Politics  •  March 18, 2017

The Way to Engage in Identity Politics

When I took the one-way flight from Japan to California to attend high school, Japan was a controversial county responsible for creating the massive unemployment in the auto industry. California being the land of automobiles, the controversy was very much in the air. I would often overhear people talking about “the Japanese” and my ears would prick up every time.

In a homogenous country like Japan, identity politics is not a significant aspect of the public consciousness. I was not used to thinking of myself as a “Japanese” or “Asian” because there were no contexts in which I had to defend myself as Japanese or Asian. Everyone was. The other, which allows us to define who we are, was simply nowhere to be found.

Being new to identity politics, I took everything personally. Whenever someone criticized anything about Japan, I felt like I was personally being attacked. I armed myself with the knowledge to defend myself and my country. In retrospect, it’s obvious that this way of engaging and debating with others was counter-productive. Most people were not attacking me personally. They were simply interested in solving the socioeconomic and diplomatic problems that the Japan-US relations were creating. My attempt to defend myself personally was not helping to solve those problems.

Likewise, it is not helpful when people engage in a debate about race-relations in the US on a personal level. I see this being particularly problematic among the minority liberals. When they debate with a White person, particularly a White man, they attack him personally, as if he is personally responsible for the oppression of the minority or the history of slavery. On the flip side, you can also see White people reacting to a public discourse on a personal level even if they are not being attacked personally, just as I was personally reacting to every criticism about Japan.

If we are to solve any problems within identity politics through public discourses, we have to learn how to differentiate public from personal. Conflating the two is, in fact, the primordial problem of prejudice. When a White person sees a Black man walking towards her, she becomes fearful because of the public image of Black men. Even though she doesn’t know anything about this particular Black man, she makes assumptions based on the stereotypes of Black men. This can happen in the other direction too where the Black man assumes that the White woman is afraid of him even if she is not. In these circumstances, we have to consciously intervene because our automatic, instinctive reactions are to act accordingly to the stereotypes.

We should think of a public discourse as a way to develop a general framework, and we should use it only if it is useful or relevant to the specific situations. We should not think of it as defining a moral directive or prescription. We need to keep in mind that these frameworks won’t always be relevant or applicable. In some cases, we might need to use modified versions of them. A dogmatic or prescriptive use of these frameworks is alienating and can cause people to repress resentful feelings.

On the other hand, when we are engaged in a debate about individual behaviors, we cannot condemn them using these frameworks as the absolute or universal standards. We have to take into account all the contingencies that come with being a unique human being.

From this perspective, we can see why the Alt-Right movement has been gaining momentum. The receiving side of the criticisms about oppression and subjugation, if they are attacked personally, or if they mistakenly perceive them as such, accumulate feelings of resentment or injustice over time. Such feelings would not simply go away. They will have to find an outlet one way or another. I believe the popularity of Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer is riding on the backlash from this repression. This type of public discourses coming from both the politically-correct liberals and the Alt-Right are not constructive. There is a sense of sadomasochism in this particular relationship where the PC liberals enjoy making their opponents feel guilty, and the Alt-Right deliberately inflames the former to get some more.

So, what is the right way to engage the other in a public discourse?

Suppose you are a White person being personally attacked by a Black person on the topic of slavery. If he does not know you well, he is likely projecting to you all the White people who have treated him unjustly in his life. If you are capable of distancing yourself from the other person(s) he is attacking, you could continue this conversation to learn more about what is motivating his arguments. That is, you let him use you as a substitute for his real target in order to learn more. If you are not interested in engaging him in this way, you could simply stand up for yourself, reject his personal attack, and redirect the conversation to be a public discourse, that is, development of a general framework, not a personal criticism.

On the flip side, suppose you are a Black person engaging a White person in a public discourse about racism but he is reacting as if he is being attacked personally. This situation is trickier because you are the presumed aggressor. If any harm is to be done, it would be to him, which means if any blame were to be placed, it would be to you. In the opposite scenario above, as long as you don’t mind being the victim, ethically speaking, you are free to choose that position. The best course of action, when you are the presumed aggressor, may be to disengage entirely, and to find others who are capable of having a public discourse. In order to advance your cause, your time and energy would be better spent on the latter.

Another factor that may contribute to blurring the line between public and personal is how we address the arguments. In one-on-one conversations, people are more likely to take our arguments personally because there is not enough space to stand back and see them objectively. If the same arguments were to be addressed to the general public, i.e. to nobody in particular, they would be less likely to interpret them at a personal level.

But clearly, there is an asymmetry here. In a public discourse about identity politics, the dominant party has a choice whether to engage or not (to be the target of the attack or not), whereas the subjugated party doesn’t. The latter forcing the former to listen will not lead to constructive discussions, whereas the subjugated party has no choice but to listen to the dominant party as the decisions the dominant party makes would have inescapable consequences for the subjugated. As unfair as this may be, screaming unfair would not contribute to our causes. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If someone does not want to listen to you, you cannot force him to. Unfortunately life is unfair.

How we engage the other, therefore, is more important than what we engage the other with. The latter becomes irrelevant if we choose the wrong way to engage. As abstract as this may seem, I believe reconsidering how we situate ourselves in a debate is the key to breaking what seems like a stalemate in America’s race relations.