In a recent Facebook thread on identity politics, I made the following contribution, with some redaction here.
I see a dozen online memes an hour speaking to Trump’s “misogyny” and “racism.” These terms have suffered scope creep. They no longer refer to an avowed attitude of racial or gender superiority. Now they apply to people’s actions. So why shouldn’t they? After all, if someone uses racist language or targets a minority group for discrimination or exploitation, they probably hold racist attitudes; if a man takes sexual liberties with a woman, he probably holds women in contempt. Anyone who objects to judging people to be racist or sexist based on their actions is probably racist or sexist themselves.
However, that “probably” is a big problem! Let’s consider that Trump might not be a racist or misogynist, that we might otherwise interrogate his behavior if we weren’t so loose with our language.
He may be an opportunistic predator, exploiting racism and misogyny. Consider the advantage such a person would have over those who have polluted the terms and who reflexively infer racism or misogyny. He could construct an edifice of plausible deniability. He could give to certain charities, point to various friendships. And he would be right. Because we’ve missed the point.
In George R.R. Martin’s novel Fevre Dream, white vampires buy slaves, drain them, and quietly dispose of the corpses, confident that their victims will not be missed. The important identities in this relationship are not the superficial ones of white and black. They are vampire and human prey. Likewise, even owning slaves does not imply racism. There’s an old “racist” joke I heard as a kid: “I don’t hate black people. I love ’em. I think everyone should own one.” The joke is not so much the irony that that the speaker is probably a racist, but that the speaker is definitely a sociopath.
Identity politics blinds us to the important relationships between people and the important foci of criticism. The only valid identity politics is that which seeks its own dissolution. We should identify and fight discrimination, not validate it. Being overly attuned to each other’s superficial identities is the very definition of prejudice. It makes us profoundly stupid, and leads us to call out people for the wrong reasons. If we charge people with the wrong offenses, we cannot expect them to be convicted.