saying this : there are people that critique dominant and oppressive powers too dogmatically and these people ultimately sacralise their position as the oppressed and don’t let the powerful oppressors critique them back (it’s a sad story, for sure). And more, these tactics have been ineffective in bringing about the kind of transformation the powerful can envisage. So in wrapping up, if I (which clearly means all *you* I have linked to that are clearly arguing against the dominant and powerful) can stop attacking things and instead practice some greater humility, then I (again, *you) would realise I am both the Pharisee and the tax collector..

        Yes, it is fairly white dudebro.

  2. Hi Brad,
    It was a little unclear to me why you linked to Amaryah’s post on refusing racial reconciliation. It seems like you are citing it as an example of the dogmatism and lack of charity you are condemning but I am not certain this is the case.


    • Hi Katie,

      I’m citing it as an instance of identity political critique – which, as my post made clear, I do feel borders on the dogmatic.

      • How is her post “dogmatic?“

        I also don’t see how you can deem letter from a Birmingham jail non dogmatic and impatient in a good way given everything else you say in your post. He basically says if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

        Amaryah is saying that whiteness cannot be reconciled with because it is inherently oppressive and parasitic.She says nothing about harming white people. She writes on a nearly all white blog afterall.

        You also mention the importance of extending solidarity to those you disagree with. I would like to know how you see yourself extending solidarity to Amaryah. I would also like to know how you see yourself extending solidarity to black people against white supremacy.

  3. Janice,

    Identity politics is fairly straight-forward if you’re at all familiar with social movement developments since the emergence of the New Left in the 60’s. Both “Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Justice Movements in Communities of Color” edited by John Anner, and Nancy Fraser’s “Fortunes of Feminism: From Women’s Liberation to Identity Politics to Anti-Capitalism” provide good accounts of what I’m getting at.

    You seem to have misunderstood or misread somehow that I was advocating oppressor’s critiquing the oppressed. Rather, I’m talking about the isolationist enclaves between and among the marginalized that are created through identity politics. But alas, I’m realizing that this conversation is probably going nowhere fast…

    • Relax, I promise not to comment again after this. I am not sure identity politics is so straightforward, your links are really confusing (for instance, in what way is the first post you link to identity politics?). And by choosing the links you have (excluding the odd use of MLK) you have consistently critiqued people critiquing the powerful. Maybe , as you suggest, you want to *save* them from the enclaves you see them creating though their ineffective strategies. Good for you then, Godspeed.

      • No “saving” just critiquing critiques. Apparently there’s only one way to be anti-racist, and anyone who dares question either the effectiveness or ethics of that way is automatically on the side of white dudebros. Hmmm… I think I wrote a post about this kind of boundary maintenance…

  4. Wow. For someone so confident that ‘Identity politics is fairly straight-forward’ you’ve managed to completely and utterly mis-identify (geddit) Amaryah’s post as identity politics.

    Well done. That’s impressive.

    Just to clarify: when a Black person talks about Black theology and/or criticizes White supremacy, this does not mean they are ‘doing’ identity politics. It means they are talking about Black theology and/or criticizing White supremacy.

    I genuinely despair at theologians such as yourself. I really hope you don’t actually do any teaching.

    • Thanks Kate. This is about turning reconciliation Sunday – with congregations of different races getting to know one another – into somehow itself reproducing white supremacy. While I agree that forms of reconciliation can be used to distract from the need for structural change and analysis, going after reconciliation Sunday (and indeed reconciliation in general) as in and of itself a tool of white supremacy is about boundary maintenance and ideological purity. That is where the identity politics comes in as it forgoes a chance to bring reforms along into more revolutionary kinds of transformations. Your blanket statement that I somehow am referring to every black person who ever talks about black theology or criticizes white supremacy is an overgeneralization that might make you feel good or superior, but has nothing at all to do with my post.

  5. I don’t have anything substantial to add, because I literally don’t think this post is worthy of serious engagement (your complete misreading of Amaryah’s post suggests that you yourself are not capable of serious engagement). But I did want to add my voice to Katie, Kate and Janice’s to say that this is lazy, stupid and depressing. Maybe if enough of us say it you’ll actually, I don’t know, learn how to read or something.

    • Marika,

      How have I misread Amaryah’s post? Do you mean that I read it differently than you? Is there one reading that is self-evident? Do you always consider readings other than yours to be lazy, stupid, and depressing? How do you arrive at these judgments? Do you have access to a superior epistemology? How would you teach me to read, and does that mean learning to read just like you?

      (for what it’s worth, I’m the one approving all comments before they go public).

  6. There is a long history of white folks telling black folks how they ought to organize themselves to resist (white supremacist) injustice. You’re having a hard time seeing how your post is participating in that history, but meditating on the letter from Birmingham jail wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

    Amaryah never claims to be doing “identity politics,” never claims to be speaking for black folks generally, never seeks to advance the interests of a single demographic in an insular way. Your claim that her post is a form of identity politics is striking a lot of people (myself included) as very odd, misinformed, and reactionary. Your defenses of the claim haven’t really helped.

    I don’t mean to speak for Amaryah, but I took her to be calling attention to the way that practices of “reconcilliation” actually reinforce the very social dynamics they claim to be undoing. If she’s right (and you haven’t given us any reason to think that she’s not!), this analysis would seem to be pretty relevant and important to lots of folks who don’t share Amaryah’s precise “identity.”

    Calling her post out as an example of “identity politics” looks to me like an attempt to shame someone into conformity with more mainstream discourses of reform and transformation. To the extent that this is what your post is actually doing, it’s vicious bullshit.

    • Eric,

      I’m a little confused because the shaming into conformity of thought here seems to me to be pretty one-sided. This was exactly part of the point of my post – which, btw, dealt with ideas beyond Amaryah’s blog post. Be that as it may…

      From a Christian and socialist perspective, I find Amaryah’s post (as it stands, which is to acknowledge that there are still two parts to follow) to be unnecessarily divisive and trivializing of the practice of reconciliation. She reduces it to nothing more than technique for erasing identity and propping up white supremacy – advancing no historical or practical evidence other than her own personal experience of Reconciliation Sunday. Further, it renders reconciliation as nothing more than a practice beholden to white theology, a gross overgeneralization and the most crass of identity politics. In other words, she obfuscates any helpful or redemptive aspects of what is a widespread and ecumenical practice among Christians in a critique that seems designed to score ideological purity points rather than creatively advancing current practices (that are not by any historical measure inherently about propping up white supremacy) toward a further engagement with social transformation.

      I disagree with her critique and approach here. I do not disagree with all critiques of white supremacy. I also do not speak for the entire history of white supremacy anymore than she speaks for all the history of black critiques of white supremacy.

      Vicious bullshit? Hmmmmm….

      • Black people are the harmed party in the case of race relations. And whiteness and white people are the guilty party. So don’t you think black people should be the ones to determine when and if a true reconciliation has taken place? In other words, don’t you think Amaryah’s experience of racial reconciliation carries much more weight than yours? She is the harmed party. I wouldn’t expect white people to very good judges of when reconciliation has taken place. I think the indignation you feel at Amaryah’s critique of an event which you seem to love (but of course also does not require you to cede your power or change the way you actually live your life) testifies to this.

  7. Also, how is Pope Francis, the man who says certain church teachings can never change, a victim of dogmatism and not (also) its enforcer? And why is Hunt’s purported dogmatism more troubling to you than the pope’s?

    • As the entirety of the post makes clear, I am questioning all dogmatism. Clearly I should have been more discerning in my examples, but I was writing with my leftist and progressive “comrades” in mind and so was choosing from among examples on the left. Overlooking the underlying message that might be conveyed by the particular links I chose is definitely something worth criticism, and I’m sure has everything to do with my own privilege at not having to think about it too much. I still stand by my critique, but I would definitely “diversify” my examples if I could do it again (as well as simply avoiding WIT’s post, which has left me feeling that there’s no room for mutual dialogue and critique without being told that I shouldn’t teach, my thinking is lazy, stupid, and depressing, and that I’m basically spewing vicious bullshit…).

  8. I need to get on with my work, but this has been an instructive exercise both personally and politically. This will be the last time I post anything online that might even hint of controversy because it’s been proven to me that online forums do not in any way foster fruitful dialogue. So, for those who would have rather me kept my mouth shut, you win! Score one for solidarity, democracy, and thoughtfulness (I’m accusing myself of less than helpful engagement here as well). Live and learn.

  9. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for your post.

    I think your critiques have been made more clear in the comments, though I think they are still based on a misreading of what I’m doing as identity politics.

    I don’t have a problem with identity politics, I just don’t think that is what I’m actually getting at here or using as the frame for my critique. My post rides on the political theological concept of supersession as the driving force for why I find reconciliation problematic. In some ways it draws a lot on J. Carter and Willie Jennings, Cone, Williams, and Vincent Lloyd’s work. None of whom I think can be collapsed into identity politics. I also point to some contemporary and recent events both in a certain realm of evangelicalism and secular democracy that utilizes reconciliation. I recognize I don’t offer much in the way of historical evidence, this was a blog post I was trying not to spend too much time on, but I don’t think that I only use my experience. Indeed, I only tried to use my experience to give people a way into some common goals of practices of reconciliation. I also excised some references to reconciliation literature in order to shorten the post so perhaps that would have been something useful to retain?

    But you are correct that I am divisive in my post, though I wasn’t attempting to get at an idealogical purity but the constant erasure reconciliation produces and the refusal that enables us to see and be in what was erased. I don’t like reform as a model for reconciliation not because it doesn’t happen but because rhetorically I think it is distracting. That is in part why I think your references to my piece kind of miss the point, because you seem quite beholden to being able to redeem reconciliation as useful where I want to get rid of it because I don’t think it works. And that’s fine. It’s possible this post wasn’t written for you and I’m ok with you not liking it or having a critique. But I think as it stands your critique is a bit dishonest to what I’ve written.

    Anyways, I just wanted to jump in and make a few points. I don’t mind if you disagree with me but I found your initial critique lacked much in the way of actual critique and seemed to be put forth because my divisiveness annoyed you.

    • Dear Amaryah,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement with me. I think you’re correct that in the original post my characterization of your piece was in no way fully explained. Part of this is because I was not initially trying to defend my characterization, but rather to make a lager point. In this way I agree that I unfairly used your post without explaining the basis for doing so (and in this sense I didn’t really engage the point you were trying to make but rather drew your post in as an example and left it at that). Because I was so focused on my larger point, it took me a bit to see this, but I’m glad you recognize that I began engaging more helpfully as the comments went on.

      I have a feeling that we probably agree on more things than would appear so at first. I definitely agree with your critique of reconciliation as oftentimes distracting from and personalizing the social. I think you’re correct that I would like to retrieve something that you find an obstacle, and I think, as I gather do you, that there can be honest disagreement over things like this. Reform vs. revolution is an ongoing debate!

      Most of all I appreciate the tone of your response. It’s sometimes difficult in an online forum to engage with others as persons and not simply as representatives of ideas. Perhaps we’ll meet at some point in an academic setting and can have a good conversation if you would be up for it.

      Until then, I appreciate your response and hope, to continue reading your analyses on WIT, whether I always agree in every detail or not, I recognize the importance of your work in the context of social struggle.

      In Solidarity,

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