There is a scene in Buster Keaton’s silent film “The General,” in which Keaton, a Confederate train engineer, is pursuing Union spies with a steam locomotive.
Standing on top of the tender, frantically chopping wood to feed the steam engine, he does not notice the Union army advancing against the Confederates. The battle lines shift, and Keaton just keeps chopping. His gray coat, which a few minutes earlier had ensured his safety, suddenly stands out and marks him as an enemy.
The scene reminds us that the world can change behind our backs. While we have our heads down working at our respective tasks, the very identity in which we are clothed may acquire meanings just the opposite of what they were a short time before.
We take a break from our tasks, stand up, look around and wonder: Where am I? Who am I? When did all this happen?
I used to have a pretty good idea where I stood with regard to politics. Even though I never identified very strongly with either of the two major political parties, at least I knew what I thought about the chief issues, and I knew what the battle lines were with regard to those issues.
As a pro-life, gun-owning, fiscally conservative, Bible-believing Christian, I agreed with Republicans on many things.
As a cosmopolitan, city-dwelling, environmentally concerned, human rights advocate, I agreed with Democrats on a number of issues.
But today I have no idea. It’s not just that I don’t know whether I am liberal or conservative, it is that I no longer know what those terms mean. I don’t even know where the battle lines are anymore.
A conservative used to be someone who wanted to slow down the pace of change, who cared about preserving traditional values and strong institutions. It used to be someone who believed in hard work, free markets, equal opportunity and standing up for the underdog.
A liberal used to be someone who wanted to speed up the pace of change, who cared about addressing inequality and injustice. It used to be someone who believed in creativity, free expression and peaceful solutions to conflict.
These issues still matter to people, but they are no longer the primary determinants of political identity.
Today you can find Republicans who wish to restrict the autonomy of local communities, who support tariffs, who want to legalize gambling, and who would elevate winning to the status of a virtue.
You can also find Democrats who want to transfer power to the local level, who value conformity, who shout down speakers with whom they disagree, and for whom nonviolence is tantamount to passive acceptance.
What really matters in politics today is social identity — not what you believe but what clan you belong to. And clan membership is determined principally by race, class, sexual orientation, gender, religion and culture.
In “The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity,” Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that “much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.”
The category of race, for example, is a social construct that has no grounding in the science of genetics, yet we continue to employ the term as if there were some essential similarity shared by all people of the same “race.”
We think of religion as consisting of a set of beliefs, yet most religious adherents are either ignorant of or confused about their own basic creeds and scriptures.
Nevertheless, we persist in forming our political allegiances based on categories that make no sense, and this persistence is undermining democracy in a number of ways:
- Identity politics makes public deliberation irrelevant. Although I may be persuaded to change my beliefs, I cannot, in the same way, be persuaded to change my social identity. My race, nationality and culture are not up to me; sexual orientation, gender and religion may be more flexible, but they are not matters for debate.
- Identity politics increases incidents of violence and discrimination. The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the history of terrorist attacks and hate crimes have all been due, in large part, to the elevation of misguided notions of social identity.
- Identity politics undermines the basis for universal human rights. The more importance we place on our distinctive social identities, the less importance we place on our shared humanity.
- Identity politics makes ethics irrelevant. For ethics requires reasons. Living an ethical life means, above all, a commitment to forgo deception, coercion and manipulation, and to insist on persuasion. It is a commitment to talking and listening, to making decisions on the basis of what is true and good, no matter how difficult that may be at times.
If my political commitments are determined not by what I believe but by who I am, then there is no point in talking. You have your group and I have mine. Politics is reduced to power — a matter of who gets what and how much — and any advantage for one group is a disadvantage for the others.
Maybe it is time to change the political landscape, to insist once again on real deliberative democracy.
I am not sure how to do that, but I think it is worth trying. It is too soon to give up on the promise of America.