Identity Politics (Sam Harris is Wrong, Part 5)

In one notorious podcast episode, Sam Harris discussed identity politics with the very socially progressive Ezra Klein. Ezra made unsurprising appeal to consequences arguments, but what I want to talk about is one specific thing he said. He accused Sam of supporting an identity of his own, a reactionary identity of those marginalized by social justice.

I don’t think that Ezra is correct. It’s not so much true that Sam has an identity. It’s more accurate to say that he can’t.

Sam is a straight white male, the most hated identity (where he lives). Taking “pride” in any of those things is strongly associated with wackoes. Sam is willing to skirt the edge of the Overton window, but he’s not willing to burn it down. To criticize identity politics is the easiest thing to do, because it requires no action from him.

What identity trait does Sam even have, on the part of which he’d be allowed to advocate without being called a total troglodyte? The closest things would be his ethnic origins; you are sort of allowed to take pride in the fact that you’re a Jew (be gentle on me here, I’m actually not trying to be offensive). Maybe, when he criticizes tribalism, it’s not a stretch to read Sam as saying, “I feel no pressure to take certain views because of my Jewishness.” If that’s what he means, it’s to his credit. He doesn’t.

Here is the world Sam claims to want: He says that the only identity a person should claim is (A) human, and (B) fake identities for fun, like “Yankees fan” or “comic lover.”

To me, that seems shallow to the point of undesirable. Virtually all people want a fundamental human emotion, pride, in who they are and where they are from. The most defensible pride is pride in one’s culture. Does Harris’s vision accommodate that? If not, it is missing something deep.

To be fair to him, when he claims that your only identity should be “football team fan,” I take it he’s largely making a rhetorical argument. He’s claiming that it’s wrong to say “My identify is X, therefore Y is true.” And that is indubitably correct. But here’s where his larger philosophy leads him astray: the reality is that truth claims are not the only type of claim. When I say, “go walk the dog,” it is not a truth claim, it is an instruction for action.

When people invoke their identity, it is often not intended as a truth claim, but instead a strategy claim, “Our identity is X, therefore we should cooperate to do Y, because it is in the interest of X.” The question is of approach, not philosophy.

Sam is pointing at groups and telling them not to be tribal, and he is never going to win that fight. Ever. Barring some techno utopian future, people like him are an exception to evolved instincts. Therefore, Harris is not dealing with the pragmatic reality of the world as it is. It’s a philosophical rather than realistic exercise, to point at human nature and say, “I wish it were’t so,” as if he wasn’t the first person to do that.

You may have seen this chart of racial identification across different political groups:

The interesting thing is that no group is truly anti-tribal. The outlier are the leftist whites, but they aren’t anti-tribal; their “identity group” is a construct, the identity of “the oppressed.”

But ok, other people are tribal, does it follow that you should be tribal?

Well, tribalism clouds your thinking, so I’m not going to advise it to anyone personally. But that’s a cop out answer. If we take an anthropological perspective, we realize this is a game theory question:

game theory tribalism.png
(GRAPH A) What does the most pragmatic and self-interested group choose in the end?

This is a perpetual prisoner’s dilemma game, but what the graph doesn’t show is that each player is not one person but millions of decision makers. There is no leader to say, “I promise to pick cooperate next time.” Though the best strategy in the long run should be cooperate, it can spiral out of control.

This is the game where one player is completely dominant:

tribalism situation b1.png
Ironically, this may lead to less tribalism, because one group is so dominant that they have the luxury of not needing to worry about maintaining power.

The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats think we’re on the top tile, and Republicans think we’re on the bottom tile. The truth is that we aren’t on either tile. We’re on the previous graph, (Graph A).

In this video, the Distributist argues that tribalism is the inevitable result of democratic systems. Democracy reduces power to a head count, and therefore the most viable strategy is to group people into factions based on shared characteristics. Each person is no longer an individual, but a carrier of their traits (gay, black, christian, middle class, etc.) that can be allocated to advocacy groups.

From there, the gains from their advocacy may not even go directly to the trait-havers themselves, but instead, political wins are funneled into the coffers of powerful organizations tasked with propagating the factionalist ideologies. These organizations evolve like organisms optimizing their genetic fitness. This is an adaptive spoils program.

The only question is: “by what traits” can we group people up? Race? Class? Gender? Geography? All of these, and more, to an extent that each accounts for the extent people differ. Diversity can be exploited, the only question is the amount and type of diversity.

If all people were capable of earning equal income, there would be no politics based on wealth. We would have confidence that the top economists were all working in our best interests, and the only thing we would have to look out for would be corruption. Otherwise, we could leave the economic decisions to them.

Further, if all people were the same sex, there would be no identity politics based on sex; if we were all the same race (Japan, former Britain, etc.), there would be no race-based identity politics, and so on. Another way of saying this is that all politics is identity politics.