What is identity politics? An empirical investigation

Every time I see people making disparaging remarks about “identity politics”, I wonder what that means. It sounds like a meaningless buzzterm, like “political correctness”. It sounds like an attack on any minority groups that dare to politically advocate for themselves.

But where did the term originate? How did it become popular? Which minority groups is it directed at? Has its use changed over time? Here I perform an empirical investigation using Google.

A line plot of the popularity of search terms over time.

Source: Google trends. This tracks the popularity of search terms over time.

As can be seen from above, the term “identity politics” has been around for a long time. I looked as far back as Google trends allows (back to 2004), and it’s still there. However, there was a big spike in popularity in November 2016–the month that Trump was elected. There’s also a broad hump around January-February 2017, and a more recent spike in August 2017. I will investigate each of these time periods by sampling from time-constrained google searches.

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Nazi punchers don’t need permission

Ever since some guy was recorded punching Richard Spencer in the face, there’s been a public conversation about whether it’s appropriate to punch Nazis.  From the start, what seemed odd to me about this conversation is how abstract it is.  The vast majority of people who are in favor of punching Nazis are not literally going out there and punching Nazis.  And now that we’re seeing literal Nazi demonstrations, I believe we will discover that it’s not for lack of opportunity.  I’m left wondering what exactly the argument is about.

If I said I advocated punching Nazis, I would feel disingenuous, given that I’m not actually doing it.  There is an alt-right rally in Berkeley tomorrow, just a few blocks from here, and I did not have any plans to punch anyone.  As for other people, they’re going to punch Nazis or not punch Nazis regardless of what I say about it.  They don’t need my permission.

I think the argument is basically about whether we should offer moral support for Nazi punchers.  So here are my thoughts on that.

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Not all activism must be top priority

In many varieties of activism, there’s a drive to argue that our cause is the most important thing in the world, or at least somewhere up there among the top priorities.

For example, in atheism, there has long been the notion that religion is the “root of all evil” or that it “poisons everything”. I think most people who say that are being hyperbolic, although it’s hard to say to what degree. Certainly, there is a conscious attempt to assign religion more blame for the evils of the world.

In some socialist/communist/Marxist circles, it is argued that class struggle is the root of all oppression, including the oppression of women and ethnic minorities. And sometimes it is argued that much of feminism is pointless because all it fights for is for more women to become part of the ruling class.

There are also some feminists who have tried to interpret everything through the lens of feminism, for instance blaming homophobia and transphobia on the patriarchy. Gender critical feminists (aka TERFs) demonstrate an extreme version of this thinking; they argue that trans people’s problems will go away once we abolish gender.

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Random Charlottesville stuff

I am not a news reporter, and I am assuming readers are already familiar with the general course of events.

You may have heard that Donald Trump failed to condemn Nazis in his speech on Saturday. I saw on Last Week Tonight that it was worse than that.

Reporters were actively shouting at him to make a statement condemning White supremacists. He goes to the podium as if to respond, but then says something unrelated.

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Disagreeing with HJ here

HJ Hornbeck has a post titled Watch Your Language, criticizing Laci Green for a series of tweets on Trump’s ban on trans people in the military.  I have numerous disagreements with HJ’s post, and it feels too long to leave as a comment.  On the other hand, this is a bit arcane, so I don’t actually recommend people read this unless they’re especially interested in the topic.

TL;DR: It is reasonable to call trans discrimination gender discrimination (as opposed to gender identity discrimination).

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Trump’s past light cone

When Trump was elected, and for many months following, people kept on talking about why he was elected. What caused it? This conversation irritates me deeply, because people lack a base-level understanding of what causation is. But I’ve waited to say anything because I thought it might be too crass to insert a philosophical discussion into a political one, at least while it was still hot.

Cause and effect is often thought to be a fundamental part of the way the world works, but I and other physicists understand that it is not. For a brief explanation, I recommend this video by Sean Carroll. It is better to think of causality as an emergent property, more in the realm of philosophy than physics.

What does physics have to say about the cause of Trump’s election? It’s everything in Trump’s past lightcone! It was the DNC, it was Clinton, it was Comey, it was Russia, it was neoliberalism, it was identity politics, it was ancient supernovae. This answer is rather naive, but what did you expect from us? Physics can’t provide all the answers.

When we talk about causes, we’re typically just selecting a few things from the past lightcone, and highlighting those things as important. In philosophy, this is known as causal selection. Sean Carroll talks a little bit about causal selection. He says that one way of thinking about it is that a cause is something that has great leverage over the future. But that’s just one way we might think about it.

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Dawkins being “deplatformed”

I will only make a brief comment on this, because I don’t think it is really worth more than that.

In Berkeley, where I live, Richard Dawkins was invited to give a talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.  The sponsors of his talk, KPFA, a progressive radio station, decided to cancel the talk because of “abusive speech” by Richard Dawkins.  This story has hit some of those frozen peach buttons, with Jerry Coyne declaring it “a terrible blow for free speech”.

The one and only time I ever saw Dawkins speak was at the very same venue, talking about another book he wrote, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  Obviously, the KPFA, being the sponsors of the talk, has a right to cancel their own talk.  In fact, it would practically be a violation of KPFA’s free speech, if they were forced to sponsor a talk from someone they didn’t like.  Also, doesn’t sponsoring talks cost them money or something?

People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech.  If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?