Monday, June 18, 2018

Identifying Identity Politics

There are limits to López Obrador’s inclusiveness. Many young metropolitan Mexicans are wary of what they see as his lack of enthusiasm for contemporary identity politics. I asked if he been able to change their minds. “Not much,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Look, in this world there are those who give more importance to politics of the moment—identity, gender, ecology, animals. And there’s another camp, which is not the majority, but which is more important, which is the struggle for equal rights, and that’s the camp I subscribe to. In the other camp, you can spend your life criticizing, questioning, and administering the tragedy without ever proposing the transformation of the regime. (A New Revolution In Mexico, The Newyorker) 
- And that man, Lopez Obrador, will probably in a matter of days be chosen to be Mexico's next president. Impressive.
- You're impressed that he sees through identity politics?
- Yes.
- Can you make it clearer for me? I'm often asking you that. Why is identity politics 'criticizing, questioning, administering the tragedy without ever proposing the transformation of the regime'?
- Because it is a kind of show-making. It hasn't been long since you asked me to explain that to you too.
- Yes, I know. In fact I've got ready to read you back the conversation. May I? Here it is:

-  You said at the time of the election that in general Republicans voted Republican and Democrats voted Democrat, and that in general there was a changing of the guard after an uneventful presidency one party to the other, so that what was important was the fact the outrageous bad character of our new president did not interfere with established voting practice. You also said that only people with bad character could entrust their future to someone with bad character. That's what I want you to explain. Did you mean that people with bad character are blind to the existence of character?
- That is what I meant.
- Explain to me how that works.
- The short answer is it works by character being thrown in shadow.
- The shadow of what? And anyway, I want a better answer than a metaphor.
- In larger societies, people have specialized occupations in which special knowledge is practiced. Each member of society needs to cooperate with others, trade goods and services. But some members of society make a special occupation itself out of that cooperation, put into practice a technical knowledge of how to do that. Instead of living with others now fully, with attention, understanding, sympathy, imagination, the relation to others is put into service of performance of specialized occupation. Follow?
- Yes.
- J.J. Rousseau described in detail how a child, in the doings of childhood, a kind of occupation, learns to manipulate adults to get what he wants. He stops seeing the world as place to be learned and looking to other people for assistance in that learning.
- We've been over this before.
- Many times. The child wants to do what he wants to do, and in the service of those desires puts on a show for adults. Do you know how that happens?
- No! If I knew how a children get corrupted I would have solved the problem of good and evil.
- And is that so impossible? What is it that connects specialized occupation and show-making? Why should they be associated?
- In larger societies life is lived among strangers. Show of manners, of uniform clothing, help us identify what we offer each other.
- Yes. Now we agree that our new president's bad character appears in the deliberate use of showmaking to gain power over others?
- Alright.
- We talked about how the United States has gone from a country of a large number of self-employed people to a country of few. Do you see? Being employed, and being the audience to a show are much alike.
- I don't see.
- Both audience and employee are passive. An employee may not follow his own will, but must do what he is told. An audience member in body sits passively in the theater, while his mind is transferred in identifying with the characters represented in the show. An imitation, a representation, requires this passivity to operate.
- By operate you mean we take it as real. The child pretends to like his teacher, the new president pretends to care about the American people. But as long as the child learns, and the new president does what he says he will do in his show, what difference does it make?
- The child represses his real desires, and his goal becomes not his own happiness but the manipulation of adults. Like the child does not allow himself to act on his real desires, the employee is not allowed to do what he wants. He becomes unreal to himself, while he sees himself in the character of his employer put on show for him, or in the president he puts into authority over himself.
- I think I'm beginning to understand. When human relations, what we want from them, is put second to practical relations, when we get others in their special occupations to give us what we want in our special occupations, we see ourselves in those in power over us, and seeing others as means to the end of your power over them is a definition of bad character. Because we are passive to our own real desires of full life with other people, we don't look for anything other than the shows made by us and presented to us by others. Our desires, the world of their possible fulfillment, is placed in shadow, to use your image.
- And that is true both for employee and employed, elected and electorate.
- Why?
- It makes no difference whether economic conditions force you into part time slavery or whether a TV actor decides to show-make himself into the office of president. Whether you put on the show yourself or identify with the showmaking done by another, natural desires are repressed, are replaced by a state of passivity of audience to show.
- But what if the politician or employer knows he is lying, does not believe his own lies? That's at least possible, isn't it?
- To not be seduced by your own showmaking you need to avoid becoming passive to your natural desires for human relation, and the only way that can be done is if you are actively practicing those relations while you put on shows for others. Our literature has many examples of characters trying to do this, with varying success.
- Ok. The idea of hidden depths in our new president is laughable. He obviously has bad character. He says anything he thinks will bring him votes, without regard for reality. He is liked by the people who already are on the side he places himself on, the side where the poor are believed to be robbing the rich. They identify with him, see themselves in him. Some subset of them do more, and identify with the manipulative ever changing showmaking he does. But how can this work? Doesn't the obvious unreality of the show being put on undermine the suspension of disbelief necessary in theater?
- No, because being employees they can't easily escape the theater, the world created for them in their passivity. Identifying with him, they don't take the step back to see what kind of character he has. But even if they do take that step back and see his character, his aim to perform in the show with the greatest skill, to put into practice the best technique, they rush back into the theater to become passive audience to that show of character. Identifying with the high-tech showmanship, they remain ignorant of the real world thrown into shadow by the showmaking going on all around them.

- You'd like me to tell you exactly how identity politics is a kind of showmaking.
- Yes.
- Identity politics is a claim on others with different self-description to give fair treatment to you in your own self-description. Two things: self-description, and a claim on others with different self-descriptions to act more fairly towards those of your self-description.
- How is that show making?
- In identity politics you are demanding a better role in the play to play with others of different identities. The demand to act with more fairness takes the form of insisting others create for you a "safe space", that is, forbidding representations (= shows) of there being any differences between the sexes or races, or that others make public statements of guilt of belonging to the dominating sex or race. Though skin color and sex are real, they are made use of in a self-conscious representation, like in the behavior of Rousseau's child, of a part of yourself, a thing-like, instantiated part that has to be managed in relation to parts of other people. Do you think you are your skin color or sex?
- I am, but I am a lot more too. So you argue that identity politics has us setting parts of ourselves fighting other people's parts over parts in a play, while much else more real is going on with all the rest of us not identified by roles played in relation to other roles.
- The rest of us that lives in a world of war, poverty, cruelty and dispossession, real things that affect the whole of us.

Further Reading:
Puppy & Puppets