Feature 12.21.2019 20 minutes

The Tribal Morality of Identity Politics


Thinkers Are Not The Same As Thoughts.

“From tiny experiences we build cathedrals,” Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk once observed. The same might be said of our feelings. One such feeling is the pain of rejection by a social group to which we want to belong. We are prepared to endure all kinds of tribulations and humiliations in order to be accepted as a member, whether by college fraternities, faculty lounges, country clubs, or “identity” groups.

Belonging is a primary need. Human beings evolved in groups or “tribes.” Belonging to a tribe was about survival. Tribes ensured the survival of their members by the care members provided for each other and by the ways in which different tribes defended themselves from one another. Being exiled could be a death sentence.

Amidst what is widely recognized as an epidemic of loneliness, the need to belong has, if anything, intensified. And it is running headlong into two trends that have made our social environment particularly noxious. The first is the increasingly stringent and unsettling purity tests being applied by our cultural arbiters—the people author Jonathan Rauch labeled “kindly inquisitors.” The second is the way in which identity politics has increasingly come to dominate political, professional, and social life.

The result is a social environment that is absurd to those seeing it from outside, surreal to those experiencing it firsthand, terrifying to those who suffer its abuses, and profoundly damaging to fostering genuine acceptance, inclusion, dialogue, and even simple decency in society.

Tribal Morality

Every society, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained in a 2017 article in the Atlantic, “makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good.” We all have an innate sense that violating something sacred is taboo and morally pollutes the transgressor.

The “language of stain and purity, of transgression and innocence,” as Joshua Mitchell contends, may be Christian language, but the human brain evolved for tribal warfare, and tribal thinking includes dividing the world into “us” and “them”: the morally clean and the morally unclean. We keep our distance from “them” because moral contamination operates like physical contamination. Contact with or even proximity to something or someone who is morally contaminated renders a person morally polluted. The morally polluted must either be purified or banished.

This concept of moral pollution operates on a deep emotional level, provoking emotions like disgust in the presence of—or even when thinking about—the morally contaminated. Children of various backgrounds and religions practice dividing the world into the clean and the unclean. This is evident when, for instance, they play games involving “cooties.” The accused child is contagious. Anyone who touches that child “catches cooties” and becomes polluted, and anyone who touches the newly polluted also becomes polluted. In this way, children enact their innate understanding of moral contagion while rehearsing the cruelty they will use as adults when called upon to purge their tribe of impurity.

When Vice President Joe Biden was a senator, he and Senator John McCain were told by members of their respective “tribes” not to sit with one another. Senator Cory Booker was “pilloried” (as he put it) for hugging Senator McCain after the elder Senator’s cancer diagnosis. And more recently, Ellen DeGeneres was lambasted for socializing with former President George W. Bush.

“When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean be kind to the people who think the same way you do,” she replied to her critics, “I mean be kind to everyone.” In response, Sarah Jones, a staff writer for NY Magazine, penned an article titled, “Nobody Should Be Friends With George W. Bush.”

In a period of heightened sensitivity to moral pollution, ideologically dogmatic microcultures have developed. These are defined by politics, but also by “affinity” or “identity,” and are marked by an unwillingness to engage in dialogue across ideological lines. This stems from a desire to avoid “normalizing” what is seen as morally repugnant.

The Purity Test

Today, even thoughts can be contaminated by proximity to something unclean. If an idea is embraced by someone we see as morally polluted or appears to have anything in common with something we find morally objectionable, we have difficulty embracing it, regardless of whether it might otherwise seem reasonable.

The mere proximity to morally polluted people or ideas can provoke powerful moral emotions like disgust. Disgust is meant to keep us safe from dangers like infection, poison, and spoiled food. It does not come naturally to give an idea a fair hearing while experiencing emotions that drive us away from that which is contaminated. And when faced with moral pollution, we rely on our emotions for social perception. Doing so not only prevents us from considering the ideas that provoke moral emotions, it makes it impossible for us to formulate coherent arguments.

Consider one especially illustrative example. In 2017, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis Tennessee, published an essay in the feminist journal Hypatia titled, In Defense of Transracialism. In it, she examined the identity claims made by Rachel Dolezal, the woman who identified as black although she was not of African descent, and Caitlin Jenner, who had announced that she identified as a woman less than two years earlier. Tuvel contended that “considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism,” while observing that “criticisms of Dolezal for misrepresenting her birth race indicate a widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex.”

Shortly after the essay’s publication, Tuvel was the target of an open letter of condemnation. Her paper, the letter claimed, had caused “many harms” (although no specific harms were enumerated). The 800-plus signers of the letter called for the article’s retraction.

Kelly Oliver, the professor who had been Tuvel’s dissertation advisor, publicly defended her. In private messages to her and to Tuvel, Oliver wrote in an essay titled, If This is Femimism, “some people commiserated, expressed support, and apologized for what was happening,” and apologized for keeping secret their support for Tuvel. Others “went further and supported Tuvel in private while actually attacking her in public.”

This is a common theme both on and off campus. Steven Pinker has noted on several occasions that with some regularity, professors privately disclose their disagreement with campus orthodoxy, but remain silent or pretend to agree out of fear of negative repercussions for going public. And conservative writer David French frequently hears from Republicans who choose not to speak out when they disagree with President Trump because they are too afraid of what might happen to them if they did.

Moral purification is part of the religious impulse. It might not be Christianity that is taking hold, but adherents to the new religion are, no matter how secular they style themselves to be, twisted heirs to the Puritans.

In order to belong within these monocultures, members face a choice of either becoming true believers or remaining silent. Or they pretend to believe, sometimes even becoming enforcers of doctrines they do not truly hold. Social scientist Timur Kuran calls this misrepresentation under perceived social pressure preference falsification.

Because the majority of dissenters give a false impression of their ideological preferences, no one knows exactly who or how many reject the orthodoxy. This results in what social scientists refer to as the pluralistic illusion, the perception that the majority are believers. As a result, those who disagree come to believe they are alone, a further disincentive to speaking out.

Identity Politics: The Apocalyptic Mindset

Today, an aspect of purity testing involves “common-enemy identity politics,” which Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018). The identification of a common enemy along with an intensifying insistence on tribal purity has led to both an unlikely coalition of “allies” and the ascendance of an apocalyptic mindset. The emerging moral culture seeks deliverance by annihilating heretics and burning down everything they have touched.

A common enemy isn’t hard to find. But what about an identity?

The building blocks of identity are those things with which we identify so closely that they feel to us to be part of who we are. One way of constructing an identity is from social roles like community responsibilities, occupation, and family relationships. (For example, “Little League coach,” “teacher,” “husband,” or “mother.”)

Today, however, particularly on college campuses, identity tends to be constructed from things like ethnic background, sexuality, gender, and even politics. As people increasingly identify strongly enough with their political ideology that it feels like part of who they are, thoughts become more difficult to separate from a sense of self.

In a 2017 column, New York Times journalist Bret Stephens observed that on college campuses, “the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial, or sexual standing of the person making it.” To say, “as a woman of color, I think X,” Stephens noted, “is the baroque way Americans often speak these days.”

This reliance on standpoint epistemology—the theory that knowledge is a function of social position—amounts to replacing individual thought with social identification. And it replaces unique individual thinkers with instances or examples of identity groups. It conflates thought and identity.

An ideological monoculture in which thoughts and thinkers are seen as one and the same creates an inability to see people as individual human beings who can (and should) consider all kinds of ideas. A person of a certain “identity” can (and must) only think certain thoughts.

As a result, when people openly contravene their group’s dogma, it is no longer possible to identify them as part of that group. Hence, entrepreneur Peter Thiel cannot be gay, and for writer Ta-Nahesi Coates, Kanye West, cannot be black.

The conflation of thinking and identity is clearest in a review of Thomas Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society (2010), for the London School of Economics Review of Books. The reviewer, clearly unfamiliar with Sowell, dismissed Sowell’s assertions as “easy for a rich white man to say.” (The phrase was eventually deleted and an apologetic correction issued.) The reviewer just as easily could have written, “no one who says this can be black.”

This is the dark side of belonging. When we belong to something, it owns us. And it can disown us, too.

Relying on the tribal norm that conflates thoughts with identity rather than the civic norm of critical thinking creates an endless feedback loop—a vicious purity circle with an ever-tightening sense of “us” and an ever-widening gap between “us” and “them.”

Closing the Perception Gap

Social scientists at More in Common found a “perception gap” in how partisans view their ideological opponents. Partisans on both sides of the aisle overestimate the distance between their own side’s views and the views of the majority in the opposing party. In other words, people think the extent of extremism on the other side is greater than it is. The more partisan the thinker, the less accurate the understanding of the other side.

Could it be that they need more education or aren’t politically engaged enough? Surprisingly, social scientists find that not only are the politically disengaged the most accurate in their understanding of the other side, education may do more harm than good: “Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education,” they found. And “Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn.”

This lack of understanding creates what psychologists refer to as “affective polarization,” hostile feelings toward people of the opposing political party. Those with the largest perception gap harbor the highest degree of hostility toward people of the opposing political party.

Liberal thinkers with postgraduate degrees suffer from the biggest perception gap. This is likely because they are the most likely to say that most of their friends share their views. This is particularly distressing because nowhere is the need for viewpoint diversity greater than in the Academy. Yet students, faculty, and visiting speakers are targeted for opposing prevailing campus orthodoxy.

The Thinker Is Not the Thought

There is a silver lining. The chasm is one of perception, not reality. Americans are not nearly as far apart in our thinking as we imagine. But whether we want to be politically persuasive or close the perception gap, we must be able to share our ideas and make compelling arguments. And in order to make compelling arguments, we must be capable of convincingly asserting that our conclusion is better than our opponents’ most reasonable, most principled, best case.

In other words, we must be able to think our opponents’ thoughts. But this cannot happen in a moral culture in which holding certain thoughts in one’s mind long enough to construct a compelling argument against them renders the thinker contaminated.

We must instead, learn to treat ideas like objects spread out on a table. We must observe how they interact with each other. We must work to discover which of them contain truths, and ascertain whether they are connected to facts, misunderstandings, or even lies. Nothing can be taken off the table until it has been inspected.

The thinker is not the thoughts. The thoughts are not the thinker. When we are able to fully appreciate the difference, we can engage in debate and dialogue and dialectic; we can use disagreement to discover what is true—together.

Until then, we remain trapped in our separate cathedrals.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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