Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Oppression and identitarian error

Radical left writers have spent a lot of time in the past year picking apart basic demographic errors in liberal identitarian arguments. When I do this, I usually try to stick to the specific questions of fact at hand. Here, however, I want to talk a little more generally about how in addition to being counterfactual, identitarian demographic arguments can become directly oppressive.

Fact checking the identitarians

To see how this works, consider two statements from just the past week, both from wealthy liberal elites. First, Elie Mystal:
Bernie Sanders is, of course, welcome to continue to fight on behalf of disaffected white people everywhere. But he can’t be the nominee...Sorry guys...I’m sure the LGBT community has a pamphlet or something that you can read.
The suggestion, of course, is that Sanders and his base are at odds with the LGBT community. This is demonstrably untrue: Sanders leads among the LGBT community by 22.6 points. This is the sort of basic point of fact that left critics of identitarianism often have to establish and defend at length, but here I'm just going to assume it, and you'll either accept the data or you won't.

The second statement to consider came in an exchange today with pundit Clay Shirky:


Shirky's point relies on the same identitarian premise that Mystal's does: just as we should accept the consensus of the LGBT community, we should also accept the consensus of the black community. And similarly, Clay's argument crashes on the shoals of demographic fact. As Leslie Lee III noted immediately, "Black voters aren't a monolith" - and once we account for non-voters as well (as we must), a full 30% of black Americans support Sanders. This, as Matt Bruenig writes, presents us with an obvious problem:
Individuals in a particular oppressed group are not a monolith, and therefore necessarily disagree with one another...You can require that ID only attach to the majority view, but there are problems with such an approach...it seems odd to think that the majority view will tell you what is correct.
This is not, it must be emphasized, some kind of remote or obscure logic problem: it's an immediate and inescapable consideration we run into as soon as we notice that a significant number of black Americans support Sanders. I could make this point again, just like I did two months ago, but it would be redundant: the numbers are what they are, and either you accept them or you don't.

What's going on here

So far, this is the form much of the liberal-left debate has taken over the past year: a liberal makes some identitarian argument, and a critic points out that the demographic premises are demonstrably incorrect.

But what I think is telling about the above statements in particular is that they are so obviously incorrect. Numbers on both LGBT and black community support for Sanders are easily accessible, and the trends pointed to above have been fairly consistent for several months. No one who makes any kind of minimal effort to look at what these groups are saying should walk away making the sweeping and incorrect generalizations about them that liberal identitarians throw around on a continual basis. As Chomsky notes, when we run into this kind of issue,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.
Having dispensed with the first question time and time again over the past year - repeatedly, and decisively - let's consider the second.

The basic justification for liberal identitarian discourse is that it prioritizes and empowers the voices of the voiceless. In practice, however, what we see is that it routinely misrepresents the voices of the voiceless, floating claims about "the LGBT community", "the black voters", and so on that are demonstrably untrue. In the case of the Democratic primaries, for example, majorities in every oppressed identity group have had their voices thoroughly and relentlessly misrepresented by people making liberal identitarian arguments.

It's not difficult to see how this works to the advantage of the powerful. On one hand, the power of the elite can be threatened and undermined when oppressed people have a voice. On the other hand, elites can also foment resentment and opposition if they try to silence the oppressed. What is needed, then, is an ideology that appears to give the oppressed a voice while it in fact silences or misrepresents them. In this sort of political culture, we should absolutely expect to encounter a discourse that claims to value, privilege and empower the oppressed while it in fact does the exact opposite. Just like any other instrument of power, this discourse should be recognized as complicit in bourgeois white male straight supremacy, and the people who engage in it should be understood as participants in that project.

This is all to say that whether they are being cynical or just making innocent mistakes, and whether they are abusing liberal identitarianism or wielding it as intended, Mystal and Shirky are making statements that contribute to oppression. This goes for every pundit and journalist out there who misrepresents demographic support for various candidates, positions, and policies. We do not have to float some conspiracy theory or get stuck on question of intent to notice that there is a persistent way of talking about the oppressed; a massive media-academic apparatus, largely funded by massive capital investments, that produces this message; that this same message gets relentlessly disseminated through all kinds of marketing and promotion; and that all of this functions as a mechanism for silencing and misrepresenting the powerless.

This is precisely the sort of systematic / institutional / discursive oppression that we rightly condemn in other contexts. Here, resisting it begins with acknowledging that it exists. When Mystal misrepresents the opinions of the LGBT community, we can acknowledge that this is not just an error - it's an error that silences them. When Shirky erases the 30% of black voters who support Sanders, we can acknowledge that this is not just a benign omission - it perpetuates the same white supremacist politics that have always disenfranchised black voters.

Editors and colleagues in the media often seem content to dismiss these mistakes as subjective or simply "dumb". That's not how we treat other forms of oppressive discourse, and it's not how we should treat this one.