The Politically Incorrect Guide to Identity Politics

People’s sense of identity today is often thinner than a Victoria’s Secret model. Instead of the age old idea of using reason, common sense, and common ground to navigate conflicts of ideas, many think that the individual is just part of whatever group identity he aligns with. Postmodern theory even suggests that there is no common ground between group identities; all communication is lost in translation between groups. People are locked into their own psycho-socio-political-sexual-religious lenses and cannot escape. All we can do, supposedly, is coddle each other’s emotions and affirm each other’s chosen ways of life. Suffice it to say that this notion is self-contradictory and won’t help anyone bridge difficult cultural divides.

This notion that we are locked into a group identity and cannot get out is scarier than being trapped in a dream with Freddy Kruger. Think about it. If we are stuck in our own ways of thinking and cannot get out, then there is no point to ever attempting to change anyone’s mind. If it’s true, then you can’t change my mind about this topic, nor can I you. The group-think idea is also self-refuting. If it’s true that communication is locked within groups, then it is also false because this idea too is just another culturally bound idea. It’s like writing on the mirror “this sentence is a lie” with bright red lipstick. It may look sexy, but it just contradicts itself. If no groups can communicate, then we cannot even agree that no groups can communicate. We are left in the end with utter silence.

If no groups can communicate, then we cannot even agree that no groups can communicate.

Postmodern theory also leads to the quest for power. It’s just like the Lord Voldemort said to Harry Potter, “there is no good or evil, there is only power.” If the postmodern theory of truth is true (note the irony) then there can never be good things such as tolerance or peace. Because we are locked in our group identities, we are always confused by one another, and what we are left with is the struggle for power. Life begins to look more like a Monster Truck rally than an ordered or moral universe. In this theory, there is no pursuit of truth or virtue; we are left with students shouting down guest speakers that they don’t like. It’s more like a world resembling the movie Idiocracy. And let’s face it. We’re almost there.

It’s more like a world resembling the movie Idiocracy. And let’s face it. We’re almost there.

But another way this theory affects us is the facile and condescending quest to silence people from speaking about groups they are not involved in. So for example, some people start to squirm if we talk about policies in Islamic countries in a mildly negative light. The idea is that unless we are a part of a group, we can’t speak critically of them. Another strange example is when men claim ignorance about the issue of abortion because they are “not a woman,” as if it is only women would are allowed to have an opinion. But, you see, none of this follows if we are in fact not locked into our own group identities after all. We are influenced by cultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean we are determined by them. Sensitivity is needed, not silence.

Sensitivity is needed, not silence.

So while it is important to realize how our culture colors our view of the world, to make that into a barrier to truth yields an idiocracy in which none can speak publicly on anything of importance. If we are trapped into our group’s perspective, it leads to the quest for pure power, the dissolution of virtue, and the censoring of factual information about any group you do not belong to. So for all these reasons, we should chuck this theory out the window along with its brackish and filthy bilge-water. At the same time, let’s not forget that we are culturally and emotionally influenced creatures. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that our reason and emotion are like a rider on an elephant. Reason is the rider. Emotion is the elephant. Emotion, influenced by our cultural backgrounds, is much stronger than reason. But that doesn’t mean we can;t train our riders and our elephants to function better together. With a well-trained rider and elephant, we won’t censure people for speaking of others just because they hold different group identities.

Quick Guide to Karma

Often I hear something like this, “It’s karma,” which appears to mean something like “what you do will come back around to you later in life.”  We hear this phrase everywhere from the grocery store to Radiohead’s song “Karma Police.”  A refrain in the song is, “this is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”  All this is puzzling and a bit amusing because it is clear that westerners haven’t the foggiest idea what karma actually is.  What they mean when they use it is “you will reap what you sow.”  They have a notion that there is some kind of ironic, cosmic justice that catches those who do evil off guard and cuts them down to size.  Another layer of irony is that this idea has more similarities with the biblical narratives than with actual karma.  Let me flesh that out.

The biblical narratives teach that the transcendent and personal God is just and that he brings an ironic reversal on those who do evil.  God is working for justice in the world to lift up the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  One day God will put everything right in this world.

But karma in Hinduism (this is similar to how it is used in various forms of its cousin religion, Buddhism), is related to the idea that since forever ago there has been a wheel of good and evil, of death and rebirth (samsara).  This struggle has always been, and it always will be.  Karma is the principle that you will be payed back for evil and rewarded for good.  But that does not so much happen in this life.  According to karma, in this life, you are being repaid for good and evil of your previous lives.  Your next life will repay you for good and evil from this life.  The ultimate point of seeking enlightenment on Hinduism as well as Buddhism is escape from this cosmic wheel of misfortune.

So the irony is that when people say, “it’s karma,” they are implying either that the person did something wrong in a past life or that he did something now and will be payed back in his next life.  Another irony is that we westerners tend to be very democratic and egalitarian.  We don’t like aristocracy bossing us around.  But karma implies that various classes of society are the result of karmic justice.  This is why they have a Brahmin class in India along with the Dalit class, the untouchables.  An interesting book along this topic is Why I am Not a Hindu by a Dalit named Kancha Ilaiah.  In his book, Ilaiah exposes the many injustices of the caste system in India.

So next time someone tells you “it’s karma,” perhaps you should ask them, “what do you mean?  Do you mean that such a person has been reincarnated and is being punished for crimes of a past life?  Or do you mean that this person will be punished in a future life, perhaps by being reborn as a lower class?”  That might spoil the dinner party, but it would orient the conversation towards the question of real meaning.  And unless a conversation is oriented around meaning and truth, it’s just bullshit in the end.