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.

Reader Discussion

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on June 06, 2018 at 10:18:35 am

This is Axel Honneth's thesis. And I agree with the writer's conclusion. But I would go even further.

The thrust of Honneth's and Taylor's arguments is that "recognition" is incompatible with indifference. "Recognition" as used by those thinkers necessarily means "approval" (or, as in one of the quotes, "respect"). There are only three postures available in response to someone's insistence that his preferred self-regard be "recognized" by me: approval, indifference, or disapproval. And Taylor's "fusion of horizons" is simply an attempt to categorically rule out the second and third postures.

The "practical effects of a politics of recognition" go well beyond "disenfranchisement," whatever that means. In fact we are presently living those politics. They are coercive in the extreme, attacking any and all expressions of disapproval and indifference to the attacker's own politics which he has repackaged, rhetorically, as "identity." The practice of "recognition" is nothing but a moral imperative that I approve of someone's politics when he presents them rhetorically as his "identity." The imperative demands that I live a posture of active approval: my approval must be public, frequent and unequivocal. Otherwise, I am "denying his humanity" or some such.

The paradox of an "identity" is that it must necessarily be different from other "identities." One claiming an "identity" necessarily establishes his "otherness" and demands that he be recognized as "other" by others but only on his terms. Failure or refusal to do so is styled "othering" in the frowned-upon pop-psych sense. I am somehow denying his common humanity if I fail or refuse to actively approve of what he insists sets him apart from other humans.

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on June 06, 2018 at 11:25:35 am

And when the term and concept "recognition" is dishonestly disused in favor of the harder-hitting word "justice", as is accepted in many quarters of the identity-group "negotiators", good faith has either become endangered or been shooed out of the proceedings entirely. Thank you for this piece--very thought-provoking.

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on June 06, 2018 at 19:06:34 pm

Identity and recognition are, to be sure, political matters…. [I]dentity and recognition are determined politically, they are … intersubjective concepts developed through interaction with others in society. [I]dentity 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….

How practical is the goal of recognition? How likely are negotiations to achieve the desired results? The short answer is: not very.

A lovely philosophical exposition—but presented without much context. When Pittz says that seeking recognition is not very likely to achieve a desired result, I must as: Not very likely … compared to what?

For most of human history, the world made little accommodation for people with physical disabilities. Apocryphally, people in wheelchairs would be held in contempt for failing to arrive in court on time—in courthouses where the only entrances involve long, dramatic staircases.

Over time, people with disabilities organized and demanded that the law recognize that they are not always “similarly situated” to people with more conventional physical capacities. The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. Many public facilities adopted modifications to better accommodate people with varying physical abilities. Many forms of communication are now made available in formats suitable to people with varying challenges. And various forms of fiction now incorporate people with disabilities into their story lines, and sometimes make them central charters.

What strategy, other than seeking recognition, would have better served the needs of those with disabilities?

I believe in supply and demand. The ultimate criticism of any strategy is a supply of better strategies. And the ultimate endorsement of a strategy is the inability to identify a better alternative.

True, Taylor and Tully describe a rather idealized world of social change. In practice, the methods look more like the First Baron’s War, the War for Independence, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Suffragette movement, India’s partition, the Civil Rights Movement, the Watts riots, the Black Lives Matter movement. People promoting a new perspective seek to set forth the justice of their claims—and to punish (via shame if not otherwise) those who fail to conform. It’s not friendly; it’s not nice; it's often violent. And the psychodramas of oppressed people do not necessarily promote dispassionate discussions. But if the movements don’t make any one uncomfortable, then they’re failing. (As John Adams said in 1776, “We’re having a revolution here. We’re going to have to offend SOMEBODY!)

People watching Mad Men remarked with shock (and delight?) at the casual sexism, racism, classism, and smoking that pervaded office life in the relatively recent 1960s. The protagonists seemed oblivious to the harms they were inflicting on their colleagues—even colleagues they liked and sought to impress.

Those norms have changed. Why? People are no longer quite as oblivious to those dynamics. And no, they didn’t achieve that new insight via mere “dialogue” and “listening.” Rather, it was achieved via pain. Pain in the form of legal consequences, or employment consequences, or simply begin shunned by colleagues. Pain: that’s how it works.

So, will we ever achieve perfect understanding of the unique circumstances of every individual in society? No. Will some overzealous progressive continue to chide us for failing to recognize this or that perspective? Yes. Will we continue to feel uncomfortable, and unfairly chastised? Yes. Cuz that’s how social change happens.

It’s unfair. And if you can point to how social change happens without such unfairness, please share. Otherwise, the law of supply and demand governs.

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on June 06, 2018 at 20:41:40 pm

Ok - fair enough BUT:

What happens when someone attempts to compel you to accept or "recognize" their delusion. i.e., that a biological male, with all the specific *male* systems (and no I do not mean a simple appendage) to include different metabolisms, different musculature, different size hearts, different body chemistry, asserts that he is actually a female.

What then?

am I to believe *him* or "my lying eyes" (and medical analyses)?

So again, here may be another example where nobody's "economic" (supply and demand) analysis fails the test.

And hey, is it really *recognition* or is it a 'loving embrace" and constant approbation that many recognition seekers are after?

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on June 06, 2018 at 22:53:44 pm

Recognition is indeed a political matter - the resulting clash remains (contemporarily defined) the politics of identity. As nobody.really plainly and eloquently asserts, this inevitably induces discomfort (pain) but is there a better strategy in the human's search for both recognition and societal respect. Hierarchies will always be contested and social arrangements challenged when perceived inequities govern.

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on June 07, 2018 at 00:55:18 am

Yes, people everywhere seek affirmation. Yes, social convention encourages us to give each other affirmation. No, you don't have a duty to comply.

Recognition does not have to mean affirmation. Often I address people in the manner they prefer to be addressed, simply because I have insufficient reason to do otherwise. If you want me to call you Napoleon, fine by me. You may be delusional. I suspect we're ALL delusional to some extent. I may think my spouse looks terrible in a given pair of jeans--but if no one asks my opinion, I don't offer.

I have previously discussed my efforts to avoid the verb "to be." Among its many advantages, avoiding the verb "to be" reduces the number of occasions when I stumble into making metaphysical pronouncements. Rarely do I have any need to opine on who are what you ARE. I have a greater concern about what you DO.

If Jo asks me to use a male or female pronoun, I generally will make the effort. I may (and often do) fall short in my efforts. But if Jo wants me to vote to finance restructuring the restrooms at the public schools, I may feel less accommodating--not out of metaphysical concerns for "identity" or "truth," but out of practical concerns for budgets. (Besides, having a few "single occupant" bathrooms seems to address the problem for now.)

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Image of nobody.really
on June 07, 2018 at 15:28:03 pm

I smile how we have intellectualized the issue of race differences into a mere matter of "recognition". Those rejected resent rejection and argue why am I not who I am. I am man, hear my thunder! I am, therefore I am. I am an identity with whom one should respect ( i.e. not discriminate, but with whom to associate ). There's the rub: my freedom to associate - segregate - trumps your Identity. No tears, no hard feelings, sorry, but that's the way it is, and always is. Grow up!

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martin Kessler

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.