Is Everyone Arguing From Identity Politics?

23 Apr

Recently, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate about the ethics and pitfalls behind identity politics. From their transcript, there are two points that I wanted to put a spotlight on.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward… I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is.

Klein, whether he realizes it or not, is engaging in a Motte and Bailey sort of dialectic. Recall that Motte and Bailey is when you define some concept as a fully general one that no one can reasonably disagree with when on the defensive, but when you’re on the offensive you define it in a very specific way. And if you find yourself on the defensive again, you back into the very general and saccharine version of the concept. From that post:

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Klein is defining “identity politics” as just two separate words — “identity” and then “politics” — both in their extremely generic versions that happen to be placed next to each other. Obviously, everyone has an identity and everyone has some sort of politics that would afford that identity added rights or power. So, in this bland sense, everyone is arguing from “identity” “politics”: Harris’ main identity that he argues from is that of an atheist.

However, what’s being debated between the two, which was the impetus for their chat in the first place, is the more specific identity politics, which is not the generic “identity” plus generic “politics”. It is very much politics linked only to race/gender/sexual orientation. Sam Harris rightly points out that generic “identity” plus generic “politics” is not identity politics. Atheism is not included in this definition of identity politics. But Klein, having deployed this rhetorical sleight of hand, claims that politics related to atheism (or being a public intellectual, per Harris’ previous comment) is “identity politics”.

So to be clear: “Identity” and “politics”, their generic versions, is the Motte. No one would disagree that we care about our identities. But identity politics, that is, politics tied to one’s race/gender/sexual orientation, is the bailey. Where all of the actual debate is at. Klein retreated to the Motte when Harris’ claimed that he’s not interested in the Bailey. Klein is behaving no differently than a Christian trying to convince a non-believer that they actually believe in god by claiming “god is just love”.

If Harris new about the post-modernist tactic of Motte-and-Bailey-ing, he might have been able to spot Klein’s behavior and corrected it. Alas, people listening to the podcast or reading the transcript will come away with the impression that Klein made a valid point. He did not.

Another thing I noticed that stuck out to me was this exchange between the two:

Sam Harris
I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein Well, that is our disagreement.

Ugh. Literally everyone thinks tribally. Tribalism is built into our brains. To say that you’re not thinking tribally is trying to claim that you have no biases. And as we all know, saying or thinking that you have no biases is evidence that you have many. So I happen to agree with Klein in this little exchange.

However, in the larger debate, Harris probably just means that he doesn’t think or argue primarily from identifying with the “tribes” of straight, white, or cisgender. I actually think his main “tribes” are atheist and liberal.

So on the weight of things, I lean heavily in support of Sam Harris in this exchange. And no, not everyone is arguing from Identity Politics.


3 responses to “Is Everyone Arguing From Identity Politics?

  1. Dietz Ziechmann

    April 24, 2018 at 11:53 am

    We are “all made in the likeness of God.” (The KJV misleads by using the word “image” here.) That is the starting point of my identity. Shouldn’t it be for everyone’s?

  2. Marcel Kincaid

    April 28, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    You’re ignoring the actual evidence of white privilege and how it colors Harris’s arguments and claims. The very term “identity politics” is an ad hominem that privileged people use against those who are affected negatively by prevailing policy *because of* their “identity” as black, female, gay, etc. Privileged whites talk about 90+% of blacks voting for Obama “just because he’s black”, as if it had nothing to do with the policies that affect black people — and they know damn well those policies do have those effects. They conveniently ignore the fact that 90+% of blacks also voted for Bill Clinton. This ignoring of the fact that people are oppressed *because of their identity* is something available to the privileged who can pretend that their identity isn’t any identity at all because they aren’t subject to the identity-based oppression. That’s what Klein is talking about, and he’s right.

  3. Marcel Kincaid

    April 28, 2018 at 8:03 pm


    You say you lean heavily in support of Sam Harris. But do you take into his account his repeated claims that Klein argues in bad faith? In his intro to his next podcast — his talk with Sean Carroll — he says that the exchange made him think even worse of Klein and to be even more convinced that Klein is arguing from bad faith. This is exactly what Klein predicted, in his spot on analysis that Harris is hypersensitive to criticism while being totally insensitive to his own numerous repeated ad hominem attacks on others.

    I used to think well of Harris because of his strong stance against theism, and I still agree with some of that … but starting with his editorial in the L.A. Times in which he argued that conditions in the Middle East had nothing to do with U.S. policy in the region and everything to do with religion and that liberal Americans are totally wrong to think that U.S. policy has anything to do with it and only believe that because of their hostility to the government, I came to realize that he’s a deeply, fundamentally intellectually dishonest person, motivated be deep seated emotions to make such claims as that “vast numbers” of Palestinians and Muslims want to kill all Jews.

    Like your story about the kite that you posted on Quora, much can be understood once one has the right explanatory key. (Contrary to that post, though, it’s not about certainty — it’s about analytical tools, much as evolution, general relativity, and Bohr’s model of the atom made large amounts of disparate, mysterious evidence explainable.)

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