The aim here is to take on a contentious topic without exploiting a controversy for personal benefit. Hopefully, anyone will read this without feeling like the intent is to take away their right to affirm who they are or that any of this should be construed as a means to deny anyone their dignity as a person. That is absolutely not the intention nor the implication of this effort. The only reasonable or moral intent here is respect for trans people as well as people of all different colors, abilities and cultural or sexual identities. This was written in the spirited hope of eventually seeing everybody treated as free, but with an empathic acuity for the balance of equality with practical distinction.
Here’s the qualifier that some readers might feel like they knew was coming: there will be some thoughts explored in this that might challenge some of the ways that you think about identity and possibly even how you think about your own personal identity. Now, why should a challenge to think more deeply about identity be relevant? What’s the agenda with this? There’s actually more than one agenda. In no particular order, here they are:
- A pronounced sense of favored aspects of personal identity, while empowering to an individual, can inadvertently embolden a variety of in-group/out-group biases that can make people become hardened against one another and less willing or able to live and work together. Some people interpret this as coming into conflict with a political desire to advance a more socialist and less hierarchical society. So, if this interpretation happens to be correct, then relaxing identity distinctions will give everyone more opportunity to collaborate and freely associate.
- Privilege in some ways affords opportunities that not everyone has access to. This isn’t the only way to describe privilege, but one relevant way that privilege manifests is in access to the time and resources to think about and write about this topic. While it’s possible to have the wrong ideas about identity or its implications, this kind of reasoning about it suggests that people should try to share the fruits of their privilege, even if the fruits turn out to be lemons.
- It’s desirable to endow other people with the capacity to not feel afraid or ashamed to challenge or in some cases break away from their cultural expectations because of ties to pronounced identities. It’s okay for people to change their minds from time to time. Also, it’s important to notice that there are reasons that people have for changing their minds and every once in a while a reason will come along that challenges them in a way that might feel taboo. A person might feel it betrays an alliance that they have with other people. And maybe the reason that comes along isn’t even a good reason, but they simply don’t know how to object to it right away. There is no shame in that, but when the response or the behavior in the face of it is tied to the essence of who that person is, it’s important for them to be able to accept that it’s okay to be conflicted or to acknowledge that they are uncertain. No one should feel that they are the first person on this earth to be wrong about something. Nobody should feel like they are the only one to disagree with the people who they care about.
- The last agenda to be aware of is a lot less heavy and maybe it’s a little cheesy. It should be stated anyway: To be a creative person should be about wanting to apply your creativity in ways that you think will help you to better understand the world and to understand yourself. Most creative people do want to share some of the benefits that they experience by doing creative things. This is a part of that.
Before moving on to the main event, let me give you some agendas that are NOT present in this:
- An interest in preserving the status quo. Sociopolitical reform is obviously desirable.
- Nothing that’s said here (or isn’t said here) is intended to be construed as denying the real-life consequences of hostility towards all marginalized peoples. Racists, misogynists, and garden-variety bigots are real threats to society.
- The promotion of a belief that we live in a post-oppression world. Nothing that will be said or not said here is intended to make the case that we are living in such a world.
- The last agenda that is not implicit here is avoidance of responsibility or ownership of what is being said. With that being the case, an individual isn’t entirely responsible for how society identifies them. Nothing that will be said here can be reasonably construed as serving the interest of putting one person ahead at the expense of anyone else.
Okay, that was a lot to get out of the way. Let’s move forward. So-called ‘average people’ (whatever is meant when people say that) are typically highly intelligent. It’s possible to learn from non-experts all of the time. An easy observation to make about people is that pretty much everybody possesses at least one area of knowledge that they are extremely proficient in. At the same time, it’s a point of confusion for them to encounter other people who are not working with a similar set of knowledge in the domains that they demonstrate their proficiency. It can be almost invisible to a person, what they take for granted as already known. In practice, people apply the principle to themselves as well as to others. One person might be comfortable using key terms in everyday conversation, while the same terms might make other people’s eyes glaze over. It’s worth pointing out because it’s a common problem. It serves us well to be at least peripherally aware that our enthusiasm for understanding a topic can be just as easily read as pretentiousness. If someone who isn’t a software engineer asks a software engineer to explain how their program works and they start making reference to specific segments of code, they’re likely to be quickly frustrated by the lack of shared understanding. It’s the kind of problem that is best resolved by breaking down meanings for the person who isn’t yet an expert. So, there’s something to be said for the usefulness of unpacking jargon.
Ontology is the study of how we classify or categorize things. It’s useful because we all use a variety of built-in conceptual frameworks to make sense of the world. Upon describing some of the frameworks, you may find yourself already understanding this to a fair extent. As human beings living in a society, we identify and classify in all sorts of ways. Often, we have in-group terms to describe ourselves or others. Let me give a light example just for the hell of it: some people identify as Metalheads. That just means they’re fans of different varieties of Heavy Metal music. A Metalhead knows what it means, and other fans know what it means, but it’s not likely for people who aren’t metalheads to be in the practice of identifying someone in this way, even if they know the person.
For a little more difficult example, some people would consider themselves working class, though they may rarely refer to themselves in that way. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that. The term working class is a kind of social category for people who are employed for wages, typically doing manual or industrial work. There are a few different social models that have categories for people which are referred to as classes. One model comes from Karl Marx, where the categories of classes are the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat”. On the one hand, the “bourgeoisie” own land and productive facilities. In Marx’s account, they live off of the extra value created by the workers’ labor, who are called the “proletariat”. The “working class” in Marx’s model doesn’t own the things that are needed to manufacture stuff or perform different types of service work. For Marx, the category of class that you fell into was determined by the way that society ordered itself. And according to Marx, the order came from how groups obtained their wealth.
The famous sociologist Max Weber somewhat disagreed with Marx’s model and decided that the category of class that a person fell into was instead determined by the amount of wealth that they happen to obtain. So for him, there were more than just two classes. There were three main classes (upper, middle and lower) but with subcategories for people whose wealth was in between the upper and middle or lower and middle classes.
Notice that inherent to all of this is the task of understanding categories. This is what ontology is about. There’s a further question that may puzzle people who have already done a fair amount of thinking about this: What is it that we’re describing? Are we describing something that is more like a law of physics or more like a plan that people are carefully conducting? Any doubts about the fact that people do tend to think differently about this question, while just as often assuming that they share the correct answer, can consistently be assuaged. Some people plainly take the perspective that categories of classes occur without anyone deliberately deciding that they will. Other people think that classes arise as a part of a strategy or plan. This is tacked-on to the disagreements about how the categories of classes are distinguished from one another. It may be that the exact divisions of classes aren’t that important, but the idea of there being people planning for classes to exist versus something more like a byproduct of economic activity has considerable implications for how to address the problem. Insofar as it can be considered a problem. There are people who disagree about that as well.
There happen to be similar questions about race. There isn’t agreement about what race is. Which human qualities constitute race? It’s clear that people get categorized in this way, but is that by design or by accident? The same questions can be asked for gender roles. And the same questions for abilities.
Most people agree to take personal identity as a very serious issue when it’s related to what are effectively immutable characteristics. There’s agreement about that among people who are deeply concerned or affected by the interplay between how other people treat them and the way that they see themselves. This goes for some people (by no means most) whose skin happens to be black, brown, yellow, red or white.
One of the requisite features of taking personal identity seriously is that people are certain about the categories in which they have placed themselves and others. So someone may be certain that they’re a cisgender heterosexual. They may also be certain that they’re a white person. At the same time, they can be certain that those categories are making reference to things that are real and also inherently the same in other people.
People who take race seriously are called “race realists”. Race realism is a phenomenon that crosses the political spectrum. What does it mean for race to be a real thing? In the U.S. it means that skin color and to a lesser extent, other physical characteristics are exactly shared by categories of people that are assumed to share groups of ancestors which vaguely group together in an exclusive fashion. So, someone whose father’s ancestors are assumed to be from Macedonia (only during the centuries when Macedonia existed) and whose mother’s ancestors were assumed to be from Haiti, would be likely categorized as African-American.
White supremacists are among the most notorious exemplars of race realism. It is the foundational assumption of their entire ideology. All white supremacists, especially Nazis accept the idea that race is a real thing. The reason that accepting the idea of race as a real category is also something that happens to be an obstacle to the mitigation of hate groups, is that insofar as race is seen as a natural and material thing, it will be seen as innate and immutable. Now, race realism happens to be a factual error, but many people do not recognize that it is one. If race can be seen as it is; as cultural phenomena, then the way that people treat each other suddenly becomes much more rationally relevant. This is important to recognize as we turn our attention towards considering modes of sociopolitical action for addressing the problem of the proliferation of white supremacists.
Suppose there was a Nazi rally with a hundred Nazis in attendance. If in the aftermath, there were a dozen articles written about the rally, how would the Nazis feel about the rally and its subsequent publicity? It’s worth some deliberation. What were the potential goals for the Nazis that organized the rally, let’s say in a park at night? Is it reasonable to assume that if it gets written up a dozen times, they chalk the rally up as a loss? No, of course, not.
If Nazis show up in the news, it heightens their visibility. This has the dual effect of causing fear in populations of people who Nazis hate as well as an opportunity for them to propagandize or collaborate with other factions or individuals who otherwise might not be aware of their presence. When people are afraid, they will manifest it in varying ways. One manifestation is heightened paranoia about the presence of Nazis. Of all the white nationalists and supremacists in the U.S., the largest estimates are a few hundred thousand or about 0.1% of the population. In reality, the number is likely to be a fraction of that. Nevertheless, the publicity that they receive heightens the fear and awareness of them. This leads groups that are relatively vulnerable, to be suspicious of people who are not Nazis. This also amounts to a reduction in people’s capacity to cooperate with each other.
Humans naturally seek patterns to recognize and during heightened states of fear, this behavior becomes more pronounced, producing an effect called apophenia. Basically, this means seeing patterns that aren’t there. So, with digital and social media, that can work its way into the general population, not just activist circles. The other obvious manifestation that people exhibit is that they turn to anger as a means of combating fear. In this way, the apophenia and extra sensitivity to perceptions of malicious racism turns into hostility and violence against people who don’t deserve it. Think about some of the videos of conflicts between students and staff on university campuses. A good conscience would allow society to acknowledge and address this phenomenon without a blanket agreement with either side.
All of these facts come amidst a context of very serious and disproportionate violence from a litany of racists, homophobes, transphobes, and misogynists—and a history of it to boot. Far be it from anyone, any intention to brush that aside. There are plenty of horror stories to illustrate that point and are readily available online. The man in Washington state that murdered two people for attempting to intervene in his racist soapboxing in public transit comes to mind. The terrorist who shot up the holocaust museum in 2009 also can be recollected from recent memory. The terrorist who attempted to bomb the MLK march in 2011 is also easy to recall. The list goes on.
One needn’t be a pacifist, it’s worth remarking. Belief in self-defense, details permitting, is very rational. It’s also rational to believe that it’s ethical to come to the immediate defense of others. There needn’t be a principled opposition to punching Nazis per se, there just isn’t a good reason to think that punching Nazis produces the effect of their ideology going away and that’s kind of the point. It doesn’t lower their recruitment. Neither does publicly debating them. Maybe nothing does that completely, but there is something to be said for dialog. There are individual exceptions that can change their views more easily. As a strategy, it makes sense to try to seed their social circles with people who can persuade them to change their minds. It’s undeniable that creating a situation where it’s socially acceptable for a Nazi to become a non-Nazi is preferable to deciding that it’s always a lost cause to be open to dialog.
No one should give them a platform, but once they have one, the worst thing that can happen is for them to exploit the publicity of the public spectacle. By spinning the narrative, they can use the publicity of a spectacle to recruit conservatives who are on the fence. In fact, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for years, but before the digital age took off and before highly publicized street fights were all over the media, they were almost completely fragmented, as far as their organizations were concerned. White nationalists were down to next to nothing and now they influence national politics again. So, it feels right to make a street fight with a Nazi or to at least show public opposition, but the problem is that this gives them photo ops and press that they can manipulate as a recruitment tool.
On the other end, young people see Antifa in a light that’s glamorized. That can be said without being opposed to being prepared to fight and defend yourself or others. Which again, is perfectly reasonable to practice. But anyone who thinks that fighting people in the street is something that’s praiseworthy has either never been in a fight; isn’t the best judge of what’s good for themselves, or doesn’t really care about their friends or political allies. The shame is that somehow nobody who’s old enough to know better wants to point out that these young people who have their hearts in the right place, are mostly putting their asses on the line completely unnecessarily. They’re putting themselves in dangerous situations where they can get seriously maimed, killed or in some cases, imprisoned. These are kids who could go on to do a lot more than get into publicized street fights. Anyone who has a dedicated conscience shouldn’t want to encourage that kind of action. The psychology of human behavior suggests that people will emotionally push back on this point due to what’s called the “backfire effect”, but if there isn’t a rational or empirically-based rebuttal to this, it’s fair to assume that the point stands. It does make sense.
It’s understood that Nazis commit violence whether or not there are street fights, but the point is to lessen their numbers. That can be reasonably achieved by a strategy of reducing their capacity to recruit. That’s done by employing a tactic of being more appealing to the same vulnerable populations that they are trying to draw in. That’s also done by a tactic of understanding and exposing the inaccuracy of their propaganda which is predicated on concepts of immutable race and gender. They exploit young kids (often poor, abused or neglected) who are looking for communities that welcome them. They want to belong. If we make young people ashamed of saying the wrong things or liking the wrong music or tv shows or whatever, there’s always a community that’s looking to tell them that they’re the victim. And that’s a tough pill to swallow because many of the critiques of popular culture are salient, poignant, and most of the arguments are good. The practice of pushing people out and away because of their repeating bigotted propaganda makes sense sometimes and some people are completely unreachable. At the same time, there have been people who could barely conceal their racism who also voluntarily and freely gave their time and energy to build houses for charity both at home and abroad. So, something is to be said for being patient with people and realizing that what people put out on the surface isn’t always the whole story.
Cultural concerns are most appropriately studied with anthropological research methods. In field research, anthropologists engage in a practice called “participant observation”. Part of the work is immersion in a culture and rapport-building. It’s through these practices that the scientist gains an understanding of the cultural values of an out-group. This is the kind of work that people who are concerned about society, should be doing across the political spectrum right now. It’s only through a degree of epistemic humility (accepting the fact of not knowing everything) and genuine curiosity that we will mitigate the political disaster that our society is facing right now.