Identity politics are a huge part of my life. You see, I’m gay. That statement alone is still a politically charged statement. Not as politically charged as it was roughly 30 years ago, but still politically charged. And the valence of that statement is entirely wrapped up in my identity.
I am well aware that this is a label I use as a sort of social shorthand. The label ‘gay’ brings with it a sort of family resemblance of notions, ideas and preconceptions that do a lot of explanatory work insofar as giving the listener of this utterance a sort of idea of my sexual life without having to go into the graphic detail of “I like to fuck men and I also like getting fucked by men, occasionally I’m girly about stuff,” and on and on.
This is language. This is how language works, at least per Wittgenstein, my personal philosophical hero. Wittgenstein was also gay, but would probably threaten me with a poker for saying that, for a variety of reasons.
Meaning is use, in Wittgenstein’s latter treatise on language. How one uses a term ordains its meaning, to use church vernacular. And the meaning of terms are somehow linked through a family resemblance of uses. That term ‘family resemblance’ requires a bit of unpacking.
Think about how members of a family resemble one another. It’s not just one thing that lends itself to this resemblance. Two children of a couple may resemble their parents and each other in entirely different ways. Child one may have his father’s eyes and mother’s mouth, child two might have mom’s ears and dad’s chin. Both children might have their mother’s nose and father’s cheekbones.
That’s how Wittgenstein viewed family resemblance, overlapping shared qualities, but not a single thread of essence running through the meanings. It can account for the change over time of words, especially one’s like “fag”. There are serious arguments to be made that this is no longer and anti-LGBT epithet. Still, when I hear it, I cringe and become angry.
That has little to do with the meaning of the term and more to do with my personal history with the word. Family resemblance is also why context matters. How any term is used is completely dependent upon the context of a conversation. If you’re a thinking adult, this doesn’t require much thought to understand.
It’s also why I die a little on the inside when people refer to a dictionary definition to support their own definition of the term. People really don’t understand that a dictionary is an empirical study of how the words of a given language are used overall, and not in any particular context.
All of this Wittgensteinean analysis is an effort for me to explain the semantic aspects of identity politics. The way in which language works affects these identity politics, especially in political rhetoric. Many view the rise of identity politics with the LGBT rights movement in the post-Stonewall era.
And it’s an easy connection to make. Look up identity politics on Wikipedia, and there’s an entire section devoted to the LGBT issues. Now, this particular article in Wikipedia is disputed for a number of reasons. One of which is its neutrality, which given the discussion on its talk page, seems a well-founded dispute.
So, if I’m to fix my terms, how would I define identity politics? Well, I’d define them linguistically. They wouldn’t be identity politics, they’d be predicate politics. I wrote a little about predicate politics in my last post.
Identity politics is the strange way in which a single predicate placed upon a person, either by themselves or by others, can fix the way in which their access to the political system is mitigated. For example, it is strange that I could not marry another man, even though I had every other relevant predicated affixed to me for marriage. Those being, citizen, and adult.
Similarly, the strange way in which the predicate ‘black’ is affixed to a person determines how they are treated by certain members of police forces nationwide, to whom the predicate ‘white’ is affixed. The strangeness need not be ubiquitous for identity politics to be in play. And there is the element of Rawl’s veil of ignorance here that contributes to a starting point for such an analysis.
Suffice it to say, when the way in which any predicate placed on a person gives rise to a different way of accessing the political system, identity politics are in play.
Certain identity politics are obvious for obvious reasons. Black identity politics is immediately available to people (who aren’t blind) because it is linked to the color of their skin. This is not to say that all black people participate in the same sort of identity politics. Citizens of Ferguson play different political language game than Ben Carson. Remember, it’s only a family resemblance that links Ben Carson and the citizens of Ferguson, and a weak family resemblance at that.
Other identity politics aren’t obvious without some investigation, or help from the person to whom a relevant predicate is affixed. The two that are of interest here are sexual preference (a term I loathe) and religion. And when it comes to non-obvious identity politics, religion is the OG identity politics predicate.
Perhaps that is why there are some weird proscriptions in the Torah, like circumcision. There are certainly Biblical scholars and archaeologists who argue that circumcision was a way to make religious membership more obvious.
The identity politics of Abrahamic religions have changed over the last 5,000 years, give or take a millennium. The relationship between each other and the world in which they inhabited have gone through a lot of iterations and permutations. Nonetheless, they are the original identity politics people.
Jews, from the Diaspora through the Holocaust to now have undergone immense change since they inhabited Palestine, were forced out and reclaimed it. Muslims, who owe their religion to the Jews, are their main opponent. I am pro Zionist. I believe that Israel has the right to exist. But anyone who is watching what is going on in Israel right now in a fair manner would find it difficult to not criticize Netanyahu’s approach and fear mongering. He reminds me of Bush and Cheney with their crying wolf.
To criticize the politics of Netanyahu, or the filmed atrocities perpetrated on Palestineans by Israeli military forces is qualitatively distinct from anti-Semitism. Palestineans and Israelis need to find a solution to their strife, without the posturing of Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States. Iran and Saudi Arabia are theocracies, and that is much more loathsome than a Netanyahu government.
There is nothing inherent to wearing the label of Jew other than being metaphysically mistaken. And even we atheists are metaphysically mistaken from time to time. Still, there is a complicated history attached to the Jews and this mitigates their identity politics nearly completely.
The bottom line is, if I criticize the government of Israel, it’s not because I’m anti-Zionist, or anti-Semitic. Israel has a right to exist and Jews are people. And I’m an American, not a xenophobic neo-Nazi from somewhere in Europe. If I criticize the government of Israel it’s because I take exception to their actions and policies. Neither of these things are beyond reproach.
When I criticize Christians, it’s largely for their hubris. Their ignorance of their impact on the world, and how it will be their undoing is fascinating to me. They deny science because it conflicts with the Bible, yet at every turn take advantage of all the fruits of scientific enterprise. The hubris and hypocrisy of American Christians of any variety is not to be underestimated.
Then there are the Muslims, whom I criticize for the pretense of their morality and the sheer audacity of touting themselves as the ‘religion of peace’. Unless you’re a woman or gay or anything that isn’t a male, then they may be, one day out the week, the religion of peace. In all other relevant ways, they are pretty war like.
I’m certainly not ignorant of America’s role in the destabilization of the Middle East. And since it was the Bush administration with their cavalier Christianity that began this destabilization, it serves as the ultimate exemplar of Christian hubris. ISIS is Bush’s mess, and yes Obama’s, too. However, the Middle East doesn’t get off so easily, and bears the brunt of the blame.
The Sunni/Shia divide is what happens when religion gets too intertwined with government. The Middle East is the poster child for the separation of church and state. Too long have their own religious identity politics been the causal factor for strife in their nations, add in the aforementioned Bush Christian hubris, and Netanyahu’s posturing and you’ve got the current refugee crisis in the European Union, the Arab Spring, ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.
So, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity politics are pretty much the reason why the Middle East is utterly destabilized. It is also why Raif Badawi is being publically flogged and imprisoned for insulting Islam in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you can be beaten and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for insulting Islam, especially if you insult “senior religious figures” and say that the leading Saudi university is a “den for terrorists”.
It’s not just the human terror of ISIS and the Assad regime. It’s also the dehumanization and crushing of any sort of opposition or critique in the countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia that make me more critical of Islam than of Christianity and Judaism. Not that the other two aren’t beyond such criticism, it’s just that of the three, Islam poses the greatest threat to Western society, and I happen to like my Western society.