Identity and the Politics of Recognition

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on identity politics sponsored by the Ryan Foundation.

Like most conservatives, I have read countless critiques of the errors and excesses of the diversity movement. I generally do not support this multi-billion dollar industry, even as I share a basic human desire that people of all backgrounds might thrive without being handicapped by their race, sex, sexual orientation, or any other ascriptive characteristic. I think that we are well on our way to achieving this outcome in the United States. Although there is much talk of negative bias in the academy, hiring committees in general are extremely positively biased toward black, Hispanic, and female job applicants.

Diversity officers, however, are unpersuaded of this progress. Instead, they continue to subject faculty, staff and students to “trainings” in the broad imperatives of diversity and inclusion, which are based on the concepts of intersectionality, implicit bias, and microaggression theory. Those in the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) industry argue that these trainings reduce instances of implicit bias and microaggressive behavior. This, they say, will yield better “more diverse” outcomes in hiring, promotion, retention, and general performance. I am not so sure. In the end, it probably does not really matter whether diversity trainings have a measurable impact on practice and outcomes; they will be simply enforced as matters of faith. People of good faith support DEI; those of bad faith question it. I think it must be questioned.

However, we must question it not from a reflexively critical perspective but also from the point of view of its proponents. What goods does the movement pursue? Exactly what is so compelling, to so many people, about identity politics? We must ask and attempt to answer these questions if we want to understand its profound appeal to millions of people.

Although the term “identity politics” usually has negative connotations in public usage, it actually represents the flip side of a longstanding and respectable philosophical line of inquiry called “the politics of recognition.” As philosopher Charles Taylor and others have explained, we moderns are intensely concerned with questions of identity. It is perhaps the most basic human question of all: who am I, really? Traditionally, people have answered this question by locating identity in family, religion, work, personal achievement, and in a variety of intermediary civic and social institutions. I am the sister of Mary; the creator of a clothing line, a devout Jew, secretary of my Kiwanis club, and so on. 

But in a democratic age we no longer understand identity in terms of our placement in a well-defined social hierarchy, and we certainly do not live in an honor culture. Identity is now based on notions of authenticity and self-creation, and our identities are fundamentally dialogical—that is, we discover who we are in conversation and interaction with others. Most of all, we want to be recognized and appreciated by those others.

In the absence of traditional mediating institutions, strong and positive personal identity therefore requires not just individual initiative and moral strength but continuous, affirmative recognition. If we find that we personally do not conform to widely-accepted norms, this is all the more reason to seek acceptance. To be deprived of recognition is a kind of oppression. Such oppression need not be overt or political; it is often the subtle, under-the-surface judgment that occurs in ordinary social life among individuals. We feel oppressed when our identities are not fully affirmed by others.

In fact, oppression itself may even constitute the primary component of identity formation in the politics of recognition. Contemporary identity groups (and identity politics is always a group-based phenomenon) are not composed of people who choose freely to associate, as citizens have always done in pursuit of a common end or cause. Instead, identity groups take shape precisely as a response to their constituents’ shared experiences of feeling excluded, overlooked or marginalized. Members are defined by the ways that the dominant society has made them feel “not-recognized.” These groups and their members are oppositional by definition.

Obviously, then, not just anyone can join an identity group. Only those who possess certain ascriptive attributes of race, sex, and sexual orientation can be members of particular groups. Others may be “allies” but cannot really opt in as full-fledged participants, no matter how much they support the aims of a particular group. Significantly, “animus, stereotype, exclusion and diminution” are “originary” for the groups in identity politics.

The point is that since various kinds of oppression define identity groups, narratives of oppression can never be dispensed with. If they were, then the groups would dissolve, and politics would have to be reconceived on some different, new basis—perhaps one of shared interest or shared aims—but no longer of grievance.

Modern-day advocates for “the politics of recognition” therefore demand not some kind of formal equality, but instead that they be seen as their particular identity, and given respect on the basis of it. “Queer,” for example, was once a term of disparagement; now it is a mark of pride. Continued participation in the queer community may constitute a vital part of a person’s identity, which he or she would not want to relinquish in an impersonal process of integration with everyone else.

To take another example: If “women” are defined primarily by the oppression they have experienced, and if they wish to retain their identities as members of this group, then the notion of oppression that formed the category must persist, even if it becomes ever more fine-grained. Although women are normally no longer discouraged from pursuing careers and indeed are often preferred to men in hiring and recruitment, the world must still be reminded that other more subtle forms of discrimination still exist. This requires implicit bias measures and ever-more-difficult-to-identify “microaggressions.” There is then no end point (nor is one desired) for the oppression claims that “women” may bring against other non-oppressed groups and individuals. For, if “women” were to renounce their grievances, they would lose the cultural power that has resulted from their solidarity against the supposedly hegemonic male majority group.

The point is that since various kinds of oppression define identity groups, narratives of oppression can never be dispensed with. If they were, then the groups would dissolve, and politics would have to be reconceived on some different, new basis—perhaps one of shared interest or shared aims—but no longer of grievance. More cynically, grievance itself confers power and moral standing. There can be no doubt that the intersectional inversion of moral standing (i.e., the greater the oppression, the greater one’s right to be heard) represents power employed against currently disfavored groups, like white, heterosexual men.

This desire to retain group identity makes civic unity difficult or perhaps impossible. Conservative opponents of identity politics argue that a flourishing polity requires assimilation into the broader society, where all may pursue their individual interests and engage in work, commerce, private life and citizenship, as moral equals. But proponents of the politics of recognition do not desire this assimilation. They want instead to retain the very identities that were the source of prior oppression. The point is not to erase differences, but to see them recognized and appreciated by others and to retain the power that victimhood affords.

Scholar Wendy Brown, who is generally sympathetic to the politics of recognition, sees that retaining this identity of “victim” is a fraught enterprise, even if it is politically expedient. In perpetuating the oppression and hurt that originated the identity of an oppressed group, “[p]oliticized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can hold out no future—for itself or others—that triumphs over this pain.” In other words, there is no end game. This is problematic because identity politics easily and often tips into political warfare, with no prospect of truce, treaty, or forgiveness.

Here is the takeaway, and part of the reason for the deep divide between conservatives and progressives in politics: identity-as-oppression is not a winning formula over the long term. If political culture in the United States is to have any positive future, narratives of oppression must eventually be transcended, or transformed into something less divisive than they are at present. Yet this does not seem likely, since millions of Americans understand themselves as structurally disadvantaged by a system that cares little for them. They have transformed these feelings of rejection into the very foundation of personal identity, from which they gain a clear moral orientation as well as a sense of meaning, and even of mission.

The more traditional view is that personal identity is forged through being part of a family, neighborhood, and community, as well as by participation in religious and civic institutions. Identity-formation also requires personal initiative and some measure of optimistic energy, in which one might attempt to distinguish oneself through artistic or athletic achievement, moral goodness, professional merit, or simple generosity. In identity politics, these things take a back seat to both group identity and oppression as determining factors for understanding who one is. These two visions of a flourishing life could not be more different, and it is not clear how, or if, they can ever be reconciled.