Features, Politics, Privilege

Harris, Lilla, and the Politics of Identity

What exactly is the problem with identity politics? Is it an unequivocal negative in our political and intellectual discourse? Or is it a mode of engagement that serves a positive purpose when kept within its proper bounds?

These questions cropped up during a podcast exchange last September between neuroscientist Sam Harris and Professor Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal. Both men are concerned by the intellectual and political decline of American liberalism, and were in general agreement about its many and various recent failings. Liberalism has ceased to be relevant to many of the voters who once empowered its philosophical platform; it has ceased to offer a coherent intellectual message capable of galvanizing the American mainstream; and its decline has opened the door to uniquely regressive forces on the Right. Harris and Lilla further agreed that much of the responsibility for liberalism’s decline lay with the steady advance of identity politics.

However, in the midst of all this congenial nodding, a nuanced disagreement arose about a potentially significant question: Are identity politics intrinsically negative or are they only a problem in excess? Harris has been clear and consistent in his view that identity politics are an important source of moral confusion on the Left. Liberal feminists, for instance, assail the retrogressive doctrines and prejudices of conservative American Christians without apology, but then denounce critics of radical Islamic countries and cultures mandating the stoning and more general subjugation of women. By the same token, two white men like Harris and Lilla are unable to speak critically of the Black Lives Matter movement without aspersions being cast on their motives by progressive critics who lack “any apparent awareness of a burden to rebut the substantive points we actually made about the movement.”

“Identity politics,” Harris asserts in the podcast, “is a failure of rationality.” The argument he makes in support of this claim is clear, straightforward, and familiar. Individuals are not free to reason independently if they are tied to the prejudices of the groups to which they belong. A person can only be reasonable if reason is allowed to transcend the confines of parochial social consensus and embrace the legitimacy of views that may fall outside it. However, Lilla countered with an observation that one does not hear as often. He argued that identification with a broader group is necessary to animate the productive actions of that group. “It’s true,” Lilla remarked, “that Americans right now are overly identity conscious . . . it’s important to identify with something in order to motivate action and to build solidarity.”

Lilla is a strong critic of identity politics, but his central criticism is that, in its contemporary manifestation, identity politics have fractured a broader and necessary identification with the identity of the nation that can bind disparate interests together. Lilla invokes the example of Teddy Roosevelt and the subsequent liberalism of the Sixties, during which interest groups framed advocacy as universalist struggles consistent with the interests and ideals of their nation. “A time,” as Harris recalls from Lilla’s book, “when liberals could salute the flag without embarrassment.” For Lilla, the real value of group identity is, ironically, exactly what is being lost to today’s identity politics. His belief that group identification can invigorate a civic and social sense of purpose echoes the theory of ‘group selection’ advocated by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt maintains that natural selection often selects for whole groups of organisms and that the human tendency to adopt and organise communities around religious and political ideals and identities is a reflection of evolutionarily advantageous group adaptations.

Harris, however, does not seem to think that such collectivizing is inevitable, much less desirable. Lilla poetically reminds him that “what gives our lives some thickness is a little bit of partisanship.” While agreeing that it can be energizing, Harris maintains that the logic of identity politics will always tend towards tyranny and irrationality, and that we must therefore learn to reason beyond these instincts:

If I have to pick a side, I’m on the side of someone who’s making sense, right? And the moment a person of my religion or my skin color or my political party stops making sense I’m on the side of the person of whatever skin color or whatever religion or whatever political party who points that out, because error is the problem. Dishonesty is the problem. Confirmation bias is the problem. Delusion is the problem. I just see pegging anything of real substance to identity is a kind of anchor to delusion.

So what is the proper role of identity politics? Do they have one? And is it possible to reconcile the positions held by Lilla and Harris?

The utility of allegiance to a group – be it a nation, an ethnic group, a tribe, or a family unit – is much as Lilla describes it. Our basic pre-commitment to those who share our culture or circumstances allows us to function together in wider political, social, and even physical environments in which common concerns and obstacles require common responses, facilitated by common bonds. But when the perceived interests of a group of people come into conflict with reason and morality, they contradict the interests of society and humanity more broadly, at which point identity politics can no longer serve the best interests of the group or its members. As Harris argues, it is reason that can save us from the consequences of our own prejudices and those of our tribes.

Harris sees a commitment to reason as part of a larger commitment to universal moral truths, which in turn implies a commitment to the well-being of humanity. But Lilla argues that this commitment is likely to manifest in concentric circles of group identification. Can we not reasonably say that we should be attached to our family, but prepared to sacrifice some of our family’s immediate interests to the interests of our ethnic group, nation, and even humanity when reason and moral imperative demand it?

If we take Harris and Lilla together, this is the picture that emerges. It should be noted that, while the tone of Harris’s arguments conveys an intellectual attachment to reason and Lilla’s an emotional attachment to groups of people, neither is arguing for one at the exclusion of the other. “There is no direct route from the rational mind to human action that does not pass through something emotional,” Lilla states in support of the social bonds that necessarily tie members of a group together.

So the question then becomes: Can we have an emotional attachment to every level of humanity that varies according to its proximity to ourselves? And can we achieve this using an attachment to ethical reasoning that transcends our commitment to the immediate interests of the group closest to us in favor of the ongoing interest of other groups which make up our common humanity? Let us hope that we can. For only then can reason ensure that the moral and social bonds of universal human brotherhood are sustained.


John Wood, Jr. is a former nominee for Congress. He currently hosts The Wood Review and is Director of Media Development at Better Angels. You can follow him on Twitter @TheWoodReview


  1. > “There is no direct route from the rational mind to human action that does not pass through something emotional,”

    This is a very accurate description of the observed reality; what follows, however, is its oversimplification. History provides numerous examples of people emotionally attached to their intellectual possessions, some developed independently, some adopted from a source attributed to an intellectually superior being; moreover, actions of such people produce particularly lasting effects on history. Even the phenomenon of so-self-proclaimed “weaponized autism” confirms the existence of emotional attachment to causes and undertakings that can’t be accurately expressed in terms of group allegiance. It’s a gross misconception to believe that human beings can only feel attachment or empathy towards human beings; on the contrary, people tent to attribute human features to the phenomena that surround them, and have been doing that since the very emergence of the human species, from the sophisticated animism of the caves and the savannah to the sophisticated “Mother Nature” animism of today.

  2. Personally I see absolutely no use for identity politics. There’s not a single group or even a single person (other than myself) on the planet that can accurately speak for me or fairly represent me. And 20-year old me can’t speak for 40-year old me. I strongly suspect this is ultimately true for the vast majority of people, whether they’re aware of it or not. The smallest minority is the individual and all that.

    • Aux says

      @Marzipan, the issue is that larger groups which act as one are more successful then individuals which are not able to compromise some of their personal beliefs for the sake of the larger whole.

      So you can go it alone and not associate with any group. But it’s not a winning strategy.

      • That is true.

        It is also true that an individual who wishes to rely only on reason and who would be a stranger any group or identity small than all of mankind had better have an IQ >2 sd above the mean, possess much better than average judgment and have a skill that is in demand if such a person hopes to make it alone.

        For the vast majority of people, attachment to some group identity is absolutely necessary.

    • Poison Ivy says

      So…you DO support “identity politics”. Because you’re arguing that your identity is so individual, only you personally can define it. Which is exactly what “identity politics” supposedly argues.

      • Everybody identifies as themself. There’s no way around that. I’m apparently too dumb or too smart to think anyone else in the world totally agrees with me about anything. I’m willing to extend that reasoning to everyone else. Perhaps it’s a mistake, but, eh.

        • Marzipan, the Dutch have a strong national identity. Never agreeing on anything is part of that identity. You’d be right at home there! (I am Dutch, but have been living in Los Angeles for 30 years.)

  3. I find both Harris’ and Lilla’s arguments here a little weak. They both pass the buck down the line, appealing to other unjustified values. Why should we have ‘freedom to reason independently’? Who’s to say that’s so much better than reasoning collectively? And why should we be ‘motivated for action’? Action for what? For the good of individuals or for the group? Is group identity valuable just because it motivates action that preserves group identity?

    Here’s a more deductive argument for individualism and against ‘identity politics’:
    You think therefore you are. That’s indisputable. But it’s logically possible that nothing else actually exists except in your mind.
    Therefore you exist as you regardless of whether or not any group exists. So you fundamentally exist as an individual, as does any other person.
    So should groups or individuals be valued? You can only logically value that which exists. Individuals exist.
    In order for groups to exist as morally valuable entities, they would need to be experiencers. Where is the experience of a group? Only in its supposed members.
    But why should we value the experiences of the members? It can’t be because of their group affiliation. That would be circular reasoning. So people only matter as a function of their individual existence.

    Or put in a long-winded way, situated in the philosophic literature:

    • Poison Ivy says

      I individually identify as a nonbinary gender. I felt this way for 30 years before I knew I could label myself “trans” and consider myself part of that group. How on earth do you perceive “identity politics” as arguing for anything EXCEPT individual determination of identity?

      The problem is, people like the men identified in the essay above will not stop forcing their preferred labels on me, no matter how many times I say they are incorrect. I don’t care about being part of a “trans community”. That concept is a myth: we are too diverse a group to have a single trans community. Personally, I prefer to have little to no direct involvement with those larger communities. Nevertheless, I am constantly assumed to have allegiance to them by people who do not identify as trans, simply because I do not happen to identify as either male or female, and never have.

      It’s amazing to me how poorly formed these claims that “identity politics” are in opposition to self-identification always seem to be. I have been asking for years to be seen and treated as a the individual I am by non-trans people, only to be continually refused and told that they will choose my labels for me, based on their external perceptions of who I am and/or who I ought to be. If you are arguing for the right to self-identify, you are doing so from an utterly irrational standpoint.

      • You’re perfectly welcome to choose any identity or pronoun you wish. This does not explain why I must be forced to implement your perception. I don’t know you, so I have no perception of your sex. I might be willing to use “he/she” as your pronoun if that worked for you – since you say you’re not sure day-to-day how to identify – but zir isn’t going to work for me. I assume the historically accepted third gender pronoun wouldn’t work for you.

        BTW, Jordan Peterson agrees with you that the front-persons for trans-rights shouldn’t be perceived as speaking for you, because that’s what makes identity politics collectivist.

      • Kim Kim Kim says

        Trans is cool with me, but it’s hard to understand your point here. Trouble is, you can’t control other people, and what they choose to believe, or how they decide to discriminate. Nuns, for example, claim to be the brides of Christ. I don’t consider this to be so.

      • Bill says

        The problem is, people like me the (LGBTQ/feminist/anti-Trump/etc) identified in the essay above will not stop forcing their preferred labels (mysogynist, Nazi, homophobe, transphobe, islamaphobe, racist) on me, no matter how many times I say they are incorrect.

        At the core of the identity politics battleground is the old “do unto others” concept. The very thing you despise are being done to those other parties as well. From 2008 – 2016, for example, moderate Democrats became extinct because ANY criticism of the President’s policies were met with the label of RACIST! because clearly, the only reason one could disagree was because President Obama, a mixed-race President, had dark skin pigmentation! It couldn’t possibly be policy disagreements.

        A couple of years ago, a little case in the Carolinas where private businesses said “you know what, men use men’s room, women use women’s rooms. Nobody complained, it was just “use the one correct for you and be on your way” turned into a big transgender activism battlefront. Why? Because we must get rid of all notions of “gender-specific” bathroom labels! Nobody had complained — it would have been plastered all over the MSM if businesses had the nerve to ask a transgendered person to switch bathrooms with boycotts galore (after all, the repeal of the law spawned boycotts as did policies like those implemented by Target). Instead, anyone pointing out the obvious, that pedophiles shielding themselves with a transgender victim label would abuse a system where store security could not intervene (numerous cases in the media) were labeled any number of negative terms without any consequence. (I chose this as it is an innocuous example where “activism” created the battleground that didn’t exist — businesses weren’t wholesale kicking transgender out of bathrooms, it was a law passed specifically to create an activist battlefield.)

      • George Kushner says

        Poison Ivy , not questioning your personal identity but I simply wonder how far we as individuals can deconstruct our reality without losing ability to even perceive it?
        I’m not questioning anyone’s personal feelings and subjective perception as long as it stays private. When the subjective comes out as a verifiable truth it has to be questioned and I have serious doubts about relativizing gender categories. Some categories indeed might be found problematic like skin color but when it comes to such fundamental category as gender we need to be extremely cautious before dispensing with it. Eventually EVERY category is divisive and potentially creating inequality and tyranny so in the end we’ll have to get rid of the category of ‘inside’ vs. ‘outside’ to be completely consistent and bring human culture to the state of enthropic death.

  4. dirk says

    I would like to point out to Joseph Roth’s book -Radetzky March-, maybe the last example of European belief and committment to a transnational cohesion of different ethnicities and nationalities under the long lasting Habsburg Monarchy, until early 20th century. It gave way soon to the unspeakable Nazi monoculture, and even now, the European Community does not mean more than a conglomerate of nations with different languages, pathways and interests (Dutch fishing boats ousted by French ones, Spanish by French, British by Icelandic). I see identity as the new Darwinian selection mechanism.

  5. Rod says

    A young man sitting next to me, in a bar, was talking about the fire department with his friend – as a retired firefighter (identity) I felt a kinship and introduced myself into the conversation.

    He told me that he was not yet a firefighter, but was working towards that end when he retired from the Canadian Navy.

    I had also served in the Canadian Navy – in the late sixties – this surprising convergence of life choices, between two distinct generations, was ripe with possibilities for a rich conversation.

    However, it was immediately clear to me that his young man’s experience in the military (19 years) was not a positive one and the conversation was going nowhere….

    As he paid his bill and prepared for his departure, he imparted this nugget, he said, “I have spent some time with the Russian military and the difference between them and us, is that they know who they are…. they are Russians and they are proud, even the worst of Russia’s past….. history has molded them and they are proud of it all.”

    Young men in the west are standing on shifting sands…. is it any wonder that they can’t find their footing, is it any wonder that they are demoralized….

    Postscript – Russia lost 17 million men to suicide, alcohol poisoning and other needless deaths, as a result of the collapse of the USSR… a very high price for acquired wisdom…

    • And they lost 20 million+ from starvation and prison camps before that, an arguably higher price for having “wisdom” forced upon them.

      But I like your comment. A sense of belonging is fundamental. With open borders we are strangers in our own homes, watching the walls of nation collapse and trying to grab hold of anything strong in our desperation. I really feel for the kids today, while at the same time they scare the crap out of me.

      • dirk says

        I saw a Dutch documentary on Russian village life, in which an old lady, to the utmost surprise of the Dutch filmmaker, spoke with praise on the Stalin and Sovjet time, whereas her family had lost several members to deportation and starvation due to stealing of harvests and food by government and army. Her argument: I have a reasonable good life now, and what I cannot remember (but why was that?) does not exist.

      • Poison Ivy says

        If you’re “Canadian” and you’re not from
        a First Nation, you’re an occupier and a colonist. You don’t belong here. Go home to where your people came from, if you’re anti-immigrant. You’re an immigrant here. Start walking your talk.

        • Kim Kim Kim says

          How about if you’re half indigenous and half caucasian?

    • Poison Ivy says

      As a person of Latvian descent—a former SSR—I cannot express strongly enough how much it disgusts me if Russian soldiers take pride in the totalitarianism, torture, murder, rape, attempted genocide, etc, to which they subjected the countries they occupied. And to which they still subject the people of countries like the Ukraine, Georgia and Chechnya.

  6. Infinitely mutable collectivist identities are necessary to the postmodernist/Cultural Marxist project; not to “bind disparate interests together,” but precisely to fracture those interests.

    Postmodernists insist that because there are nearly infinite ways in which to interpret/understand any given text, there can be no objective truth, and reason is illusory. Then, they arrogate the decision about which group(s) of bigots and oppressors YOU belong to – despite the nearly infinite ways into which individual humans can be grouped. This is perfectly acceptable when the only meaningful idea is power.

    “Are identity politics intrinsically negative or are they only a problem in excess?” Depends on your definition.

    • Kim Kim Kim says

      A patient I knew identified as an alien from a planet beyond the constellation of Orion. A few others claimed to be Jesus. One guy said he was a Viet Nam Vet, but he’d never been to Viet Nam. I don’t know, I just had a hard time believing the nature of these stranger identities.

  7. I think the answer to the questions posed in the last paragraph is “yes”. The question is how do we do that? I’d like to see a project made of figuring out how to do that.

  8. Tony says

    The serious problem we face is not with identity politics per se, but with the accompanying ideology of oppressor and oppressed, and the need for “social justice”.

    In most cases, the story of past injustice is dramatically oversimplified to the point of being false.

    For example, most young Americans now believe that the history of slavery is that whites enslaved blacks, because of their skin color.

    In fact, slavery is much older than America and existed in every previous civilization. The Slavs of eastern Europe have the name because they were so frequently enslaved by Arabs, whose slave trade exceeded anything Europeans accomplished.

    And Europeans didn’t enslave blacks. They bought blacks who were already slaves, not because of their skin color but because they were for sale.

    One civilization alone in history developed a moral repulsion to slavery, freed all the slaves they owned, and forcibly eradicated the slave trade worldwide – Western Civilization.

    There are nuances like this with every story of oppression which nowadays has angry mobs demanding justice.

    • Kim Kim Kim says

      I agree, nuances are missed with the rise of black and white thinking.

    • dirk says

      Another difference: Western societies, for being christian, are the only ones that listen to the oppressed and give them a platform. In all other civilisations (the Aztecs, Ashanti, Arab, Chinese) the weak and poor have no voice, or are overruled. It’s quite possible that we have gone to far with that listening, very many conflicts on the world scene (and within nations) are the result.

  9. This is essentially a weak argument of the Individualist against the Social Theorist. Harris would elevate and oppose rationality as a higher and separate truth over and above group membership. But rationality in its form and function is a social product. The very terms which we have to discuss and structure it, are a social creation. The very language, in this case English, that we employed was not invented by the individual who uses it to work out the nature of rationality. That language has been created and crafted by millions of people over many millennia with the intent of describing and defining phenomena in a manner which is useful towards their collective purpose. While there are occasional useful neologism, they are quite rare and only useful if they are adopted by the group to encapsulate their shared experience. The idea that a new rationality of any great reach would be the product of a Descart sitting alone in a quiet, dark furnace uninfluenced by the myriad of group memberships he has brought in with him is ludicrous. He cannot begin to frame the questions without those ideas he has learned and developed as a member of various overlapping social orders. In fact it is the conflict and attempt to create a cohesive combination between these various differing group rationals that most often lead to new syntheses of explanatory and guiding power. The question is why, of all the possible group identities we could have chosen, have we decided to enshrine those that have at this point in history raised above all the others. I would suggest that group identities which are stereotypical and are unwillingly forced onto externally definable member of a group are problematic. Once these stereotypes begin to dissolve and the negative sanctions that are associated with them, it is useful for individuals to embrace them in a new and positive light. This signals the transformative moment when that group attempts to reclaim that fleeting identity as a positive and valued part of themselves and thereby redefine it and their social history.

  10. dirk says

    Martin Luther King was the whole evening on Dutch TV, I never realised he was not at all a black activist, but a universalist, who saw in his dream black and white kids hand in hand, happily strolling. Malcolm X was the identity, racial activist, and the two men did not like each other (they met only once). Also in this case, identity politics and feelings now seem to have ousted universalism.

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