Research What Are You Reading...On the Debate Surrounding Identity Politics

What Are You Reading…On the Debate Surrounding Identity Politics

The very polarized views people have about identity politics have been on my mind recently. I have had several conversations about Jordan Peterson, exchanged emails about the nature of race and gender, and taught my Chinese students about feminism. Most recently, a post in our new series, Women in Philosophy, attracted a lot of attention from members who felt that the topic it discussed was an example of identity politics run amok and an attack on academic freedom. This has all reminded me of the stark opposition between the two sides: one says that true equality will never happen without addressing the factors that produce unequal treatment along lines of gender, race, and similar identities; the other that to move in that direction is a move towards totalitarianism.

It is impossible to adequately address the debate here, but I may be able to address one small piece. A common claim of identity politics’ opponents is that advocates are trying to silence debate (e.g. the meme that “social justice warriors” are “liberal snowflakes”). It seems to me that this claim mistakes the contribution identity politics makes to discussion for an attempt to end discussion. It is quite consistent to hold that someone has is allowed to say something but still criticize them if it is wrong or dangerous. Similarly, if one can cite evidence that certain words, behaviors, or practices cause harm, it is not antithetical to freedom to tell people that they should seek better ones. Asking for one to put care into their words, and criticizing those who don’t, is not the same as preventing one from using their words. The debate won’t be over any time soon, but here are some pieces—articulating multiple positions—to help us understand the various sides of this issue.


Note: With this post, the What Are You Reading column moves to a biweekly schedule for the rest of the Summer.


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  1. I concur with the point that, sometimes, the treatment of certain groups can be so cruel and unfair that you need to confront the opponent head-on, for example, the manner in which women (and men) are confronting the patriarchal culture that does not only characterize the business and academic worlds, but also, and to a greater extent, religious societies. This point is, indeed, urgent and highly welcomed.
    Still, I think that the concept of identity politics is problematic. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of the rhizome to illuminate the distinctiveness and connectivity of the multiple factors that constitute reality. This concept helps us view our lives as assemblages or a mixture of words, institutions, social movements, and countless other things that, while related, are also distinct. For example, in The Trouble with Unity, the philosopher Cristina Beltrán uses Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome to address some of the problems with identity politics. Using a simple example, she mentions the conception of Latinidad, i.e., the notion that all people from Latin America share the same group identity and cultural consciousness. She notes that many commentators tend to assume that Latinos represent a collective identity. Really? Didn’t people read Edward Said’s work?
    A similar appraisal can be observed for various minority groups, which are assumed to be special or unique instead of the more accurate assertion that we are all different people. The problem with identity politics is that it is tantamount to arborescent thinking. At its worst, arborescent thinking can suppress any other identity: men versus women, white versus black, and vegetarian versus meat eater (if that’s what it is called). Identity politics can also create a culture of victimization—something I often witness in Catalonia, Spain. For more than a generation, schools and politicians in Catalonia have fed the people the idea that they are not part of Spain, that Spain steals from them, and that all problems are caused by Spain. The result is that very few Catalan separatists are prepared to take responsibility or are held accountable for their own actions, as Spain is used as a scapegoat.
    Critical thinking and self-reflection, therefore, are arguably rare among people who cling to certain identities as a moral refuge. This is probably related to how convenient a certain position or identity can appear, as if by being feminist, existentialist, Catalan, black, or homosexual, we are, in any way, morally better.
    Personally, I believe that Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome can help us find and create value in what takes place without being placing into fixed boxes of identity. A more humble approach. After all, all identities are prisons hindering us to think freely. Or as Michel Foucault once said: What does it matter who is speaking? It only matters because of hierarchies, domination, and a simple lack of equality and imagination. What is needed is not more identity politics, but what Deleuze called non-communication, “circuit breakers” that may elude communicative control, whereby people blindly say and do what they do because this is what other people do. There is a scary herd mentality among people who cling onto certain identities.

    • Dear Finn,

      Thanks for your well thought-out comment. I completely agree with what you say. To me, the question of when and how to embrace a certain identity, and when and how to critique it, has to do with the strategic value of doing so. Which will help us achieve a healthier, more sustainable society? But like you say, neither action is necessarily correct.


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