The Politics of Identity is Undone by the Impracticality of Achieving Recognition

Three years ago, identity politics was a phrase used mostly by academics and journalists. What was once a fringe movement has become a major political influence, but most are still unsure or confused about the goals of identitarian groups. The goals themselves are often poorly defined and are rarely the same. But there is a unifying goal or theme: recognition, which is the external acceptance, and approval, of one’s identity. My aim in this essay will be to briefly describe recognition and question its practicality as a political goal.

A good starting definition of recognition can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Most theories of recognition assume that in order to develop a practical identity, persons fundamentally depend on the feedback of other subjects (and of society as a whole). According to this view, those who fail to experience adequate recognition, i.e., those who are depicted by the surrounding others or the societal norms and values in a one-sided or negative way, will find it much harder to embrace themselves and their projects as valuable. Misrecognition thereby hinders or destroys persons’ successful relationship to their selves.

Struggles over recognition are now prevalent in multi-cultural societies. They are, for the members of identity groups, more central than party politics. Struggles over recognition have replaced struggles over rights as time has passed. The goals of identity groups, from ethnic groups to feminists, were largely consistent with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century. The concern was to extend basic liberal rights to all members of society. But the goals of identity groups began to change, a change that coincided with what is often called the “second wave” of feminism. The goal was no longer to claim rights, but to gain “recognition”. It is important to see how this shapes these groups’ approach to politics.

Identity and recognition are, to be sure, political matters. As Charles Taylor explains: “Within these perspectives, misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.” Non-recognition or misrecognition are forms of oppression, and oppressed groups have a right to demand they be recognized properly. If they are not, they are unable to act as genuine members of a democratic society. Moreover, identity and recognition are determined politically, they are not subjective concepts arrived at through introspection, but intersubjective concepts developed through interaction with others in society. It follows, therefore, that there is a political obligation to recognize others properly, because identity is formed in relation to others; it is the result of intersubjective relations and of one’s position in society. Abdul JanMohammed and David Lloyd write that identities are “not a question of essence…but a question of position: a subject-position that in the final analysis can be defined only in political terms.”

Recognition is a political matter, and achieving proper recognition is a political process. Democratic citizens must engage in dialogue, entering into mutual negotiations with others in the hope of achieving reciprocal recognition. These dialogues are inevitable in a multi-cultural age, according to James Tully:

When the multicultural and multi-national citizens of contemporary societies participate in the institutions and practices… they have two choices. They can either assimilate to the prevailing unjust relations of mis-recognition imposed on them or they can call them into question and attempt to initiate their renegotiation with those who support them. The resulting clash is the politics of identity or ‘struggles over recognition’.

The arena of politics, then, becomes a meeting ground for different groups struggling for proper recognition, and the practice of politics becomes engaging in dialogue and negotiation about recognition. The central question is: How practical is the goal of recognition? How likely are negotiations to achieve the desired results? The short answer is: not very. But we need to look closer at what the negotiations over recognition entail. Tully explains the general method:

[W]hat are the procedures by which the people, in conjunction with their legal and political institutions, negotiate and reach agreements over disputed identities? The widely proposed answer is through the exchange of reasons pro and contra. The basic idea is that an identity will be worthy of recognition and respect just insofar as it can be made good to, or find widespread support among, those affected through the fair exchange of reasons.

This sounds fair and simple enough, but unsurprisingly the devil is in the details. Engaging in this “fair exchange of reasons” requires a couple of things of us as citizens. First, we must agree to shun any identities that “are incompatible with respect for others,” i.e. no identities that are resistant to the requirements of public reason, or that are deemed unreasonable and unacceptable by the majority of citizens, are allowed. Second, and more important for the argument here, we all have a political obligation to engage in dialogue, “a duty to listen.” We must engage lest we become oppressors through our misrecognition of others, and we can therefore be compelled to enter into negotiations.

Negotiations must follow some basic guidelines. First, they must demonstrate “mutual recognition”, which stresses the democratic (bottom-up) nature of the talks. All groups in society must mutually participate in the negotiations. Second, the negotiations must be dialogic, not monologic; i.e., the understanding of key issues is shared between groups, rather than imposed by one. Third and finally, successful negotiations lead to a “fusion of horizons”. A fusion has occurred when we reach a shared language of reconciliation where everyone feels at home to cooperate and contest. As Taylor puts it:

We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of the formerly unfamiliar culture. The ‘fusion of horizons’ operates through our developing new vocabularies of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts.

In other words, we come to understand the “background to valuation” of other, formerly unfamiliar cultures, and are thereby able to develop a new vocabulary through which we can articulate and compare our differences.

Returning to our question about practicality, we ought to pay attention to this final condition, the fusion of horizons. A genuine fusion of horizons requires a great deal of knowledge about the other, not to mention a great deal of knowledge about oneself. It is not enough to have a superficial awareness of another culture’s foundations, we must understand their “background to valuations.” In Taylor’s A Secular Age, we discover that the background is the context or framework for all of our knowledge about the world; it is not a narrow or limited concept at all, but the broadest possible framework within which we come to knowledge about the world.

For negotiations to work, for us to properly recognizing each other, we must be able to truly walk in their shoes, to experience the background to their knowledge or understanding about the world. What they take for granted in their worldviews must be make explicit and then known by us, and vice versa.  This seems a tall order, indeed. As Patchen Markell concludes:

Unlike toleration, which can be grudging, and is consistent with utter ignorance about the people to whom it is extended, recognition involves respecting people precisely in virtue of, not despite, who they are; and so proper relations of recognition must be founded on accurate mutual knowledge among the people and groups involved.

The way we achieve such knowledge is through “comparative cultural study”. This is sensible and predictable, but also highly impractical. This conclusion might be illuminated by an example, and in the spirit of identity politics I will use an autobiographical account. I was raised in Colorado, lived in Chicago, Austin, and Atlanta. I’ve had the fortune to live abroad on two occasions, in Spain and Guatemala, becoming proficient in Spanish. I’ve spent over a decade studying in universities, often doing “comparative cultural study”. The question is: do I sufficiently know my “background to valuation”, and the backgrounds of others? I cannot confidently say so. As Taylor concedes, we are often blind to our own background, merely taking it for granted. And my study of other cultures and languages hasn’t prepared me to genuinely think or speak about their backgrounds, either. Even if I could, it is not clear that those others would agree that I understand their background, which highlights the subjective nature of evaluating genuine recognition. Who can truly determine when the standard has been met?

Moreover, to the extent that anyone has done the necessary comparative cultural study required of a fusion of horizons, it is bound to be someone with great resources for both leisure and, most likely, travel. Moreover, it must be someone with great resources who sees the value in and chooses comparative cultural study. The inventor who chooses to devote the majority of her time to scientific research, the botanist who studies nature, or the artist who diligently studies the human form do not use their leisure in a way that promotes recognition. Thus, even the small number of persons with the resources to engage in comparative cultural study will be greatly decreased by those who choose other pursuits. Ultimately, the practical effects of a politics of recognition may naturally lead to increasing disenfranchisement of most citizens, leaving only a small elite of true practitioners. Responsibility for negotiations would necessarily rest with these elites, leaving the greater part of the body politic on the outside looking in.

These insights may seem commonsensical, even banal, but they are nevertheless crucial to understanding identity politics. The narrow point I am trying to make, in this short essay, is that even if we accept the purported goal of recognition (leaving aside the question of whether recognition, as described here, is truly the goal of most identity groups) and if we are conscientious in working towards it, we will not be able to reach it. In short, the imposition of a “duty to listen”, the sheer impracticality of a genuine fusion of horizons, and the extreme vulnerability of negotiations to capture by a self-selected elite combine to render the goal of political recognition a fool’s errand. It seems only practical to reject it.

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