Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, And The Identity Politics Conundrum

There is a good argument to be made that the Alt Right movement spearheaded by the likes of Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopolous, and the polemicists at Breitbart was a reaction to the rise of identity politics on the left. Much has been written about this, and the movement built around it being “Ok to be white” took off with alarming speed that culminated in the election of Donald Trump — a man they believed was the perfect antidote to the politically correct culture they felt discriminated against them. 

Speaking to friends who support Donald Trump, it appears to me that this is indeed the case. Obsession with gender pronouns, intersectionality, and attacks on white culture sent people I know over the edge, and regrettably into the arms of a bonafide lunatic. 

While I sympathize with the Alt Right’s frustration with the excesses of identity politics on the left, their response has been more idiotic than I could have ever imagined. I could understand voting for someone like Mitt Romney or any of the other mainstream Republicans, but to place their country’s future in the hands of a lying, racist, charlatan whose incompetence is so egregious that his staff leave within weeks of working for him, is completely incomprehensible. They have replaced one form of identity politics with another, and seem oblivious to their hypocrisy or the dangers they have created by electing a madman. 

Perhaps equally perplexing to me is an emerging centrist, libertarian movement that believes identity politics is amongst the greatest threats to American and Western civilization in history. Public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris have come out swinging against identity politics as if it were a deadly virus that renders people incapable of having a rational debate. They insist that viewing things through the lens of race, gender and sexual orientation is a form of “cultural Marxism” predicated on creating equality of outcome, and any discussion of group identity is a childish form of tribalism that rational adults must eschew. So toxic is identity politics to Jordan Peterson that he recently stated he would have voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Harris has a far more moderate stance (he argued strongly in support of Clinton), and recognizes the toxicity of the far right: 

But both men however, believe that anyone seeing identity politics as a valid tool to understand society is an intellectual fraud and should not be taken seriously. By virtue of their supreme rationality, they have risen above the scourge of group think and are able to dispassionately analyze society without prejudice. I don’t discount much of what Harris and Peterson have to say about identity politics, but to discard it completely is, at least in my opinion, a serious mistake and evidence of their own unconscious prejudice. 

I will never forget the time I spent with an African American friend of mine after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while walking home in Florida. As a Brit living in America, the black American experience is something I couldn’t wrap my head around for a very long time. But sitting with my friend and watching the deep pain he was attempting to process while trying to contain his rage was a stark lesson in just how racialized America society is. I sensed in my friend an extraordinary connection to Trayvon — a boy he had never met — by virtue of their shared ancestry. This was what the reality of racism meant to African Americans: brutal, indiscriminate killings, and no justice. And this was something I would never have to contend with. Other black friends of mine have spoken to me about what it means to raise children in America  — the knowledge that their sons cannot afford to make a single mistake, that they can be stopped by the police and shot for no reason, and there is nothing they can do about it. “My boy can get killed by the police and I can’t protect him,” another friend told me recently. “Not only that, whoever kills him almost certainly won’t face justice. This is something I deal with daily.” 

My friend is a successful author who has come from unimaginable poverty. Try telling him, or millions of other black parents in America that they are obsessing about identity and should instead focus on individual merit and personal responsibility. 

Those who eschew identity politics have also been railing against the #MeToo movement and anyone interested in gender politics or feminism. Jordan Peterson has, for example, claimed that the scourge of sexual assault and harassment in modern society can be traced to post modernism and the blurring of gender boundaries — a truly mind bending distortion of history when you take in to account the fact that men could legally rape their wives until 1993 in America. Women have a different experience of society than men do, and it colors their perception of it. While Peterson and Harris can rationalize this as a prejudice that must be discounted in public debate, the very fact that they can look at it dispassionately is a virtue of their gender. My wife is 5’1″ and not particularly physically strong. The world is far more threatening, far scarier, and far more treacherous to her than the world is to me, and so it makes sense that the #MeToo movement resonates with her in a completely different way. It is easy to discount gender when understanding society when your reproductive parts don’t put you in grave danger every time you take a late night walk. 

Of course this does not mean that identity politics is the only way to view society — there are many lenses by which we can examine the world around us. Marxism, for example, provides a useful tool by which we can understand the excesses of capitalism. I am not a Marxist by any means, but I recognize that Marx had some interesting things to say about class structure and what happens to capitalism when taken to an extreme. The same goes for Libertarianism — another limited ideological construct that has some useful insights about markets and the power of the profit motive as a driving force for economic growth. No one ideology can sufficiently explain everything in human societies, but they offer perspective and must at the very least be engaged with. 

The excesses of identity politics are most certainly problematic. I have found it almost impossible to converse with people so deeply embedded in the framework of intersectionality and group identity that they can no longer see themselves as individuals. I do not personally identify strongly with any particular group or identity, and have a hard time relating to anyone on either the left or right who does. That being said, I also recognize that my position in modern society allows me the luxury not to identify with a particular group. Had I been born in Nazi Germany, I would have been identified as a Jew, rounded up, and gassed to death in a concentration camp. Had I been born as a black man in America, I’m certain I would experience the things every black person in America experiences: job discrimination, police brutality, social exclusion, and an overwhelming fear that my children could die at the hands of trigger happy law enforcement. Had I been born a woman, hearing stories about sexual harassment, rape, and gender discrimination would feel a whole lot more real. Group identification is part of what it means to be a human, and it makes a lot of sense to at least understand the world through that perspective. 

I would hope that every individual could one day transcend the limits of group identity, at least to the point where their lives become less antagonistic, more open, and more human focused. But this is not the world we live in, and to deny it is to deny a very obvious reality. Those obsessed with identity politics are not bad people — they are likely struggling with their own personal demons or trapped in a segment of society that has moulded their perception of the world by virtue of their skin color, gender, or sexual preference. I cannot blame a black woman for being angry at a society that has oppressed people who look like her for centuries. I cannot blame a woman for being angry at men if she has experienced a trauma I cannot possibly relate to. Those who do blame victims of genuine oppression are guilty of their own cognitive biases — biases created through a life of relative ease that allows them to remove themselves from the grinding reality of day to day life for most people. While the identity politics extremists cannot be productively engaged with, there are those in the movement who have much to offer. You don’t even have to agree with them, but at the very least recognize that you might suffer a form of cognitive bias yourself. Once this has been established, it gets a whole lot easier to stop lecturing and start listening. 

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.

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