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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.

Richard Kyte mug

Richard Kyte

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.

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.

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(11) comments

martian2

Identity or tribal politics has certainly eroded our democracy to the point that compromise is now a dirty word. I would also add that single issue politics all does the same thing. There is a zero tolerance philosophy on both sides when it comes to certain issues. Whether it be guns, abortion, war, health care, schools, environment there are those who do not wish to seek common ground with those who think differently. Thanks to the talking heads on different forms of media, and those who choose mindlessly to follow along, we have lost the ability to think independently for ourselves and have succumbed to sophisticated marketers and lobbyists who do not have this country's best interest at heart. Like many things in modern culture, we have become lazy and want someone else to do the hard work for us.

oldhomey

Well said, martian. And I say that recognizing I am guilty in slapping down hard at opinions that counter my own. I try not to, but when somebody else says something that is false and says it with an absolutist conviction that they are right, I cannot help but coming back and saying "absolutely not." I would make a lousy philosophy or ethics professor. I don't doubt that I my behavior on these boards isn't any more successful in convincing people to change their opinions than they are in convincing me to change mine. So why bother? Well, I DO think it is important to let people know they are operating with faulty information, whether they want to listen or not. And it helps me to sharpen my own thinking, as well. And it feels good to add one's voice as a witness to the grievous harm being done to our nation by this corrupt, dishonest presidential administration, not to mention the danger we live in with the deepening of tribal politics because of the internet and social media.

Rick Czeczok

See I told you they would attack. So obvious, right out of the democratic socialist playbook. Try getting a message or any kind of a plan, obstruction and attacking are not considered a plan people.

johnnybragatti

Rick the zerokok denies any wrong doing, despite ignorance exceeded only by his very own stupidity.
Better get back on your opioids and Alex Jones , chased with some Jimmy Beam.
You"ll be alright......
Though I doubt it.

Redwall

An unexpected column from this fellow. He sounds like a PC version of Patrick Buchanan.

Buchanan has long forecast the The West would devolve into quarreling tribes...what Kyte calls "identities" and democracy has been on a path to failure for decades.

Identity politics is nothing more than target marketing by the political parties to fracture society and capitalize on these identities in seeking of votes. Cheap, disgusting, pandering is now the norm for both parties.

So, all the fancy words are reduced to nothing in Kytes last two paragraphs...not much reason for optimism is there?


oldhomey

If you feel all is doomed, anyway, Red, why bother voting? Just get a little place in the country, put up some high, bullet-proof walls, stock up on assault rifles and lots of ammo and wait for the end to come.

oldhomey

Mr. Kyte is an uncommonly good columnist, and I say that even though we probably have differing views on abortion, gun rights and other issues. I consider myself a liberal, but one who strongly adheres to his definition of a conservative: "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."

And I'd join him in a heartbeat in a campaign to "to insist once again on real deliberative democracy." It starts with real and supportable, verifiable facts that can be used in a sane and reasoned deliberation -- not what you want to be true, but what is demonstrably true.

Rick Czeczok

There isn't one conservative bone in your body. You are and have said you are in agreement with the socialist ideals. Who are you trying to kid here. You can't say one thing one week, and then something totally opposite the next and expect people to forget your first statements. Being old, isn't an excuse for hypocrisy my friend.

oldhomey

Well, Ricky, let us put it this way: You are living proof that age certainly does not confer wisdom or knowledge. Some people can go through their entire life being an ignorant fool, and you would serve well as Exhibit A to prove that point.

Cassandra2

" You can't say one thing one week, and then something totally opposite the next and expect people to forget your first statements. " Wow, comrade Zerocock, would this include your July 10 promise to leave these pages for 7 years?

oldhomey

Well, Cassie, perhaps we should encourage poor Ricky to think more this way. Currently he supports President Trump, the worst president in the history of the nation -- one of the primary reasons being that Trump says one thing in the morning, and by late afternoon he is saying something completely opposite of the morning statement, expecting Ricky and his other followers to forget the first statement. And the DO! But perhaps if we train Ricky with Pavlovian praise of showing progress in his reasoning, he will begin to see what Trump is actually doing. Right? I know. I know. It is just a hopeless pipe dream.

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