Identity is too much with us late and soon. It figures prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters, and arrogant elites. In our overheated politics of recognition, “Check your privilege!” has become the rebuke of choice, aimed at silencing the opinions of those whose obliviousness to their entitlement is itself a giveaway of their advantaged social status. Those so accused—cisgender white males being prime suspects—in turn accuse their critics of playing identity politics to curtail free speech.
Identities are multiform, of course. Some are given or imposed, and some are elected. Some are acquired, while some are discarded. Some have to do with skin color; others, with ethnicity or religion, region or nation, gender or age, class or profession, disability or differing ability. Identities usually come in packages, and no matter how we assemble them, or how they are assembled for us, we are all, to use the current term of art, intersectional. We assume and wear our identities—in sum or part—proudly or shamefully, arrogantly or modestly. For some, identity explains much of who they are; for others, it explains very little and may even obscure who they believe they are.
Given its current importance, the struggle for recognition among our ever-proliferating identity groups might seem to be a peculiarly modern obsession. But even in the old regimes, with their static social hierarchies, the need for recognition was powerful. Recognition was pursued and attained largely on the field of honor, in daily efforts to fulfill the duties and obligations of one’s place in the divinely ordained social order.
As the old regimes were replaced by modern democratic states with growing social mobility, the concern with honor ceded to a new universalist politics that insisted upon dignity for all citizens, including equal rights and entitlements. But if the modern age did not give rise to the politics of recognition, it did give birth, as the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, to the “conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail.” It did so because, along with the new universalist politics, there arose a related but sometimes conflicting politics of difference, concerned precisely with winning recognition for one or more particular groups against the neglect, exploitation, or assimilationist pressures of the dominant group. The recurring collisions between these two modes of politics have produced some of the sharpest—and even the most violent—civil struggles within modern democratic states.
But the longevity and occasional ferocity of struggles arising from demands for equal rights, on one hand, and the recognition of difference, on the other, has brought relatively little light to the phenomenon of identity itself. How do we judge the adequacy, efficacy, or value of various forms of identity in our struggle to the find not only equal rights and privileges but also meaning and community?
That is the question that animates the thematic essays of the present issue of The Hedgehog Review, and though the answers range widely, they collectively provide an entry point for a deeper, possibly less fraught discussion of what separates humanity into tribes (defined by what are often extremely fine distinctions) and what may yet bring us together in a more capacious humanism that embraces universalist principles while respecting and protecting differences. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote not long ago wrote in the London Review of Books, “Identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing.”
While Lears writes from the left and is largely concerned with the way our current form of identity politics has displaced a concern with class and economic equality, voices of the right and center have joined him in criticizing this coercive narrowing of political debate. (See, for example, Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity, Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.) But escaping the grip of identity politics will require an honest reckoning with the historical and contemporary realities that continue to fuel the politics of difference, whether in the emergence of a new racism visible in soaring rates of African American incarceration or in the ever-accumulating incidents of male aggression against women. And, yes, we must also heed the identity-based grievances of those “angry white males” (and quite a few females) who came together in surprisingly wide support of an uncivil anti-politician promising to make America great again.
Of one thing we can be certain: Identity politics begets more identity politics. Any hope of overcoming that politics must begin with a willingness to listen to those who cleave to identity for the very solidarity and confidence that may free them, ironically, from the more limiting, indeed punitive, aspects of an identity. Are there more commodious forms of identity, including a rekindled and truly civic nationalism, that can bring not just tolerance but a sense of mutuality across some of the most politically heated identity divides? It is an irony—perhaps even tragic one—that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.
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We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with these three:
What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White? by W. Ralph Eubanks
In with the Out Crowd: Contrarians, Alone and Together by Steve Lagerfeld
Virtue Signaling by B.D. McClay
The entire issue, already on its way to subscribers, includes thematic contributions from Mary Townsend, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Phil Christman, S.D. Chrostowska, and James McWilliams along with standalone works by Witold Rybczynski, Becca Rothfeld, and Johann N. Neem as well as six book reviews. Browse the table of contents here and subscribe—if you haven’t yet—here.