The Sisyphean Task at the Core of Identity Politics

There are many strands in intellectual life and trends in the broader culture that have contributed to the rise of identity politics and made it characteristic of discourse on both the left and right. Identity is at the core of political issues as different as the disrespect that ‘somewheres’ feel from the mobile, and dynamic ‘anywheres’, and the struggle for equal respect and dignity among minority groups in multicultural societies.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the specific cases in question, the conflict over identity is rooted in a core human need – the desire for the ‘recognition’ of one’s social status. The concept figures prominently in the theoretical underpinnings of major movements in the ‘socialized’ disciplines in the humanities and social sciences and has spilled over into popular culture writ large. It is key to understanding the identity politics on the left.

Ironically, the philosopher who bequeathed us the concept in its most developed form was ambiguous in his politics and is claimed by both liberals and conservatives as their own. GWF Hegel is the philosopher of recognition par excellence. At the core of his wide-ranging corpus is the focus on the nature of the process of change in all its forms – dialectic. He thought that the emergence of all new phenomena could be described as the result of a process of exchange, wherein competing and contrasting ideas conflict, and something new is formed as a result.

The process applies to self-development, and history alike. In order to become self-conscious as a person, you must recognize others like yourself. Gradually, you form an identity as someone defined by the possession of features and traits with corresponding social categories. The natural thing to do is then to seek recognition for the traits you possess, as you no doubt find them worthy and valuable. Social dynamics, and the process of change is thus to be explained by the conflict between individuals and groups as they compete for status rooted in contrasting values.The concept has been influential in Continental Philosophy, where thinkers have emphasized that the recognition of individuals and groups is crucial to the goals of equality and social justice – Axel Honneth highlights its importance in psychological development and esteem;

Nancy Fraser on Recognition and ‘Scales of Justice’

Nancy Fraser its unjust origins in socioeconomic exploitation; and Iris Marion Young that it is crucial to the achievement of relational, or social justice. Canada’s own Charles Taylor has described in lucid detail how the concept has emerged to occupy centre stage in modern notions of identity, in his classic work, Sources of the Self.

Charles Taylor on the historical development of the concept of ‘Self’

Unlike his contemporary Left Hegelian followers and many of today’s academics and intellectuals, Hegel understood that recognition is not an absolute, but relative term.

Recognition is both felt and bestowed by others on the basis of the set of characteristics, traits and behaviours that a person possesses and exhibits, and the value ascribed to them. It is part and parcel to the act of valuing that it is based on certain standards, and not others. In order to value something positively, other related things must be valued less, by default.

Hegel recognized the complexity of the concept, the elements of which could be realized in a society that developed institutions suited to each part: the feeling of deep recognition in loving relations was fulfilled in the family; the less intimate feeling of respect in contracts was to be upheld in civil society with an equally applicable rule of law; and the feeling of a wider sense of belonging to others with shared values and a common narrative was to be found in the political entity of the state.

In a recent book on identity politics, Francis Fukuyama rightly noted that we humans desire both to have our dignity respected equally, and command greater respect for our achievements. These two desires are clearly irreconcilable because different practices, behaviours, and values will never command equal respect. He remains hopeful that liberal democracies have the resources to accommodate these competing urges.

Francis Fukuyama discusses his most recent book on Identity Politics
David Brooks debates Patrick Deneen on the thesis of his book.

There are a host of intellectuals who are more pessimistic about the West’s ability to reinvigorate itself in light of trends like identity politics that threaten implosion from within. Yet most are not too hard on the core features of classical liberalism. Others, like Patrick Deneen, see the biggest internal threats as necessary outgrowths of an overemphasis on the value of liberty. He thinks that this dominates contemporary politics in the West, as many justifications are rooted in alternative interpretations of liberty. Today, the right will justify gun ownership, private property, and the accumulation of wealth on the grounds of freedom, whereas the left will emphasize that difference must be accommodated and rewarded equally, as otherwise, one would not be truly ‘free’ to act and behave as one wishes. For the Ancients and the religious sects that founded and colonized the New World, freedom always meant the ‘freedom to be virtuous’. Liberty was a value recognized as a means to other ends that did not have their ultimate justification in the subjective preferences and desires of individuals. Deneen argues that the pursuit of liberty at the expense of other values is a recipe for civic disunity.

The crucial point that separates the sensible from the ridiculous in intellectual theories, social movements, and political visions, are the goals that they are in service of, and the means used to achieve them. There have been many an occasion where rigid value structures have excluded and marginalized unjustly. In fact, many have done so in contradiction of some of the core tenets of the principles that animate them. When goals pertaining to equality and recognition are conceived of in this way, they are worth fighting for.

When movements fail to recognize difference, and seek to equalize status, the desired result is in principle impossible to achieve, and silly, or even potentially dangerous to try. The familiar move on the left is to attempt to change the meaning of words so as to make them more ‘inclusive’. Sometimes it is warranted, but often times it is not. In my view, an initiative has gone too far when it seeks to eliminate the practice of judgment and evaluation altogether in favour of the unconditional acceptance of vastly different behaviours, practices, and values.

It is important to realize that the desire to be recognized as an equal and as different exist in an unhappy tension. Moreover, this tension is a permanent one, that necessarily characterizes social relations. The balance must be always sought by carving out spaces where people can express their own values and live in their own way, while retaining a connection to the core, shared norms of the larger group.

Let us not behave like Sisyphus, who was doomed to engage in a toilsome endeavour for all of eternity; every time he rolled his boulder to the top of the hill, it rolled back down to the bottom, and he would rinse and repeat. A little recognition of the ‘other side’s’ motivations and concerns would go a long way to stifling the vicious circle of toxic animosity that is prevalent today. We might reinvigorate the political climate by paying our respects to those emphasizing one of the twin pillars of equal dignity and freedom that shape the Western tradition.

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