One of the issues I address in my book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord is how social and political discourse today so often gets described in the language of “identity politics.” It is important to recognize that while contemporary identity politics tends to be depicted in terms of progress, advancement is often less the case than advocates like to assume.
An increasingly prevalent and dangerous consequence of identity politics helps clarify why we should not expect anything different. More and more we define identity in victim terms. Indeed increasingly we find ourselves in a reality of competing victim narratives in which we somehow assume that the person or group that can feel most mistreated and misjudged wins. In the end, it is a competition in which nobody wins. Victim narratives distort our thinking and make it impossible for anyone to effectively move forward.
We find victim narratives increasingly defining identity on both the political right and the political left. This is particularly the case at ideology’s populist extremes. From the populist Right we hear victim narratives framed in response to college educated coastal elites, critical race theory, and government encroachment on individual freedoms with vaccine mandates. From the populist Left we hear them framed in the language of patriarchy, racism of an all-encompassing systemic sort, gender discrimination, and white privilege.
Perceived historical injustices and inequalities are often very real—not infrequently, they are horrendously so. And we gain much by seeing history clearly, including its very significant warts and often glaring time-specific blindnesses. The ability to do so reflects an important kind of progress in our time. But defining oneself as a victim is something wholly different. When we can get no further than the language of victimization, not only do we end up thinking simplistically about complex dynamics, we end up responding in ways that quite specifically get in the way of moving forward.
Psychologically, victim narratives—and particularly today’s idealization of the angry victim—represent but a mirror image of the dynamics that have traditionally produced bigotry and war. We make another the symbolic cause of all our pain. We focus on our grievances and attribute what we feel to some “evil other.’’ The price we pay goes well beyond just simple-minded conclusions and historical distortions.
Most immediately, because victim narratives create worlds of us and them, instead of supporting mutual understanding, they produce thinking that sets us even further apart. As any good psychologist knows, people who see the world in victim terms tend to be some of the quickest to victimize. At the least, they are just as vulnerable as the oppressor of failing to find humanity in the other. Growing even further apart is what we have seen over recent decades whenever identity politics has come to define debate.
And of even greater importance if one’s concern is real change, victim narratives are ultimately disempowering—and in a particularly insidious way. When we place all responsibility outside ourselves, we also, in the end, put authority outside ourselves. We blind ourselves both to the complexity of perspective and the agency and initiative needed if we are to effectively make change—in general and also in relation to exactly the kind of change that we most hope to have result.
The assumptions of identity politics almost always capture aspects of larger truths. And sometimes there can be limited benefit, at least for the short term. But identity politics tends ultimately to be more about feeling secure in one’s ideological superiority and cementing bonds of allegiance than the maturity of perspective on which our future depends. Even when it has its roots in legitimate observations and commendable impulses, advocacy defined in this way tends to get in the way of where we need to go. We all must do better.