Thursday, November 24, 2016

The debate over identity politics - commonalities versus individualities

Yesterday I posted a piece on thoughts about unity on Thanksgiving day. I referenced a New York Times article by Mark Lilla on The End of Identity Liberalism which I thought made some good points about letting what makes us individuals overwhelm what we have in common. For example:

The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. …

The practical consequence, as Lilla says, is that liberals lose elections.

… it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. … Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.

Even as I blogged, I felt a rasp, of a little gremlin scratching about in my left hemisphere, of concern of what might be inferred from what Lilla had to say. But I then wrote it up anyway. My little gremlin was right.

The response came in the form of a counter-essay in the New Republic in which the subtitle says it all: Mark Lilla argues that the Democratic Party needs to move beyond identity politics. But that’s precisely where the country’s salvation lies.

I think we need to step back and take a broader view. The distinction being debated is how much to weight our similarities (as Americans) have vs. the weight placed on our differences (ethnicity, gender, etc.) - what I headlined as commonalities vs. individualities. Actually, there is a long history in philosophy and science about a parallel distinction between two ways of acquiring knowledge - nomothetic vs. idiographic. You can read more about that below the break.

Here I will just opine that treating these two perspectives as mutually exclusive would be a terrible mistake. We need to be fighting for protection of civil liberties for all of our citizens regardless of the individual characteristics. And, particularly as Democrats and progressives, we need to frame what we have to offer in terms of the concerns and needs we share with each other. We need to protect our individualities and promote our commonalities, now like never before.

Here are snippets from the Wiki entry.

Nomothetic and idiographic are terms used by Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge, each one corresponding to a different intellectual tendency, and each one corresponding to a different branch of academe.

  • Nomothetic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to generalize, and is typical for the natural sciences. It describes the effort to derive laws that explain types or categories[disambiguation needed] of objective phenomena, in general.

  • Idiographic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to specify, and is typical for the humanities. It describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena.

The problem of whether to use nomothetic or idiographic approaches is most sharply felt in the social sciences, whose subject are unique individuals (idiographic perspective), but who have certain general properties or behave according to general rules (nomothetic perspective).

In psychology, idiographic describes the study of the individual, who is seen as a unique agent with a unique life history, with properties setting him/her apart from other individuals (see idiographic image). A common method to study these unique characteristics is an (auto)biography, i.e. a narrative that recounts the unique sequence of events that made the person who she is. Nomothetic describes the study of classes or cohorts of individuals. Here the subject is seen as an exemplar of a population and their corresponding personality traits and behaviours.

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