I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what, in the fullness of time, would become his most memorable vision from his 1963 magisterial “I Have a Dream” speech, he could not have known how much progress in civil rights would ensue over the coming half century, in no small measure because of his work.
Human progress in general, and moral advancement in particular, have been documented in detail in a number of recent books, including Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (2018, Flatiron Books), Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018, Spiegel & Grau), Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018, Penguin) and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011, Penguin), Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than it Looks (2018, PublicAffairs), Johan Norberg’s Progress (2017, OneWorld), my own The Moral Arc (2015, Henry Holt), Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010, HarperCollins). Regular updates on humanity’s development are provided with copious data on such sites as HumanProgress by Marian Tupy and Our World in Data by Max Roser, aggregated with statistics from the World Bank, the UN, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Eurostat, and other sources. There has never been another time in history when it has been better to be alive than today, including and especially for people of color, women, and minorities of any type. Fifty-five years on we should be celebrating the instantiation of Dr. King’s visage:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Ever since the two major rights revolutions of the late 18th century and mid-20th century the moral sphere has been expanding to encompass all of humanity—a “brotherhood of man” in the parlance of the 1960s’ pre-feminist influence on gendered language. Lamentably, the past decade has witnessed what appears to be a reversal of Dr. King’s dream in the form of identity politics, or the collectivization of individuals into groups competing for status and power and perceived persecution by privileged identities. In Dr. King’s time, race was the primary political power dimension. Since the 1960s, identity politics has expanded to include not only race but gender identity, sexual orientation, class, religion, ethnicity, language, dialect, education, generation, occupation, political party, disability, marital status, veteran status, and more, all competing for political power in the public sphere.
Added to this new instantiation of ancient tribalism is intersectionality theory, in which membership in multiple intersecting identity groups brings more or less power, more or less persecution. Thus, for example, the historical subjugation of blacks by whites is measured along a single axis of race, while the oppression of women by men is assessed along a single axis of gender; that black women have different experiences than black men or white women can be traced along two intersecting axes of race and gender; a non-white transgender lower-class disabled Muslim woman faces a world different from that of a white cisgender upper-class able-bodied Christian man along these multiple intersecting axes, of which there are more than a dozen, including: White—Non-White, Male—Female, Light—Dark, Cisgender—Transgender, Heterosexual—Homosexual, Gender-typical—Deviant, Young—Old, European—Non-European, Anglophone—English as Second Language, Gentile—Jews, Rich—Poor, Fertile—Infertile, Able-bodied—Disabled, Credentialed—Non-Literate.
As philosopher Kathryn Pauly Morgan explained intersectionality, each of us may be identified and judged on where we fall “on each of these axes (at a minimum) and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression, and resistance.” The Chicana feminist activist Elizabeth Martinez worried what such hierarchical assessments might lead to: “There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. But the general idea is no competition of hierarchies should prevail. No Oppression Olympics.”
Unfortunately, as detailed in three new books, Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg (2018, Crown), The Diversity Delusion by Heather Mac Donald (2018, St. Martin’s Press), and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018, Penguin), the Oppression Olympics are well past their opening ceremonies in colleges, corporations, and Congress, tearing institutions asunder as conflicting cohorts vie for who has suffered the most historical inequities. This has resulted in a race to the bottom through what Lukianoff and Haidt call “The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” They write: “As a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking. If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
That historical injustices were degrading, destructive, and deadly none of these authors (including me) denies, and even the most optimistic of us acknowledges that prejudices and disparities still exist, as poignantly highlighted by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Racism and misogyny, while in historical decline, may still be found in too many places in our society, as nightly news stories (with dramatic body camera footage) shows blacks citizens being shot by white cops, or powerful males being perp walked in the media before the testimonies of women they sexually harassed. Inequalities still abound in too many institutions of Western democracies, but these realities should not be mistaken as trend lines in reverse, as if we are lurching backwards to the disenfranchisement of women or a return to weekly lynchings of blacks. Once civil rights and liberties are achieved the people now enjoying them are disinclined to give them back, despite the racist rhetoric of a handful of tiki-torch wielding alt-right kooks or the misogynistic mumblings of elderly rat-packers.
Among the many elements of Dr. King’s dream included his faith that one day… “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Within our culture in general, and on social media and talk radio and television in particular, the jangling discords of identity politics are said to be pulling us into another civil war, this one cultural instead of martial. With discordance arising from these many identities competing for power and influence that have brought out the worse demons of our nature, it is prudent to recall the dream of a civil rights crusader from an earlier century—Abraham Lincoln—as his country was on the eve of a real civil war over the enslavement of millions of people who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally as fully human with the same rights and privileges as those enslaving them. Speaking to the southerners who had already seceded from the union and formed the Confederate States of America, the Great Emancipator implored:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to eery living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Today’s cultural civil war is not remotely comparable to the one that killed over half a million Americans, but the division of people into such aggregate identities is a perverse inversion of Dr. King’s dream, now deferred by these movements for identity politics and intersectionality theory, however well intentioned their practitioners. My lament is echoed by the African American jazz poet Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem Harlem, when he asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”, which he answered in a series of rhetorical questions, most famously: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
Let us not allow Dr. King’s noble dream of judging others by the content of their character alone to wither on the vine under the collectivist drought brought on by these politically intersecting tribal identities, which we must shed if we are to return to the moral path leading to a unifying humanity.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misidentified a quote belonging to Kathryn Pauly Morgan as belonging to Michel Foucault. Quillette regrets the error.
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