Readings — From the September 1993 issue

The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity

Adapted from “From Universality to Difference: Notes on the Fragmentation of the Idea of the Left.” Originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Contention: Debates in Society, Culture, and Science, a journal published by Indiana University Press.

The continuing dispute over “political correctness” in the academy is, in significant part, the consequence of a transformation in the core idea of the left: the weakening, even breakdown, of the ideals of a common humanity that have animated it for more than two centuries. Some, though not all, of the right’s attacks are disingenuous. For example, we hear much from the right about the dangerous “politicization” of English and women’s studies, but no complaint when it comes to economics or business. But this shouldn’t obscure a troubling irony: the right, traditionally the custodian of the privileges of the few, now speaks in an apparently general language of merit, reason, individual rights, and virtue that transcends politics, whereas much of the left is so preoccupied with debunking generalizations and affirming the differences among groups–real as they often are–that it has ceded the very language of universality that is its birthright.

Instead, the left in recent years has had trouble going beyond what has come to be called “identity politics”–a politics that is rooted more in group self-assertion than in attempts to create broad alliances. Of course, oppressed groups must always struggle to overcome their second-class status; equality demands no less. But what began in the late 1960s as an assertion of dignity by various groups, a remedy for exclusion and denigration and a demand by the voiceless for representation, has developed its own habits and methods of silencing. At the extreme, in the academy but also outside it, standards and traditions are now viewed as nothing more than camouflage for particular interests. Many a dispute is premised on the idea that there is a fundamental difference between X (women, say, or people of color) and Y (white males); that X has been oppressed or silenced by Y and should therefore be hired, promoted, and specially represented on reading lists and at conferences.

The precursors of today’s advocates of identity politics were those scholars who, in the 1960s, were active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements-movements predicated on the universal values of equality, justice, and peace. These political campaigns and their underlying universalist assumptions shaped the work of these scholars in the early 1970s–making women’s history and literature legitimate, bolstering labor studies, rethinking slavery and the slaughter of the Indians, opening up the canon to hitherto silenced traditions. But unlike this generation of professors, most of today’s young academics had no political experience in mass movements for general change and, for that matter, no contact with a successful left-of-center Democratic Party. For them, fighting over appropriate language, symbolic representation (whether in the syllabus, curriculum, or faculty), affirmative action, or even musical styles is an end in itself, the principal way of claiming their politics. These post-Sixties radicals found universalism empty or–worse–a cover for white, straight, male power.

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