Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Identity Politics and Oppression

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In her article, “It’s Time for Libertarians to Embrace Identity Politics,” Gina Luttrell received a lot of negative feedback for tackling the issues of group identity and oppression. I would like to give my take on why libertarians refuse to embrace these issues. Like Luttrell, I think the common libertarian response of denying the existence of oppression by simply asserting the primacy of individualism is troubling. The fact is that people do adopt group identities based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation through a combination of individual choice, societal pressure, and biological and environmental factors. As Gina asserted, women, people of color, poor people, and LGBTQ people face many disadvantages based on their group identities. In my experience, when libertarians reject this claim it is often because they emphatically take issue with the highly stigmatized terms “identity politics” and “oppression.” I think the salience of these terms is obscured by two damaging preconceptions: 1) the association of oppression with collectivism and 2) the association of identity politics with the typical underhanded Democratic pandering towards key voting demographics. I think these ideas can and should be disassociated. Such conflations cause some libertarians to reject identity politics because they reject the legitimacy of oppression while others refuse to recognize oppression because they reject the legitimacy of identity politics.

Let’s start with the first misconception: that oppression is inherently collectivist. Many libertarians think people like feminists who raise awareness about oppression pit groups of people against each other when in fact their goal is to alleviate group antagonism in order to uphold the autonomy of the individual. Saying, “Hey, don’t you hate that the government and society curtail your individuality by pressuring you to conform to a definition of womanhood that isn’t your own? Don’t you hate that your gender is denied many of the opportunities afforded to men? We do too and we’re trying to figure out how to change that,” is not collectivist; it’s individualist. I really think it’s that simple.

When it comes to libertarian distaste for identity politics, I think the issue boils down to the ethics of marketing. It seems plausible that more targeted marketing could help close the gender gap, yet many libertarians seem to reject such a pragmatic approach. I would hazard a guess that to many libertarians, marketing still has a negative connotation when it pertains to selling ideas instead of products. For example, in a discussion about closing the libertarian gender gap, a young man recently asked me, “Are we supposed to pander to women or not?” The phrasing of his question betrays how some libertarians view marketing. Due to our enormous respect for logic and reasoning, we often view emotional and personal appeals as below us. We think we are being more high-minded than the two major parties by selling our ideas straight. However, our loftiness comes at a high price. Currently, it takes a lot of mental stamina and a bit of intellectual masochism to become a libertarian. One has to unflinchingly disseminate all of one’s preconceptions and discard most of them in a very counter-intuitive process that the vast majority of people don’t have the time, energy, or desire to undertake. We need to make our ideas more accessible. We need to realize that logical arguments and emotional and personal appeals are not mutually exclusive. We need to stop affiliating appeals to emotion and group identity with the underhanded tricks employed by Democrats and Republicans and instead, embrace them as our own. We shouldn’t cast aside the power of persuasion from our toolbox simply because it is exploited by others to promote bad ideas. That would be like denying citizens the right to own firearms because law enforcement officials and criminals often abuse them to promote violence. Such exploitation demonstrates precisely why it is so important that we embrace such tools if they prove effective.

In summation, emotional and personal appeals don’t necessarily detract from logical purity; they can strengthen a logical argument. Similarly, appeals to group identity don’t necessarily detract from individualist principles. Such appeals aren’t just consistent with libertarianism; our principles demand that we adopt them.