When Your Political Ideology Turns On You

The ravenous ideology of identity politics devours its own devotees

In this worldview, the group that can prove the greatest source of contemporary oppression becomes the group with greatest authority. This ideology doesn’t bode well for the future. Heller worries “the cracks in the American left are likely to grow—with more campaign arguments about who is the ‘true’ progressive, more shouting past one another, and more feelings that, for at least one generation, everything is lost.”

 

The kids aren’t all right, at college anyway.

In the past year, several colleges and universities have been embroiled in controversy – Yale, Emory, Claremont McKenna, Ithaca, Harvard, and Bowdoin. In most cases, the activists and their opponents all share the same worldview. They are multicultural, educated, and liberal in their politics. But they are caught between the ideal of free expression and the reality of identity politics.

Last year, Jonathan Haidt described the atmosphere on many college campuses as a “coddling of the American mind.” In his graduation speech at Rutgers last month, President Obama chided students for shutting down conversation. “Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities,” he said.

Now, Nathan Heller in The New Yorker takes us to Oberlin College to explore the culture of American higher education. What he describes is a new variation of pluralism, where knowledge and authority is tied to identity.

The Gospel of Intersectionality

The new paradigm – one student describes it as “the gospel” at Oberlin – is “intersectionality.” Heller describes the theory this way:

“Identity-based oppression [operates] in crosshatching ways. Encountering sexism as a white, Ivy-educated, middle-class woman in a law office, for example, calls for different solutions than encountering sexism as a black woman working a minimum-wage job. The theory is often used to support experiential authority, because, well, who knows what it means to live at an intersection better than the person there?”

There’s certainly some truth to this theory. As Christians, we recognize that sinful patterns pervade the structures of society and give rise to different forms of injustice. We also see value in being good listeners, as we recognize our limitations of knowledge and our need for empathy.

But the troubling implication of this theory is that authority stems from your identity and experience rather than the force of your logic and reasoning. As one professor explains:

“Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have.”

So what happens when perspectives clash? What do you do, Heller asks, when a black professor makes a statement that is anti-Semitic? If you are not black or Jewish, how do you decide who you will stand with?

When Emotion Trumps Logic

Furthermore, if knowledge is tied to identity above everything else, then certain points of view immediately trump others, regardless of their rational coherence.

Aaron Pressman, a Jewish student at Oberlin, describes what happened after he expressed an unpopular opinion.

“A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male… I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’”

In this worldview, the group that can prove the greatest source of contemporary oppression becomes the group with greatest authority. This ideology doesn’t bode well for the future. Heller worries “the cracks in the American left are likely to grow—with more campaign arguments about who is the ‘true’ progressive, more shouting past one another, and more feelings that, for at least one generation, everything is lost.”

An Example of Identity Politics Shutting Down Conversation

I saw this ideology play out recently in a Twitter exchange between Brandan Robertson, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute who became the national spokesperson for “Evangelicals for Marriage Equality” and a Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a “non-binary Trans Latina” activist. Brandan describes himself as “queering the church,” and Robyn pressed him for more details.

“I identify as queer in my sexuality and embrace and am learning queer theology,” Brandan explained.

“Just curious what a cis white dude means when he says he’s queering the church,” Robyn responded.

“I appreciate your inquiry,” Brandan said. “These are important questions and an important moment for the radical queering of Christianity and the world.”

Robyn wasn’t finished. Taking aim at the conference that Brandan had recently spoken at, she asked: “Do you see though the racialized reality here of his work? And the cisness of it.”

To which, Brandan responded: “Absolutely, and I’m working to deconstruct that as much as I can. I also am constantly aware that I still have a long way to go.” In other words, I’m your ally! I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m doing whatever I can to help change the world!

Robyn’s response? “Well, whites and cis folks aren’t the ones able to dismantle this stuff. You should look to marginalized folks as you learn.”

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