Should identity politics dictate beliefs?

As published in Daily Maverick

Arguments with self-described liberals, feminists and various other sorts of people were part of the motivation for my column last week, in which I argued that it’s always illegitimate to dismiss an argument simply because it’s expressed by someone you regard as speaking from privilege. In summary, the person whose view you’re dismissing might be simultaneously privileged as well as correct.

The other side of this particular coin involves the labels we ascribe to ourselves. While people sometimes preface claims and opinions with formulations like “as a liberal, …”, I wonder whether that’s typical or whether we instead believe the things we do regardless of (or even, despite) those labels. Jonathan Haidt’s provocative (albeit not entirely convincing) paper “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (pdf) makes the case for (moral) reasoning always being after-the-fact justification for something we already believe, rather than an account of why we believe that thing. For political labels, I worry that we have the causal relationship back-to-front in a similar sort of way.

Namely, that instead of using a label like “liberal” to describe or summarise our general stance, the label ends up dictating the positions we feel we should take. Instead of thinking about and debating each issue on its merits, we instead assume that the one corresponding to our label is the correct one.

If there’s something to this, then just as it would be wrong to dismiss someone else’s argument because of their privilege, it would surely also be wrong to take up a position simply because a group you identify with tends to hold that position. To put it more simply: Whatever ideology or political stance you have should really be a general description of how you view a certain political or epistemic terrain, rather than a set of instructions for how to interpret the evidence. The evidence can speak for itself, and we might simply corrupt it when ideology intrudes on interpretation.

On this view, it would be wrong to say “as a liberal, I think that x should be the case”. Instead, we’d say things like “I believe that x should be the case, and it’s therefore somewhat accurate to describe me as a liberal”. Because if you think liberalism superior to some other political stance, your primary reason should be that you think liberalism gets certain positions right where other views do not.

In other words, liberalism is a summary term for someone who holds certain positions. If we instead start treating liberalism as a binding set of instructions for how we should make up our minds and which positions we should hold, we’re handing some of the responsibility for thinking about things over to dictionaries, spin-doctors and sometimes hysterical media, all of whom play a part in re-defining how these words are deployed in our various debates.

The essential problem is that the perspective we tend to hold or usually hold isn’t guaranteed to be the best one on every issue. It’s partly because some positions borrow or inherit virtue that they can get away with bestowing the impression of respectability on a claim. Saying “as a patriot, I believe that South Africans should care about the country’s image abroad” gets you part of the way to persuading, because who would want to sound unpatriotic by interrogating you? What you might have gone on to say could have been utter nonsense – but we won’t ask, and you won’t need to tell.

As much as it is oversimplification to say “as a liberal, I believe that free speech trumps dignity”, it’s nevertheless one of those useful oversimplifications, where the reasons for its evolution are perfectly sensible (clichés and stereotypes are sometimes entirely accurate, after all). These devices are timesavers, and also help save us from having to constantly repeat old arguments. But just as it’s only a signal for caution rather than a disqualification when someone who is privileged expresses views on poverty, or when a wealthy Republican male expresses views on women’s rights, we should also be cautious of justifying our political views via these labels. It’s not wrong, but it can be lazy – and eventually, make us more prone to error.

Not only do we save time with these devices, but they also help give us something to say and a way of making our interventions sound more authoritative. As I’ve argued in the past, the urge to have something to say can be part of the problem, because we forget that not only is agnosticism okay – it’s often the most rational position. You’re not forced to have an opinion, and forming one can be the first in a chain of errors.

Reclaiming intellectual humility is essential for re-invigorating public debate, whether on nationalisation or on Nkandla. This doesn’t mean that we can’t hold strong convictions. But whether you’re a liberal or whatever else, it’s the argument and not the label that should change our minds. In other words, I’m speaking of the possibility that we might sometimes forget the difference between the convictions we hold strongly for good reasons, and those we hold strongly mostly because, well, we and others “like us”… hold them strongly.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.