Identity Politics vs. Human Achievement
By Edward Hudgins
How do you think of yourself? As a man, woman, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Nigerian, Kenyan, Egyptian, Indian, straight, gay, or a long list of other possibilities? If these are your primary identifications, take care, because you might well be doing yourself a disservice or even contributing to one of society’s deep problems.
Accidents of birth. All of these descriptions are accidents of birth. You didn’t choose any of these. Most of these attributes come with cultural characteristics–traditions, celebrations, rites of passage, food, music, art, you name it. It is possible to take joy in much of your culture. You share the culture in community with others. It can provide familiarity and frameworks for understanding yourself and the world. It can reinforce good moral habits, values, priorities, assumptions, and expectations. It can encourage creativity. The Italian Renaissance saw painters and sculptors inspiring one another. Chinese decorative arts inspired across generations.
But to say you take “pride” in your culture can be misleading. Of course, you can appreciate the positive aspects of the culture to which you belong. You can be thankful to those who have helped create and sustain the best aspects of it. To the extent you choose to let those aspects nurture the best in you and to the extent you might contribute to it yourself, you can be proud, but more of yourself. (Warning: I carry on the tradition of my Italian mom of making the tastiest pizzelles you’ve ever had!)
Open to all. Further, others can appreciate and participate in the best your culture in which you were born has to offer. And your creative activities need not be confined to your culture. Asians are represented far above their numbers as classical musicians, offering the works of Beethoven as good as any German.
And here we understand the moral absurdity of the notion of “cultural appropriation.” To begin with, no group “owns” any particular aspects of a culture. Anyone can create anything in any field or medium. This is because we are all, first and foremost, human and individual.
It is also the case that characteristics of various subcultures can also be destructive of our potential and the best within us. An obvious example is that historically, many cultures relegated women to second-class status or even treated them as property. Want to create social discord? Get into a fight over which culture has the ugliest and absurdest practices. Of course, cultures are open, which means we can each participate in the aspects that enrich us and reject those aspects that impoverish our souls.
Ugly identity. And here we understand the dark side of today’s ugly “identity politics.” Identity politics is destructive of the individual and divisive of society. Identity politics today involves demanding that others respect one because of an accident of birth. This demand, in and of itself, is reason to give someone no respect. Someone who demands the unearned, usually with an emotional arrogance and irrationality, should cause any person of decent moral character to turn away in disgust.
Consider how the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, uses identity politics. They start with the legitimate demand that police be trained to not use deadly force when not actually protecting lives and be prosecuted when they kill unnecessarily, as in the case of George Floyd. These neo-racists turn this demand into a justification for destruction of the property of others, including other blacks. Worse still is the demand that individuals who never owned slaves be forced to pay reparations to individuals who never were slaves, all based on race. And worst of all are the elites who run our institutions from media, entertainment, corporate boards, religions, civic groups, politics, and education who do not immediately denounce this divisive identity politics. They enable such politics out of dogma, fear, and unearned guilt.
It is collectivism of the ugliest moral sort.
By your achievements. A true evaluation of yourself should be based on your achievements. Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand wrote, “As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul.” Your achievements come from what you make and do. To further quote Rand, ”It is hard to say which is the more outrageous injustice: the claim of Southern racists that a Negro genius should be treated as an inferior because his race has ‘produced’ some brutes—or the claim of a German brute to the status of a superior because his race has ‘produced’ Goethe, Schiller and Brahms.” She puts “produced” in quotations because she rightly believes that our race or group doesn’t “produce” us but, rather, that we produce ourselves.
We are all better than this. We can celebrate the election–twice–of Barack Obama as the first black president, even if we disagreed with his policies, not because it’s somehow intrinsically good to have a black individual in the White House. Rather, his election showed that in America, where only about 12 percent of the population is black, race is not a bar to election to the highest office in the land. But voting for anyone just because of an accident of birth rather than what they stand for or what policies they advocate is to perpetuate the ugly tribalism that has afflicted the world for millennia.
And we all should want to live in a society in which we all see each other and see ourselves as individuals and judge others and ourselves accordingly. Martin Luther King set an ideal when he declared “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Any other path leads to exactly the divisions and hate that have plagued all societies that have valued the tribe or collective over the individual. Anyone who wishes to save the civilization and culture based on the Enlightenment values that are the only ones appropriate for human beings need to understand that true individualism is a uniting rather than dividing ethos. So let’s strive to be the best individuals we can be–whatever our background!
Edward Hudgins, Ph.D., is president of the Human Achievement Alliance.