Sam Harris states that Identity Politics are a terrible concept, and we should never be arguing over who we are as groups, but instead over ideas, arguing back and forth with debating partners on the merits and incongruences of one idea over another.
This how our society should be formed, Sam says.
This is indeed a fantastic theory. And from an academic looking down at the world from an increasingly tall Ivory tower, it seems perfectly logical. It IS perfectly logical after all.
But, as with all theories, reality tends to get in the way. Pesky old reality. The very thing Harris loves the most.
Reality, of course, is immensely complex and more like a jagged sheet of steel, than a smooth, round ball, as theories treat the world.
So, how did we get to this hideous place of labelling and categorising humans?
It goes all the way back to the Agricultural Revolution.
The very first human societies were hunter-gatherer tribes; composed of early human beings who lived in small groups, and travelled around gathering food, and hunting animals, in order to survive.
These societies had no land, no concept of object ownership and no written language to speak of.
Then came the agricultural revolution – a dramatic process that led to Homo Sapiens settling down in one place, around the first domesticated crops; wheat, corn etc.
This also led to the domestication of animals – first came the dog, initially used as an ‘alarm system’ to warn humans of incoming ‘threats’ and as human’s natural hunting partners, then came my favourite; goats.
This process of settling down, building communities around pieces of land, and domesticating plants and animals is where the story of today’s Identity Politics begins.
These were the first societies to really form the ideas of ‘ownership’ and ‘categories’.
As these societies grew, the need to organise became a necessary step to manage the different objects humans now ruled over.
We began creating languages and systems to ‘label’ and ‘value’ objects.
It is entirely understandable that this step had profound implications on the way humans learned to think. Over time, our brains started to evolve to think in terms of categories, and labels. ‘This goes here’ ‘This is worth this much’ ‘This symbol signifies this group’. Early accountants have a lot to answer for.
Of course – the next step of such categorisation was the categorisation and labelling of human groups.
While humans have always ‘sized each other up’ and had some aggressive, hierarchical elements to all societies, this blanket creation of ‘groups’ caused by this organisation and labelling system was the step that changed everything, and ultimately, led to the large-scale systems of human and animal oppression we still see to this day.
People today who use ‘identity politics’ and ‘movements’ to further their own goals, are not creating a new system at all – They are using a deeply ingrained aspect of human culture that’s been in existence for thousands of years.
Very early on in the development of ‘states’, social systems were designed that benefited certain groups over others. Caste systems ranked a person’s ‘class’ in society – and therefore what they were ‘worthy’ of receiving, based on skin colour. More recently, legal systems prevented women from entering educational institutions.
HOW were women supposed to get into the academic system in order to be a part of these logical, rational debates without uniting around the idea that women should be allowed into education in the first place?
Of course, this is a major problem. Humans have created a society where we run from one problematic system into another just-as-problematic system.
Now, women are more likely to achieve University degrees than men. A counter argument perhaps needs to be made that it is men who are now being left behind. (Indeed, there is a digital movement that is arguing exactly this, called the ‘Manosphere’).
In order to talk about an issue, the human mind has required we put a label on it. The very system that got us into this mess, is the only way we can get ourselves out of it.
Identity politics today is part of a long, complicated history, and has its roots in evolutionary and cultural systems. These kinds of ancient, ingrained systems are the very hardest to overthrow.
How do we do it? Education? Technology? Do we have to utilise the ultimate logical, rational systems – computers – in order to overcome these old cognitive biases? Where do emotion and personality fit into this new model?
We can, and should, have discussions about the future of the human brain that may well include a post-identity, rational utopia, but for now, we live in the real world, and we still feel the divisions and power imbalances brought about over thousands of years of cultural evolution – For now, we need some way of countering problems, and we’re pretty trapped in the options we have available to us.
Theories are great, but they’re not solutions.