Recent events in Charlottesville, Va. have sparked a lot of talk about identity politics. The usual narrative about Charlottesville is that the alt-right side of the violence was caused by the election of Donald Trump. While convenient and simple, that story barely begins to explain what is going on. In reality, what culminated in Charlottesville was the logical result of identity politics that had been bubbling under the surface for over 50 years.
Identity politics are political positions based on achieving power for what are typically racial, gender or sexual group identities. Although the term recently became prominent, identity politics are nothing new. Rather, they are one of the oldest and most ingrained aspects of human nature from when we were living in tribes.
Identity politics were the only kind of politics when humans were living in tribes. Individual rights were nonexistent; the group was all that mattered. The individual was subordinate to the tribe and was only worth something to the degree that they conformed. In this way, a person’s identity was subsumed by the identity of the group.
Not only was individual identity dependent on that of the group, but individual well-being was too. The way to make yourself better off was to make your tribe better off. And, the way to really improve the position of your tribe was to war with other tribes and steal their resources. Thus, life was essentially a zero-sum game with a fixed pie of wealth; one group would advance only at the expense of another. What this all means is that an individual’s destiny was determined by the position of their group.
At that point in history, we did not have the idea of a universal humanity. This is evidenced by the fact that tribes often referred to any group outside of their own as “the other,” which implied that others were barbaric and less human. This was a way of dehumanizing people, which then provided a justification for violence and theft against them.
It took a very long time before we discovered that there were objective truths, one of which was that all people are equally human. This realization paved the way for the founding of the United States, which represented a monumental moment in human history. The cornerstone ideal of our country was that all men are created equal in dignity and worth, and must be treated accordingly. What follows from that axiom is that all people have intrinsic natural rights.
Of course, many of the practices of our nation, such as slavery, or denying women’s suffrage, were in direct contradiction to our founding principles. However, by the time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, we had made great strides of progress. The country had finally come together around Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of judging people based on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin. But, shortly thereafter, instead of progressing further in treating people equally as individuals, we began to revert to the tribalism of identity politics.
Movements such as those for black identity and feminism started to grow. Former identity movements were aimed at granting the rights owed to individuals which were enshrined in our founding documents, but these movements were different. It was no longer about demanding equal treatment as an individual with intrinsic dignity, but about achieving group power. It was a regression to viewing life as a zero-sum game and subordinating the individual to the group.
Years later, our public discourse saw the introduction of terms from the left such as “white privilege” and “toxic masculinity.” In recent years, college courses have even popped up such as “abolishing whiteness.” In short, intellectuals decided to preach that whiteness and masculinity are inherently evil. This is causally linked to what happened in Charlottesville.
The alt-right group that we witnessed in Charlottesville is a reactionary identity movement in response to years of identity politics from the left. The problem is, when one side plays identity politics, the other side can just as easily do the same thing.
On both sides, people are treating their group identities as the most central aspect of their being. Since political views come from our group identity, there is then no separation between our self and our opinions. This leads to making criticism of someone’s beliefs equivalent with an attack on that person’s existence. That is why we now hear that words are violence. And if one truly believes that words are oppressive, then violence in response to speech is viewed as justified.
Central to both the alt-left and the alt-right is the ideology of victimhood. Both groups justify violence by claiming that their existence is threatened. What this creates is a simple worldview where our group is innocent and oppressed, and other groups are evil and oppressive. We can then feel self-righteous and secure in knowing that we are on the side of the good.
Ayn Rand once said, “fascism and communism are not two opposites, but two rival gangs fighting over the same territory . . . [both] based on the collectivist principle that man is the rightless slave of the state.
The solution to this mess is to reject both sides of collectivism. We must remember that the individual is the ultimate minority. Accordingly, the value and rights of the individual must be uncompromisingly elevated back above those of the group.
In the future, there will be increasing pressure to choose a side. Don’t. Both sides will try to tarnish your reputation. Don’t cave in. If it comes down to it, choose your integrity over your reputation.
Our group identities do not determine the core of our being, nor our destiny. We must strive to transcend the collective and become a true individual. As Carl Jung said: “Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.”
Sam Dugan is a fourth-year student majoring in economics with a minor in philosophy. They can be reached at SD829860@wcupa.edu.