Philosophy, Politics

Identitarianism and the Splintering of Democracy

You can know X if, and only if, you are of part identity group Y.

This is the theory of what I will call ‘Identitarian Epistemology.’ While generally not articulated in abstract form, this doctrine has managed to infect our political culture. It is the major philosophical justification for dismissing anyone’s argument, question, or thought, based on nothing more than his or her identity group. One identity group, so the theory goes, cannot acquire the unique knowledge of another.

Identitarian Epistemology is based upon the following premises:

  • Being part of identity group Y necessarily involves certain experiences which are unique to that group.
  • These experiences are a necessary condition for acquiring certain kinds of knowledge.

And therefore:

  • People not of identity group Y cannot know certain things, which only identity group Y can know.

Being “part of identity group Y” here means being accurately described with a certain identity predicate: “black,” “female,” “gay,” et cetera. There are an infinite number of such predicates because there are an infinite number of ways to qualitatively describe an individual, and to then sort individuals by group based upon common characteristics. However, in our contemporary political culture we generally focus upon the limited number of identity groups within the categories of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.

If the identitarian doctrine is accepted, then each identity group has unique epistemic rights – the right to some exclusive body of knowledge specific to one’s identity group. A white person’s epistemic rights are the ability to know what only white people can know, a black person’s epistemic rights are the ability to know only what black people can know, and so on.

Now, let’s consider for a moment the practical consequences of this theory for our representative democracy. To be sure, is not necessary that the doctrine of epistemic rights have political consequences, or even that it be a particularly significant doctrine. The question of whether or not only Jews like myself can know the proper way to tell a self-deprecating joke about Jews has relatively few consequences. Epistemic rights only become significant (and potentially consequential) when groups are thought to have large and socially important fields of unique knowledge.

This is of further significance to our political culture when combined with a claim about representation: in order to properly know and act on behalf of the interests of a particular identity group, one must be part of that identity group. On this account, one of a white person’s epistemic rights is his or her ability to know the interests of other white people. Given this belief, the identitarian doctrine is not only opposed to American representative democracy, but it necessarily results in perpetual and irrevocable undemocratic rule and group conflict.

In America, we elect leaders to act on behalf of our interests. There are far too many of us for a direct democracy at the highest level of government, so we have a tiered system in which influence diminishes as generality increases. At the level of local government, we can directly represent ourselves, but at the Congressional level we must vote in someone to act on behalf of our common interests.

In order to genuinely represent a constituency, it is necessary that an individual know the interests of his constituents, and that he be capable of acting on their behalf: speaking about them, working to pass relevant legislation et cetera. Any attempt to represent a group when one either does not know the interests of that group, or is incapable of acting on its behalf, is illegitimate. By the lights of the identitarian doctrine, any attempt to represent an identity group of which one is not a member is therefore illegitimate. As a white male, I do not have the epistemic rights to represent women, or black people; and nobody in either of those identity groups has the epistemic right to represent me.

This alone would be contrary to our cultural belief that we can unite under common, albeit limited, interests. If the identitarian doctrine were to be genuinely implemented, then our electoral system would need to be reformed to produce genuine identitarian representation. This could be accomplished by segregating and balkanizing constituencies by race or religion. It could also be accomplished by setting quotas limiting how many people of a given identity group can serve in the upper and lower houses of Congress. Jews, for example, make up less than five per cent of the population and do not have the epistemic rights to represent black or Muslim people. So, if we are to have a government that actually represents the population, the proportion of congressional seats available to Jews must also be limited to five per cent.

But there is an even more insidious consequence. Contemporary ‘intersectional’ feminist doctrine holds that identity groups can be infinitely fragmented: a feminism that attempts to represent the interests of women as women is inadequate. Proper feminism must represent the diverse interests of Muslim women, black women, trans women, and every possible qualitative combination.

This is impossible. Nobody shares the entire identity of everyone in a whole group. And yet, based upon the identitarian doctrine, a common-group identity–between represented and representative–is necessary for representation. Each group requires representation from one of its own, but each group can continually splinter into other identity sub-groups, which also require specific representation: Palestinian women cannot be represented by trans women, or by white women, or by black women. If a member of one of these sub-groups attempts to represent another sub-group, this is illegitimate because the representative lacks the requisite epistemic rights. The conflict then is between a system of representational democracy, in which we unite over broadly shared interests, and a group-based representational system, which, due to the doctrine’s own premises, requires group conflict and the failure of democracy.

The theory of identitarian epistemology is increasingly a commonplace viewpoint. However, practically, it’s important to recognize that someone may espouse this doctrine without articulating all the logical steps of this argument. The identitarian may well repudiate the notion that he believes in the end of our mode of governing and may protest that he has never recommended such a radical objective. Strictly speaking, this may be true. But the end of representative democracy is nonetheless hard-wired into identitarian politics. While the practical consequences of identitarian beliefs may not be fully apprehended by their adherents, the revolutionary logic remains latent and unconscious, awaiting its inevitable moment.

Filed under: Philosophy, Politics

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Max Diamond is a reporter in Raleigh. He has written for the Weekly Standard and the College Fix.

25 Comments

  1. You missed out an element of the identitarian epistemology: that while nobody can speak on behalf of minorities on account of not sharing their lived experience, identitarians have no problem making assumptions about the lived experience of white male able-bodied cis-gendered hetero shitlords.

    If reality is simply a matter of interest and point of view why the hell should the powerful make any concessions when they have their own reality to maintain?

    • Mark Reaume says

      Yes, there is a hierarchy of identities that everyone has to keep in their minds. POC are higher up in the hierarchy because they are oppressed. This means that POC can represent white men because they are lower forms of life apparently and their unique experiences are only experiences of oppressing the ‘others’.

    • XCellKen says

      The correct term is White, Male, Able Bodied Cis-Gendered, Hetero Shitlord DUDEBRO. RESPECT my identity

  2. Max,

    An interesting paper. When reading the first two paragraphs I was reminded of a classroom exercise years ago in a course focusing on culture (Hofstede’s research and similar). We were asked to identify our culture(s) as minutely as possible. The result was similar to what Speaker To Animals illustrates as “white male able-bodied cis-gendered hetero…” but more aligned with defined cultures versus identity-politic labels. We started with our current nationality, then nationality when we attended primary school, geographic vicinity of the nationality, state, gender, ethnicity, etc. We each ended up with 10-15 subcultures where the sum of all the parts = “us.” We then mapped it against all of our peers to illustrate that there is no clear cut way to define anyone, using Hofstede’s dimensions, in a world where there is limitless mobility. Similar to the point made in the movie Sahara where the sidekick points out that he’s holding a coin and that coins travel which is why his grandfather in the USA had a Roman coin and why this C.S.A. coin was found in Africa.

    The identitarian epistemology theory is inherently flawed, not denying that it plausibly exists and explains identity politics, much the same as a narrow reading of Hofstede would be flawed. Hofstede defined the Indian (subcontinent) one way and in some interviews I uncovered that there are very different North India vs South India cultural distinctions.

  3. This is what the promoters of identity politics want. They are attempting to widen the fractures of society and are aiming for the destruction of western civilization. Most of the groups that wish to divide us are based on the left. Of late they incessantly cheer the leftist demagogues in Hollywood, awash in their own hubris, who constantly stump for their causes. What has Hollywood taught them about societies where western civilization no longer exists? Nearly all of the movies based on destroyed societies have complete segregation based on identity politics. These self righteous fools are deriving their blueprints for political direction from movie scripts. The hatred they feel for western society have them attempting to force the identity politics prevalent in these films. But they are missing he overall message of these films… once a civil society is destroyed by these tactics, the end result is universally totalitarian dictatorship and dystopia. The result is never the socialist utopia that they preach, desire and imagine, that same socialist utopia that has evaded humankind forever because our individual flaws will always destroy long term, large scale socialism.

  4. If the identitarians could actually point to a concrete achievement the whole thing wouldn’t be so ridiculous.

    Fragmenting feminism by focusing on neuroatypical transgender Muslims hasn’t shortened the working week by thirty seconds, and BLM disrupting gay pride marches hasn’t prevented a single extra-judiciary wedgie let alone saved a life.

    • Sea Mammal says

      You know it, man. I can’t decide whether it’s narcissistic posturing by privileged malcontents or the Soviet Union’s last laugh. Or both.

  5. Carl Sageman says

    Thanks Max. It’s an important topic. It needs tightening up and expansion, even as intersectionalism 101.

    The article has mixed up gender and sex. In one section, you also mention “race or religion”. You forgot the most significant intersectionalism, sex (usually confused with gender).

    Secondly, there is no boundary to intersectionalism. Height, hair colour, freckles, physical disability, eye colour. If we are going to allow intersectioanality, we must do it properly. Every possible distinguishable characteristic must be considered. After all, don’t we gravitate toward tall, blonde, blue eyed?

    It’s not fair to say that all intersectional groups are created equal, or that they can’t understand each other. If I understand the theory correctly, everybody can comment on white males because they are allegedly a majority. However, if you promote a white male, expect to hear something about privilege and patriarchy. The theory appears to be that majority is bad, but not in all cases. For example, any field that is not dominated by white males is celebrated (and there are many).

    If you miss the power dynamics between intersectional groups, you miss the essence of why we need intersectionalism. United we stand, divided we fall.

    The whole aim of intersectionalism is to turn humans against each other. To tear down, to humiliate, to marginalise, to create conflict.

    There’s a simple solution to this intersectionalism that is self correcting – population levels. It was summarised by Joe Jackson in a song. If there’s war between the sexes, there’ll be no people left. While we continue to pursue intersectionalism, our birth rates plummet. The problem of intersectionalism will fix itself very quickly. Cultures that avoid intersectionalism will thrive. Those that embrace it, die out.

  6. I’ve learned something very valuable from Nassim Taleb: to call something bullshit, when it is bullshit. So here I go:

    bullshit

    Quillette usually publishes interesting, novel or thought-provoking ideas. This text however is neither. There is not even any clear, concise thought, just a fancy-wordy rant about “identity politics runs contrary to my religious belief in democracy”.

      • Could you explain why you think it’s stupid please? Also: Do you think segregation is anti or pro black? (Many black identitarians push for it in the name of progress. Are they wrong? Which black person is correct if two disagree? ) True or False: Making sweeping judgements about people on the basis of their skin color is racist.

    • Amgal says

      I agree that it’s not nearly as thought provoking as other articles on this website, but I’m averse to calling it bullshit outright. He followed a line of thought to a possible conclusion; I didn’t get the personal effect from the article you seemed to get.

  7. augustine says

    Identity politics is another scion of modern liberalism, the underlying premise of which is that each individual must be free to pursue his own desires, absent any imposition to or from others doing the same. Anything that may be seen as limiting this expression– sex, race, cultural or religious norms, height, age, etc.– is demonized or invalidated. Mark Richardson at Oz Conservative writes about this at length.

    By this view there is only the universality of man in toto and the sanctity of the individual. This would seem to preclude any cultural or biological group taxonomies (such as identitarianism) but progressivism by definition cannot be content with any fixed social or political idea. Accruing power by constant agitation and rebellion is both its ineluctable toxicity and its appeal.

    • Michiel says

      I’d say identity politics is the exact opposite of the liberal focus on the individual. In identity politics, there’s no such thing as an individual, only a member of a certain identity group sharing his or her (or whatever non-gendered pronoun they come up with) “lived experience” with all other member of that identity group.

  8. This falls under the category of, “You know the pendulum has swung too far left when..” Now in some parts of africa witch doctors outnumber western trained doctors by about 500 to 1. Many believe that albino body parts are necessary to ward away evil spirits that cause sickness. So they hunt and kill albino people. If you were to objectively test the effectiveness of these treatments on the sick, well on intuition alone you can probably figure out the results. It’s actually more racist to condemn Africans to that madness. Skin colour is not magic. If you feed sick babies goat urine and crushed flies as the ancient egyptians did—there’s a good chance that’ll not have the hoped for effect. When someone discovers insulin, their skin colour has no impact on the effectiveness of that medicine. Even if you hate white people and believe them to be sub human that should be obvious.

    • ga gamba says

      “Many believe that albino body parts are necessary to ward away evil spirits that cause sickness.”

      This is a lie, which I surmise is due to your Eurocentricism. Albino body parts don’t cure illness. They make the eater bulletproof. D’uh.

      Please devote some effort to learn about this fascinating science before you mischaracterise it and wonderful Africans again.

  9. This is nothing new; Nazis were years behind the USA & USSR in development of nuclear weapons because German physicists were not allowed to use Einstein’s “Jewish math”.

  10. Graham Palmer says

    Identitarianism?
    Call it what it is Apartheid, Cultural Apartheid promoting cultural ghettos seeking to divide what was once a progressive unified society
    The simple fact is all laws are a direct expression of cultural identity
    Separate development by culture will create separate laws based on those separate cultures
    as seen in the move to promote Sharia Law in secular Western cultures.
    Who determines whose law is valid and which to be enforced or do we have separate laws?

  11. Peter Cox says

    The purpose of democracy is to protect us from minorities.

    • Randy says

      I don’t think the people who first decided there should be a vote on something thought they needed to do it to protect themselves from minorities. I think those societies were pretty uniform way back then, due to lack of high-speed travel if nothing else.

      Democracy is just one aspect of our systems for inclusive decision-making. Because, unchecked, that tool can lead to mob rule, we tend to invest power in constitutional republics. One way or another, most of the country is a minority.

      We should obviously be protecting ourselves from absurd outcomes like in Canada, where parties that routinely get 30-40% of the vote (even less if you consider people who chose not to vote) somehow get over 50% of the seats, and 100% of the power. Those kinds of minorities should not wield the power they have. In the USA, I guess the best comparison is Bill Clinton who only got 43% of the vote in the 1992 election, but got a majority of the electoral college, and therefore won. They should have used instant-runoff ballots or something like that. And of course the college seems like an unnecessary obfuscator.

      But if we’re just talking about racial minorities or sexual minorities, I don’t think that’s a reasonable use of democracy, because we’ve seen the outcomes from that before.

      • Michiel says

        In 1992 Bill Clinton got 43% of the popular vote and the next contestant, George H.W. Bush got 37%. Another 19% went to the independant candidate.
        So Bill Clinton won the majority of the popular vote ánd the electoral college. I fail to see the problem with that rather clear outcome.
        You don’t need to look so far back to see a more problematic example. Last year Hillary Clinton won a majority of the popular vote (48% compared to 46% for Trump) but still lost the electoral college.

  12. Randy says

    I think identitarian epistemology is a result of the worship of empathy, and the defamation of compassion. I think the identitarians have it exactly backwards, and that it is empathy that corrupts, and compassion that is the path forward to a free, just, and equal society. I heard Paul Bloom interviewed on these two values, and I’m not prepared to summarize what he said, but he’s got a book, and of course his interview is online.

  13. ga gamba says

    “…each group can continually splinter into other identity sub-groups,”

    Correct. One may continue to fractionate to ever smaller (yet meaningful to the person) classifications such height, intelligence, accent, disability, etc. Keep splintering and ultimately we’re back to the individual, which is where we started from due the dominance (still?) of the values of the Enlightenment. It’s a pointless exercise except in one key regard; it allows certain groups to seize power not by the power of their ideas but the power of immutable characteristics. I suspect that once this happens the in-power groups will endeavour to prevent furthering splintering, perhaps by adopting something akin to China’s ‘anti-splittist’ thought police.

    Identitarianism is simply power politics (Machtpolitik).

  14. Steven says

    For being a movement opposed to dividing people into races rather than seeing people as individuals, identitarians are so focused on the concept of race it’s almost bordering to obsession. While they strongly deny there is such a thing as human races, which strangely mixes and interferes with the concept of ethnicity, they also need to cling to the race concept and uphold it at all cost lest they lose their primary tool of analysis.

    And the carte blanche for anyone to speak on the issues of white males just serves to illustrate how confused the debate has become.

    That issue aside, the role of identitarianism in society boils down to one single important point:

    Living together in a society comes with as many rights as obligations. How do identitarians assume a society to function where all sub-groups are given equal rights to define their own set of rules for being and living in the society?

    Or stated in other words, identitarianism is not society building, it can only exist in an already existing and ordered society. Just imagine, what would a society entirely built on identitarianism look like? Answer – It would not be a society at all since all societies require sacrifices and obligations.

    Ask any identitarianist – What particular right(s) would you be willing to sacrifice in a society?

  15. Steven says

    The identitarian movement is currently very strong in the academic world where lots of universities are discussing the problem with reqruitment to higher education (which, for some reason, should mirror the composition of the society in general).

    I have tried on many occasions to discuss the representation issue with identitarians when it comes to higher education, but to no avail. The reason I believe is a lack of understanding of basic statistics. Not all groups can be represented at all times, and the reason why is because it fails due to number of parameters.

    We have all heard the argument at least once. ‘The education in [insert field of study] fails to reqruit students from all parts of society. We must therefore aim to increase the number of students from under-represented groups.’ So far, so good. But when you argue about what groups are relevant it becomes extremely difficult, to both satisfy representation and to define the under-representation in itself. And people just cannot seem to understand the statistics of it.

    Say we have an education with 60 seats every year. Assume one variable (sex), with two parameters (men and women). Equal representation is then 30 men and 30 women. Fine. Then our identitarian tells us we need to consider race. For simplicity let’s pick, say, Asians. We then achieve full representation by admitting 30 Asians and 30 Caucasians. Of which 50% are men and 50% women. For two variables (sex and race) we get 4 parameters (Male Asian, Female Asian, Male Caucasian, Female Caucasian), with 15 individuals per representation ‘slot’. Add another couple of races, some genders, various socio-economic backgrounds, plus a handicap or two in the mix, and you are stuck with a Misson Impossible. You will never be able to achieve the identitarian aim with more than, say, 2-3 variables with 2 parameters each. Anything more is doomed to fail.

    This is what I call the Identitarian representation failure. It can never be achieved, but merely exist as a beautiful vision of a perfect world that can never be reached. And you can only continue to fight for it if you lack a basic understanding of statistics. If the identitarian instead submit to the statistics it becomes a problem of de-selecting under-represented groups. We have yet to see that happen, even once.

    In the identitarian world we are, and will always be, stuck with the issue of under-representation. Not because it is good, but because it is inevitable even under the assumption of interest in a particular subject being equally distributed among individuals in a population.

    We are then left with the option of either submitting to reality and acknowledge that people study what they are interested in regardless of who they happen to be, or continue to press the issue of representation and fight a war statistics has already lost for you.

    The choice is yours.

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