Dispatches from Abroad: Reflections on the 2016 Election (II)—The Politics of Identity and the Destructiveness of Identity Politics

This is the second part of my reflections on the 2016 US presidential election. As with Part I (“An Elegy for my Home”), I emphasize that these are personal reflections and opinions; the writing is incomplete and unpolished. I welcome constructive engagement, discussion, and dialogue about them; please post comments here, on Twitter, or send me email.


I knew that Donald Trump was likely to win the election (or at least the Electoral College) when I read a posting on Twitter, about a week or two before the election, from a person I follow and whose ideas and insights I generally greatly respect, and who wrote that they were more concerned about their identity as a [particular race] [particular gender] than they were concerned about fracking and its environmental impacts. With but days to go, individual identity was, once again, trumping the common good (or at least what appeared to this individual of a different race and gender to be the common good). This tweet also brought me right back to my freshman year in college, a couple of years before the Reagan so-called “revolution”, when our nascent, four-person anti-nuclear group fragmented as one of our group split off to form her own identity-based anti-nuclear group. Now we had two groups, one of three, one of one, working at cross-purposes, duplicating efforts, and both consequently being ineffective. It should come as no surprise that anti-nuclear activity on campus ended a few weeks later.

What did I learn from my failed freshman experience in organizing? At the time, I was annoyed, sad, and dispirited. It certainly was a good comeuppance for an arrogant and idealistic 17-year-old getting his first taste of social and political organizing. And it pushed me to learn more about feminist theory, to listen better, and to be more respectful. All to the good. But it had no effect on the operations of Seabrook, Vermont Yankee, or any other regional nuclear power plant, and it didn’t add a voice to larger, ongoing discussions about nuclear power and nuclear disarmament. With hindsight, I can see that identity won that day but we lost our collective voices and our potential places at the political table. Over the intervening decades, some of New England’s nuclear power plants closed down for economic reasons, others (including Seabrook) are still operating, and Reagan signed a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union (and Vladimir Putin abrogated one of its successors, the treaty on the disposal of plutonium used to make nuclear weapons, just before the most recent US presidential election). There are still citizen-led groups working in New England and elsewhere against nuclear power and for other clean energy solutions, albeit mostly at the margins; the heavy lifting is being done by moneyed interests and larger corporations who pay more attention to the macroeconomic picture and their stockholders, and less to what might generously be called “process.” Which is not to say that I am happy about the dominance of capital and corporations in the “alternative” energy sector (or other “alternative,” or for that matter “mainstream,” sectors).

For me the main take-home message is that capital cares little for individual identities, and individuals of particular (and different) identities, when in positions of power, behave more or less similarly to one another (a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA supports this notion that the system molds behavior of politicians). For example, one can look at the diversity of the cabinet-level nominees of the incoming US Republican president; as of 30 November 2016, he has nominated seven white men, one African-American man, two white women, one Asian-American woman, and one Indian-American. This gender and ethnic diversity is not that dissimilar to President Obama’s cabinet, yet I am certain that the policies of the two cabinets will be strikingly different.

At the same time, utilities, pipelines, and chemical plants, among many others, were and continue to be sited near to poor or otherwise disadvantaged communities, and as a society we need to recognize these injustices and organize and fight to rectify them. But fighting to stop any particular environmental injustice—and the Dakota Access Pipeline is just the most recent indignity—rarely addresses the larger issues (such as in this example, the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels worldwide), which transcend individual populations and ethnicities: global-scale environmental problems, like the laws of physics, really don’t discriminate. What I think I learned 38 years ago and continue to believe to this day is that one is not more important than the other. Just as we all need to listen to, hear, and act on environmental injustices in particular communities, I also believe that those on the receiving end of daily injustice sometimes need to step out of their individual identities and join in larger struggles that transcend any individual’s identities.

But what are our individual identities, anyway?

I deliberately wrote “individual identities” because identity is malleable. For example, what is my identity? Last year, I had the privilege to be in the audience for a talk/workshop led by Christine O’Connell from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. One of the exercises she had us do was to turn to the person sitting next to us and, in 45 seconds, complete the sentence (multiple times): “I am…”. Besides the cacophony of voices of individuals all declaiming their identities, it made for a very interesting exercise. Here are some of my answers, deliberately alphabetized:

I am: more-or-less able-bodied, an atheist, an occasional blogger, a democratic socialist, divorced, an ecologist, an editor, engaged to be re-married, a feminist, not the first in my family to go to college, not the first in my family to have an advanced degree, a friend, heterosexual, born Jewish, male, fond of modern art, a photographer, of Russian/Ukranian descent, a scientist, a 2nd-generation American, a statistician, supportive of others, taller than average, white (census classification), a woodworker, working to build scientific capacity in developing countries, a writer.

Which did you notice? If you’re an American following current discourse or focused on identity politics and discrimination, probably “white, straight, male”, and maybe “Jewish”. The first two put me in the so-called dominant majority, the third would lead many people to immediately discount anything I write as “mansplaining,” whereas the fourth might (proudly) get me a line on Bannon’s blacklist.

But why should those three or four identities have primacy? Perhaps my whiteness extends privilege in some spheres, but it certainly didn’t at my undergraduate Ivy League alma mater, where most everyone was “white,” but Jewish students from public high schools were a distinct minority (and historically were subject to outright discrimination and quotas: see Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton). And my five freshman roommates included a basketball player from the Midwest who was paying his own way through college (it took him seven years to finish, since he had to take every other semester off to work), a Mexican-American who was the first in his family to go to college and who had never seen snow, and three other “middle-class” men. None of us fit the classic white, silver-spooned Anglo-Saxon Protestant cliché of the Ivy League, yet all but one of us would have been classified identically as “white” and all six as “male.” To, I sincerely believe, the detriment of the classifier, who would miss the diversity of viewpoints among these males, mostly white. On the other hand, when working overseas, being “white” regularly identifies me as a distinct minority and oft-times a subject of great curiosity (for example, I was recently told by a good friend and colleague that to many Chinese, “all white people look the same”). Being male abroad, though, generally is easier; there’s less harassment and it can be cheaper to use a restroom (bizarrely, the cost of using a public restroom on the docks at Leticia, Colombia was double for women what it was for men). On the other hand, men in South America do all the physically heavy lifting.

Along different axes of my identity, being tall is a handicap on airlines with scant leg-room between seats; that the pain in my damaged lower back when I disembark certainly encourages empathy for individuals of different abilities. Admitting at a party that one is a scientist is a sure way to be left alone in a corner nursing a drink, and engenders a rarely-appreciated type of voicelessness in an American society that, given our love of technological toys and weapons, has surprisingly little respect for science or scientists. And at least in the area of biology in which I work—ecology—men increasingly are underrepresented among undergraduate majors, graduate students, and post-docs, and are at parity with women in new faculty hires. Some see that trend as a positive one that is beginning to address past discrimination, others attribute it to diminishing respect for the field (and hence it’s “feminization”), and still others are shifting their focus to the low proportion of ethnic minorities in the field and limited attention to LBGTQ individuals working in the field. All to the good. Just don’t try to encourage the interest of young men in science unless you want to be slapped down by your colleagues and grant’s officers.

One of my other identities is that I run a summer research program in ecology for undergraduates at the Harvard Forest. In this program, we deliberately seek out students who can benefit most from the experience of working alongside and in a partnership with more senior researchers (graduate students, post-docs, faculty). Our long-term research on the program itself (paper just published in BioScience) has documented that such students are those from groups traditionally underrepresented in science, including ethnic minorities, those who are the first in their family to attend college, those who are financially insecure, and those who have not previously had research experience. Gender is not a significant predictor (although our applicants and participants are overwhelmingly female. To the final point of the last paragraph, I have been told explicitly by a program officer from the US National Science Foundation that although I can select applicants on the basis of diversity to reflect that of the broader society, that I can’t select them on the basis of gender to reflect the approximately 50-50 sex-ratio). The tragedy is that we can only support 25-30 students each year of the nearly 1000 qualified applicants.

But in recent years I have come to realize that it is not enough to have a program that simply “looks like” America, has an income distribution that either matches the current inequality or is biased toward the 99%, or are drawn from community colleges. Such “diverse” groups also need to mesh into a heterogeneous whole that is more than its components. This distinction between diversity and heterogeneity is critical: diversity encourages identity and self-segregation whereas heterogeneity encourages community and interactivity. For more on this important distinction, I refer interested readers to a paper on the topic that I recently participated in writing with two of my Israeli colleagues, Ayelet Shavit and Anat Kolombus (available as a preprint here). As a first step towards moving from a focus from diversity towards one on heterogeneity, we might want to ask whether, for example, the majority of Chinese students should be working only with Chinese mentors, male students should work with male mentors, female students should work with female mentors, or students of color should work primarily with research mentors of color. Yes, we need a diverse spectrum of role models, but no, students should not be segregated (either by choice or by design) to match the identities (which ones are most important?) of their supervisors and mentors.

Reliable, meaningful scientific data are collected by careful people (and accurate instruments), not by particular genders, ethnicities, or individuals of particular heights, weights, or sexual orientation. The work of learning about the world around us and the environment that supports us all not only transcends disciplinary boundaries but also transcends census categories and individual identities. Indeed, we see this in our applicants—students increasingly self-identify in multiple groups and categories and often bristle at being classified along one (or only a few) dimensions (trends are presented as the first figure in the in the Supplement to the aforementioned BioScience paper). So why do we, in our (American) political discourse, insist on using only a few categories, primarily those of race, gender, and religion?

I’ve been pondering this question while moving slowly down the Amazon River (as a linguistic minority, handicapped by my inability to speak Portuguese), and trying to move beyond the standard tropes of racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. These are certainly crucial, but they also are culturally contingent. In the US, “white” people exert power over persons of color, reflecting the legacy of slavery. But we are not the only country in which one group has enslaved another, and in other countries it isn’t always a function of skin color. Further, as I’ve learned when reporting statistics on ethnicity and demography to funding agencies, “African-American” refers only to particular US citizens with dark skin, not, for example, to recently naturalized citizens who have emigrated from African countries voluntarily, often fleeing persecution at home. Similarly, not all societies are patriarchal; “white” Catholics are viewed with suspicion by many Protestants; and Protestants are persecuted in other lands.

It also may be tempting to retreat into simplistic explanations drawn from biology, sociology, or its hybrid offspring, sociobiology. People evolved in kin groups and small tribes; in situations where resources such as food and shelter were limited, there was a premium placed on recognizing your kin or your tribe. Tribes that accumulated resources (capital) gained power and privilege over those without. We can easily extrapolate this from small hunter-gatherer societies to the modern world of nearly eight  billion people, and reopen the seemingly endless, sterile, and pointless “nature versus nurture” or “biology is not destiny” discussions of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, the intersections and interactions among privilege, power, and evolutionary pathways seems to have become particularly toxic in Homo sapiens sapiens.

Perhaps moving forward it would be helpful to distinguish proximate causes (e.g., racism, sexism) from ultimate ones (e.g., privilege, power, evolution). We can stanch the bleeding of racism, sexism, and general avoidance of “others,” but unless we deal with the bigger causes, we’ll all drown together. And those in power, whatever their race, color, gender, or creed, will be laughing all the way to the bank.

5 thoughts on “Dispatches from Abroad: Reflections on the 2016 Election (II)—The Politics of Identity and the Destructiveness of Identity Politics

  1. This is a great, well-considered essay. Thanks for taking the time to express it so well. I have never understood the mindset that causes some people to place their identities or misplaced agendas of various types, over the more specific issue at hand.

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  2. Hmmm, heavy lifting is compensation for a basic human necessity (using the restroom)? While I applaud your liberal notions for a more civilized collective society, I think you’ve missed the mark here. It seems in part, you are contributing to the contrary. I think the notion of severity of “identities” flew very far and high over your head. Your thoughts may be liberal, but are nowhere near progressive. Indeed, as the kids say, this could be an example of “mansplaining” to the extreme (condescending and patronizing).

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  3. Nope. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, but this is ultimately poisonous to the cause. What exactly are you proposing is the mechanism behind identity politics interfering with these “bigger causes” you mention? What are you basing this on?

    It sounds like you are claiming that you “knew” that Trump would win based on 1) a tweet and 2) because decades ago you were not successful in your anti-nuclear activism- for which you still blame *her* for not uniting behind *you* as the reason why the efforts failed via her causing apparent divisiveness. Just to clarify, I gather your point here is to attribute the same divisiveness as the reason for the outcome of the election- that the blames lies on the uppity women and others for not falling in line behind your lead, or for not being quiet about needing equal rights. In the example you give- why is it her fault and not at least just as much yours? Could you not have joined her group instead? Or perhaps it would have failed regardless, and your misplaced blame on both accounts really just isn’t constructive at all. I implore you to take some time to reconsider your thoughts on this.

    I’d also point out that there are also many other reasons that contributed to the outcome of the election that had little to do with identity politics (e.g., gerrymandering, new voting restrictions in some states in 2016, post-truth politics, media bias, etc).

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