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Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Some Problems With Identity Politics


In a very distant past, people proclaimed themselves anarchists, communists, conservatives, liberals and socialists with political parties to match (the anarchists excepted). In those days, people were likely to join in discussions by saying things like, “As a socialist, I suppose I think …”  It would be regarded as an irrelevant, ad hominem argument if you replied to this by saying, “But you went to public school …” An appropriate response would be something on the lines of, “As a liberal, I place more value on personal freedom than is allowed for in your argument for nationalising fish and chip shops…”

Nowadays, people open discussions with such phrases as “As a gay man, I feel …” or “As a black woman, I think …” Whether it’s feeling or thinking something, such phrases are often enough meant to close down rather than open up discussion. You have got a chance if you can reply, “Well, that’s interesting, but as gay man I feel rather different about this …”  You haven’t got much chance if you reply, “It’s irrelevant that you’re a black woman, the point is that ...”.  This may simply be regarded as offensive, since it denies a claim to authority based on personal positioning.

But there is a good argument which would say that though personal experience is often and maybe always relevant in debate (“I went to public school and I hated it”) it has no special authority. From this perspective, identity politics can then be defined as that variety of political positioning which consistently confers special authority on personal experience framed by a self-defined identity.

The trouble with special authority is that it almost always turns into some kind of one-upmanship, some kind of sharp-elbowed jockeying, which is intended to reduce a supposed conversational partner to silence. “When you get to my age, young man, you will realise …” is the archetype of such one-upmanship. There’s no dodging it unless you try something like, “Well, I try not to be ageist in the way I think” which probably won’t go down very well.  More recently, “I have had the experience, you haven’t”, does the same job. You are probably in deep trouble if you reply to that, “So what?”

There is another problem with arguments from special authority. Those who assert an identity and claim authority based on it don’t agree with each other. So in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has groups for people who self-identify as this that or the other, but so do other parties. There are gay socialists but also gay liberals and gay conservatives, which actually suggests that being gay is politically irrelevant. Or rather, it is only relevant because you have constituted yourself into a lobby group for a special interest: you want the Labour Party to pay special attention to your needs; over in the Conservative party, there is a parallel group jockeying for that special attention.

In America, this would once have been called pork barrel politics or log rolling – in any case something to be disdained. But now it’s mainstream and Americans are supposed to approve of it. In the UK, The Guardian newspaper aligns itself very much with trends in the USA. I eventually gave up reading it when I came across a story headlined East Asian Actors Under-represented in Hollywood. Just try to get your head around that. First off, there is the geographical challenge: who are these North Asians, South Asians and West Asians who are cheating East Asians out of the desirable good of playing bit parts in bad Hollywood movies? Second, there is the rather bigger challenge of what would count as fair representation. In some cases, this is obvious; in many it isn’t. If you are making a film about the lives of Korean comfort women in the Second World War and the Japanese men they were made to serve, how does the concept of “fair representation” apply? If you are making a film about the lives of women who were parachuted into France in World War Two as agents of SOE (the Special Operations Executive) and what happened to them, how does the concept of “fair representation” apply? In each case, who ends up not getting parts?

I want to argue that the concept of “fair representation” is very hard to specify because it runs into problems analogous to those identified by Kenneth Arrow in his classic Social Choice and Individual Values (1951). Re-discovering a theorem which had first been proposed by the Marquis de Condorcet in the eighteenth century, Arrow showed that there is no possible democratic decision-making mechanism which will avoid the problem of intransitive choices. We like to assume, with the logicians, that if A implies B and B implies C, then A also implies C. Unfortunately, when you aggregate choices, it doesn’t. If more voters choose A when offered A or B and more choose B when offered B or C, it does not follow that more voters will choose A when offered A or C.  

D’oh! This conclusion is rather alarming. It means that in a democratic system, the outcome of a Pick A or B vote is rather less decisive than it might seem. If you had framed the choice differently, you may well have got a different result. This problem of cyclical majorities also introduces a strong element of instability into democratic systems. What looks like the capriciousness of voters - something which might be dealt with by severe exhortations to weight the choice carefully - is actually a manifestation of a general problem of choice intransitivity.

The same problem will I think arise in endeavours to achieve fair representation. These are entirely worthy endeavours but they face the problem that what looks like fair representation when the choice is between A or B and then between B or C may not look fair if A or C is introduced. Kenneth Arrow’s view was that such dilemmas can only be eliminated by introducing non-democratic elements into choice mechanisms, which in this case would involve laying down the law on what is to count as fairness and allow no more choice in the matter. Fairness becomes what I say it means and that’s an end to it, and this is perhaps the fall-back position which inspires identity politics and explains its own arbitrariness.


Trevor Pateman writes cultural and political criticism, some collected into The Best I Can Do (2016) and Silence Is So Accurate (2017) both available very cheaply on Amazon

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