Progressives are having a difficult time justifying the Yale protests, as well as similar events such as the Black Lives Matter interruption of Bernie Sanders and the Baltimore Uprising. These “social justice warrior (SJW)” movements often lack overarching consistency and intelligible discourse, and so it is difficult to academically rationalize them. The consequence of this difficulty appears to be a split in the Left’s support. However, I think the Yale protests represent two mutual forces in progressive politics: identity politics and emotional suffrage.
The Yale moment provides damning evidence for the follies of identity politics. Such politics have been a staple of American liberals since the formation of the New Left in the 60s, to the dismay of Marxian Old Leftists. Identity politics fails because it assumes a static world of categories, and thus doesn’t attempt to liberate people from their identities. It refuses to acknowledge how identities have been shaped by capitalism’s elites, rather than being innate features of the human condition. As such, identity politics aims to elevate different groups to the level of their oppressors, ultimately establishing a world of inward-looking and alienated groups that shield themselves from any traces of discourse, criticism, and civility. Marxists and humanists however, see identity as arbitrary, constructed, and thus, irrelevant. Although they will passionately engage with the emancipation efforts of various perceived groups, these struggles are only on the sidelines. Materialist concerns – class, poverty, and even the concrete goal to attain full citizenship for Africa-Americans – remain central. To Marx, labor is the source of value for everything, and identity politics violates this by placing value on what one is perceived to be rather than what one actually does. While white males dominate the world, the oppressive framework is not the “white male power structure.” To socialists, oppression comes from the capitalist power structure, through which racism, sexism, bigotry, and yes, identity, arises. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that issues such as racism and sexism are secondary to economics, but that these forms of oppression are themselves forms of class struggles. Therefore, we shouldn’t compartmentalize various kinds of oppressions, but treat them as part of a cohesive unjust system. The difficulties of identity however, are not completely lost to the New Left, and so they fill the void with intersectionality theory. But, I believe we will soon realize that the problems of identity will not go away just because we further specify them.
Yale’s protests illustrate these problems in major ways. First, the protests demonstrate the twisted bargaining incentives of a politics based on identity. An identity group primarily cares for itself, and so it makes radical claims that best attain its narrow goals. The ends is to equalize groups, and the means to get there is not important. The consequence is that these groups can make inconsistent demands. For instance, Yale’s protesters demand administrative policing of student costumes since it aids their goals to end a racist culture, but simultaneously oppose actual policing as oppressive. Granted, police brutality has been harmful, but you would think that a community well-experienced with violations of civil liberties would be hesitant to extend the reaches of another official body into daily lives; as one Yale instructor noted, it is odd that the protesters at Yale decided to project their anger at administrators rather than at the racist fraternity itself. But such is not the case, because when administrators enforce political correctness, it becomes the will of the SJWs – the in-group – that are forced. This is not to say that bullying and oppression is protected under the guise of “free expression,” and thus free from official control, but that not all offensive acts should be considered bullying. And while cultural change requires top-down management, we must be careful not violate our right, although surely immoral, to be racist (in my opinion, Yale’s original email represents a valid approach to official management, while the extra provisions the protesters call for do not).
Second, the Yale protests show how identity politics highlights in-group/out-group distinctions. To SJWs, Leftist critiques no longer exists; all that remains is an “us vs. them” mentality. If you are not an ally, which is to say a non-judgmental and silent partner, then you are the enemy. Consider the video of Nicholas Christakis, which shows how he personally sympathizes with the views of the protesters; like them, he considers cultural appropriation immoral. Likewise, his wife’s email only sought to question the authority of the administration, not to challenge the obvious bigotry of racist costumes. I would imagine both of them share similar views, if not methods, with most progressives. However, since they do not adhere 100% to the beliefs of the protesters, they are cast as conservative bigots. But not even Marxism should gets a pass from emphasizing in-group identity, and when French Marxists began to do so, Marx declared, “I am not a Marxist.”
In some ways, identity politics wants everyone to be their mother: compassionate and irrationally supportive, tirelessly working to create a safe home. However, socialists see their comrades as siblings: on their side, but willing to kick their butts if they are being stupid. Leftism ought not to adopt the symbol of mothering “safe spaces” or the language of “solidarity” and “allies,” because such tactics presumes that our support of movements is only in name. In reality, at least to socialists, fighting oppression always helps us, no matter where that fight is held. There are no such things as allies. Only soldiers. To quote the aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
That being said, I do not think we should dismiss Yale’s SJWs. These movements are emotionally-charged, which you should know if you saw the confrontational Yale footage. As such, they represent a justified symptom of a corrupt system. They are irrational and emotional reactions to an oppressive environment, and they should be approached with sympathy, not intellectualization. It is akin to how one ought not to punch someone who insults her dying mother since it would lead to escalation, but it is still understandable if one does. Or I’m sure many of you have dealt with a frustrated friend, in which even though both you and your friend knew you were right, you still found it prudent not to bring it up.
Perhaps the emotional explanation not only underlies the SJW movements of the past few years, but of identity politics as a whole. After all, the 60s was characterized by a disillusioned Left vis-à-vis Stalinism. It appeared that the “rational” method for emancipation that socialism promised has turned into oppressive authoritarianism. Therefore, if intellectual progressivism doesn’t work, then fuck it, let’s yell and scream since that is all we have left. But while the reaction of marginalized groups are not only justified, but expected, they do not offer a practical way to achieve freedom. We would be wise to remember that ending oppression is not the only goal, because equally important is how we do it.