From the monthly archives:

December 2019

Intersectionality vs dominant identity politics*

by John Quiggin on December 31, 2019

Shorter JQ: Although the idea of intersectionality emerged on the left as a solution to problems involving class and identity politics, it turns out to the be the natural response to the rise of dominant identity politics on the right.

As I see it, intersectionality combines a recognition that people are oppressed both through the economic structures of capitalism and as members of various subordinate groups with a rejection of both:

* “essentialist” identity politics, based on the claim that some particular aspect of identity (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc) should trump all others; and
* “working class” politics, presented as a politics of universal liberation, but reduced by the failure of revolutionary Marxism to another kind of identity politics (I took this formulation from Don Arthur on Twitter. I had something to say about class and Marxism a while back)

The point about intersectionality is that there many kinds of oppression and injustice, and they interact in complex, more than additive, ways. The resulting political strategy for the left is not so much that of a “rainbow coalition” of distinct identity groups but a kaleidoscope in which different facets come to the fore at different times and places.

Now think about dominant/default identity politics (I’ll use the US/Australian version, but other versions can be obtained just by changing the dominant identity). The key idea, is that well-off, white, Christian men are being oppressed by virtue of challenges to their natural position of dominance, and rejection of their natural expectation of deference.

The central claim is also addressed to white Christian women, particularly married women, who are assumed to identify their interests with those of their families.

Looked at this way, the claims of dominant/default identity politics are the exact opposite of those underlying intersectionality. The more someone deviates from the “typical” American/Australian, the more they are seen as benefiting unfairly from social welfare systems, anti-discrimination policy and so on.

The right (along with much of the centrist commentariat,least until recently) at mostly fails to understand its relationship with intersectionality, in two ways.

First, they mostly don’t recognise their own politics as identity politics, though this is changing. This recognition is welcome for overt white supremacists, but more problematic for those who want to retain the illusion that their movement is based on broad ideological principles.

Second, they miss the point of intersectionality completely, seeing it as just old-style identity politics on steroids. That’s unsurprising, since they never paid much attention to disputes within the left over class and identity politics, and have used “identity politics” as a rhetorical cudgel.

How will all this develop? As white Christians become a minority, the implied political strategy is a combination of political mobilization for rightwing whites and voter suppression for everyone else. If this succeeds, we’ll be well on the path to dictatorship. If it fails, the right will need to expand the notion of acceptable identity, a path proposed, and then abandoned, after their 2012 election defeat.

* As usual from me, amateur analysis, probably unoriginal and possibly wrong. Feel free to point this out in comments.

Time for PhD supervision

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 29, 2019

Some aspects of academia show great international variation. There is one on which I haven’t found any good data, and hence thought I’ll ask the crowd here so that we can gather our own data, even if it will be not very scientifically collected.

The question is this: if you are a university teacher/professor and your department awards PhD-degrees, do you get any official time allocated (or time-compensation) for PhD supervision? If it is part of a teaching load model, how many hours (or % teaching load) is it equivalent to? Or is there an expectation that you take on PhD-students but that this does not lead to a reduction in other tasks?

How do international practices of the conditions for PhD-supervisors compare? [click to continue…]

Tolerance, acceptance, deference, dominance

by John Quiggin on December 27, 2019

Warning: Amateur sociological/political analysis ahead

I’ve been thinking about the various versions of and critiques of identity politics that are around at the moment. In its most general form, identity politics involves (i) a claim that a particular group is not being treated fairly and (ii) a claim that members of that group should place political priority on the demand for fairer treatment. But “fairer” can mean lots of different things. I’m trying to think about this using contrasts between the set of terms in the post title. A lot of this is unoriginal, but I’m hoping I can say something new.

Starting from the left (in more senses than one), tolerance involves the removal of legal barriers to being recognised as a participating member of the community, with legal freedom from persecution, voting rights, property rights and so on. Women, gays, religious minorities and people of colour have all had to struggle to obtain this recognition. But, as has been pointed out many times, mere legal tolerance is demeaning and discriminatory. Identity politics involves a demand not merely for tolerance but for acceptance.

Jumping to the right, the idea of tolerance implies the existence of a dominant group that does the tolerating, either as a result of moral suasion or as a response to political pressure. Moving from tolerance to acceptance implies an erosion of that dominance. It becomes unacceptable for members of the formerly dominant group to express or act on the view that the other group is inferior: such views, once expressed openly without fear of adverse consequences, are now criticised as racist, misogynistic, homophobic.

The most difficult term in the series is deference. In sociology/anthropology, it’s typically used in counterpoint with “dominance”, as the attitude displayed by one submitting to dominance. But in the context of identity politics, I think there’s something more subtle going on.

Members of the formerly dominant group may be willing to extend acceptance to others, but they still expect a kind of deference in return. Most obviously, they expect to be treated as the default identity for the community as a whole, as “typical”, “real”, “true”, Americans, Australians, Finns or whatever.

When that expectation of deference is not fulfilled, the choices are to accept the new situation, or to support what might be called default identity politics. More or less inevitably, that implies an alliance with those who want to reassert or restore the group’s dominant position: racists, theocrats, and so on, depending on which aspect of the dominant identity is being challenged.

That makes default identity politics a “double or nothing” bet. If it’s political successful, it’s dragged further and further towards entrenched minority rule by members of the dominant racial or religous group, and typically towards some form of personal dictatorship. If it’s unsuccessful, the divisions it creates risks a reversal of the previous order. Instead of being accepted as one element of a diverse community, the formerly dominant group becomes the object of hostility and derision. The signs of that are certainly evident, particularly in relation to the culture wars around religion.

Top 3 books of 2019

by Eszter Hargittai on December 22, 2019


I almost never make New Year’s resolutions, but I did in January 2019: read a book a week for 2019. This weekend I finished my reading challenge with Jose Antonio Vargas’s Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (I recommend it!). While book reading has always been a part of my life, as an academic who reads a lot for work (mostly in journal article form), book reading for fun hasn’t always fit in. I wanted it to be more prominent in my everydays and I’m glad that I achieved that. I only counted books that I read from cover to cover, there are certainly others I browsed and read parts of, but they didn’t count for my challenge. I included very different genres as my interests are eclectic, but the most prominent was memoirs and biographies (I am not a huge fiction fan so there were only a few of those on my list). Here, I want to share my top three overall favorites; another three that you are unlikely to have heard of, but that I found very much worth reading; three that were the most disappointing; and three art books I enjoyed. While I have an insane “would like to read” list already, I very much welcome your recommendations for 2020 (when I’ll even have a semester of sabbatical in the Fall so I definitely plan to get at least as much reading in).

Overall top 3

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson – A fascinating story told in an incredibly engaging manner about the young woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who led the largest French resistance network during WWII. This book is now among my all-time favorite books.

Educated by Tara Westover – You’ve probably heard of this book, it’s been very popular, and deservedly so. The author was raised in a very religious family in Idaho that did not believe in public education. The family dynamics are insane and intense. It’s often a tougher read than I expected due to the difficulties she faced beyond what you may imagine going in.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond – Based on the author’s sociology dissertation, this is an important story about major housing challenges in poor urban America. The research is first-rate, the writing excellent. (If I want to get academic, I’ll note my one critique: a lack of discussion of what role digital media may have played in people’s lives. The absense of this in the book is jarring to someone like me who studies the use of information technologies. Jeff Lane’s the Digital Street addresses that angle as does the work of Will Marler, a graduate student at Northwestern whose dissertation I am advising, but not specifically about housing challenges. I would have liked to see some of this in Evicted.) An refreshing aspect of the book is that it offers concrete policy recommendations at the end.

Top 3 you probably haven’t heard of
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I’ve been working through David Estlund’s new book, Utopophobia [google books]. His work has changed my thinking in a lot of ways, mostly because I don’t usually think like him. So, when I realized I thought he was right about some things, it kind of spun me round. But in this post I’m going to talk about something else – another topic I’ve been mulling for years and meaning to turn into a paper at some point. The place of whimsy in thought-experiments.

As you know, my flesh is weak, so I’m on Twitter now. Today I meant just to riff on one funny, absurdist-tinged example from Estlund. But he’s got so many and I couldn’t help myself. It’s Lewd-and-Prude all over again, just like in the old days when there were blogs.

The issue is this: whimsy is – well, it’s not an emotion, I don’t suppose. It’s an attitude. More exactly, it’s a mode or manner of being detached. But it’s not a full, nor neutral style of detachment. It’s not the view from nowhere. It’s not action-oriented. But that doesn’t make it pan-observant or unfeeling. It’s perpetually tickled; it’s preferentially attendant to certain things, as opposed to others. (It knows you can’t just tickle yourself. Something else has to do it.)

The concern is that this makes it stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: North Street, near sunset

by Chris Bertram on December 15, 2019

North Street, near sunset

In the wake of our disastrous election result, Geoff Robinson on twitter (@GeoffPolHist) linked to this piece I wrote in April 2013 and which I’d forgotten about. I see John Quiggin is recycling too, so that seems to be way of things round here today.

The 1970s have been in my mind over the past few days, not only for the obvious reason, but also because I visited the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool last weekend. Not only were the seventies the final decade of an electrical-chemical epoch that stretched back to the late nineteenth-century, they were also the time when the sexual and political experimentation of the 1960s and a sense of being part of a cosmopolitan world order became something for the masses, for the working class, and when the old social order started to dissolve. In the experience of many people, the sixties happened in the seventies, as it were.

But my main thoughts, concerning Britain at any rate, have been about social division, and about some oddly paradoxical features of British life before Thatcher. There’s a very real sense in which postwar British society was very sharply divided. On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector. These were two alternate moral universes governed by their own sets of assumptions and inhabited by people with quite different outlooks. Both were powerful disciplinary orders. The working class society had one set of assumptions – welfarist, communitarian, but strongly gendered and somewhat intolerant of sexual “deviance”; middle-class society had another, expressed at public (that is, private) schools through institutions like compulsory Anglican chapel. Inside the private-sector world, at least, there was a powerful sense of resentment towards Labour, expressed in slogans about “managers right to manage” and so on that later found expression in some of the sadism of the Thatcher era towards the working-class communities that were being destroyed. Present too, at least in the more paranoid ramblings of those who contemplated coups against Labour, was the idea that that the parallel socialised order represented a kind of incipient Soviet alternative-in-waiting that might one day swallow them up.
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The Day after Brexit (repost from 2016)

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2019

Now that Brexit is almost certainly going to happen, I’m reposting this piece from late 2016, with some minor corrections, indicated by strike-outs. Feel free to have your say on any aspect of Brexit.

Since the collapse of faith in neoliberalism following the Global Financial Crisis, the political right has been increasingly dominated by tribalism Trumpism. But in most cases, including the US, this has so far amounted to little more than Trilling’s irritable mental gestures. To the extent that there is any policy program, it is little more than crony capitalism. Of all the tribalist Trumpist groups that have achieved political power the only ones that have anything amounting to a political program are the Brexiteers.

The sustainability of tribalism Trumpism as a political force will depend, in large measure, on the perceived success or failure of Brexit. So, what will the day after Brexit (presumably, sometime in March 2019) look like, and more importantly, feel like? I’ll rule out the so-called “soft Brexit” where Britain stays in the EU for all practical purposes, gaining some minor concessions on immigration restrictions. It seems unlikely and would be even more of an anti-climax than the case I want to think about.

It’s easy to imagine a disaster, and maybe that will happen. But suppose everything goes relatively smoothly. That is, Britain leaves the EU and the single market, but gets deals in place that keep trade flowing smoothly, retains visa-free travel for visitors and so on.

What will the day after feel like?

[click to continue…]

40 years on

by Harry on December 11, 2019

Here’s a moving, brief, piece by Paul Cotterill about his dad, who flew over Germany in WWII, loved Eurovision, voted to stay in 1975, and died 40 years ago. It’s lovely.

And it reminded me that the old people in my life (none as old as Paul’s dad would have been, and none would be pleased to be designated old, but they’re older than me, and at this point that’s enough) all voted to stay, and I know that tomorrow they’ll all be voting to prevent a Tory government, and some have been working tirelessly to that end for weeks…well, decades, come to think of it.

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol, early morning

by Chris Bertram on December 8, 2019

watershed

Virtue signalling and vice signalling

by John Quiggin on December 5, 2019

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is not just a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat (unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to <i>tu quoque</i>, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of ccusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote actual virtue over fraudulent signals: rather to argue against virtue and in favour of vice. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

In all of this, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”. The accusation of virtue signalling represents the refusal of vice to pay this tribute.

Ersatz Better Angels?

by John Holbo on December 4, 2019

Thanks for the good comments on yesterday’s post. Today, a brief follow-up. A discerning FB correspondent remarked I should have made the connection with my previous post – from way back in May! O, bad blogger am I – about my so-called ‘steelwool scrub’ fallacy.

These are both real, similar, they overlap, yet seem semi-distinct. Or perhaps the two ways of bringing it out just bring out different aspects of the same process. Hmmm. [click to continue…]

Vavilovian Philosophical Mimicry

by John Holbo on December 3, 2019

It’s been months since I posted! I’ve migrated to twitter. (The flesh is weak – but feel free to follow me!)

I’m going to try to start doing the sane thing. Long posts at CT, like God’s infinite mind intended. Short thoughts on Twitter, like humanity’s mayfly attention span tolerates.

Today I propose a new term in political theory. Vavilovian philosophical mimicry! [click to continue…]