Sam Harris, Mark Lilla, and Identity Politics


What exactly is the problem with identity politics? Is it an unequivocal negative in our political and intellectual society? Or is it a mode of engagement that serves a positive purpose when kept within its proper bounds?

Recently, famed author, public intellectual and neuroscientist Sam Harris hosted Professor Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal, on his podcast to discuss what both men felt to be the decline of American Liberalism (intellectually as well as politically).

It was a conversation rooted in deep agreement over the failings of modern-Liberalism, such as it has evolved. Both Harris and Lilla seemed to agree that American Liberalism (and/or Progressivism) has ceased to be relevant to many of the voters who once empowered its philosophical platform, has ceased to present a coherent intellectual message that can galvanize the mainstream of American society, and that its decline has opened the door for uniquely regressive forces on the right to come to power.

For each man the decline stemmed from the steady advance of identity politics and its re-coding of the DNA of Liberal politics. This of course is not a new assertion. Intellectuals like Sam Harris as well as Jonathan Haidt, along with popular liberal leaning digital media figures like Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan have fortified the narrative that identity politics—particularly and most ironically on the left—have stifled free speech and are undermining the civic culture of America. Naturally this has been a conservative assertion for some time.

Yet in the midst of this fundamental agreement arose a more nuanced disagreement that pointed to a little asked question, one that is potentially very significant: are identity politics intrinsically negative? Or are they only bad in excess, in particular perhaps when they manifest to the exclusion of larger allegiances to society?

Sam Harris has been clear in his assertion that identity politics has been the major source of the moral confusion of the left in recent times. To Harris, this has yielded a double standard whereby, for instance, liberal feminists will decry apostates from and critics of such radical Islamic culture as allows for the stoning of women for adultery and the broad based repression of women’s rights as bigots and extremists while assailing the prejudice of a conservative Christian culture in America that is far less reactionary (however objectionable to the norms of a socially liberal society one might argue it to be). It has yielded the sort of knee-jerk condemnation that demands, for many people, that two white men like Harris and Lilla speaking critically of the Black Livers Matter movement be charged as racist without any other evidence to prove the motive of racism “and without any apparent awareness of a burden to rebut the substantive points we actually made about the movement.”

“Identity politics is a failure of rationality,” Harris asserts in the podcast. The argument that he makes for this is clear, straightforward and familiar. Human-beings cannot be free to reason objectively if we are tied to the subjective prejudices of our groups. A person can only be reasonable if reason is allowed to transcend the confines of parochial social consensus to embrace the legitimacy of views that may fall beyond it.

To this point, Lilla countered with an observation that one does not hear as often: that being the idea that identification with a broader group is necessary to animate the productive actions of the group.

“It’s true,” Lilla says, “that Americans right now are overly identity conscious…on the other hand it’s important to identify with something [sic] in order to motivate action and to build solidarity.”

As stated, Lilla too is a strong critic of today’s identity politics. But his criticism centers around the point that contemporary identity politics have fractured a broader and necessary identification with the identity of the nation. Lilla harkens back to the Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, the Liberalism of the sixties and eras of identity politics wherein individual groups advocated for their own interests but framed their interests (at least in the most significant cases) in the context of achieving the interests and ideals of the nation. Or, “a time when liberals could salute the flag without embarrassment” as Harris recalls from Lilla’s book.

Indeed, to listen closely to Lilla’s argument is to perceive that the real value of group identity is, ironically, at the core of what is being lost in today’s identity politics. In his view, that seems to be because our hyper allegiance to our minority group has increasingly come to sever our bonds to the larger group that is the nation.

Lilla’s belief that group identification and the corresponding invigoration it brings to the civic and social sense of purpose of the people within the group echoes resonates rather strongly with the idea of ‘group selection’ advocated by Jonathan Haidt, which maintains that natural selection often selects for whole groups of organisms and that the human tendency towards religion and other collectively galvanizing ideals and identities is a reflection of evolutionarily advantageous group adaptations.

But listening to the podcast Harris does not seem to think that such collectivizing is inevitable, much less desirable. Lilla poetically reminds Sam that “what gives our lives some thickness is a little bit of partisanship.” While agreeing that it is often energizing however, Harris maintains that the trend of identity politics is towards tyranny and irrationality, choosing to emphasize instead the human capacity to reason beyond these instincts.

“If I have to pick a side I’m on the side of someone who’s making sense, right? And the moment a person of my religion or my skin color or my political party stops making sense I’m on the side of the person of whatever skin color or whatever religion or whatever political party who points that out because error is the problem. Dishonesty is the problem, confirmation bias is the problem, delusion is the problem. I just see pegging anything of real substance to identity is a kind of anchor to delusion…”

The question for us then becomes what is really true with respect to the proper role of identity politics. Does it have one? And if it does, and if at the same time there is wisdom in Harris’ admonition to us to transcend the limitations of group identity in favor of truth, is it perhaps possible that the conflict between these two points of view is less absolute than it may seem?

The utility of allegiance to a groups, whether they be that of a nation, an ethnic group, a tribe or family unit, is much as Lilla describes it as being. Our basic pre-commitment to those who share a common culture or circumstance with us allows us to function together in wider political, social (and even physical) environments wherein common concerns and common obstacles may require common responses, facilitated by common bonds.

Yet, when the perceived interest of a group of people comes to contradict reason and morality it comes to contradict the interests of society and humanity more broadly…and in that would seem to predictably fail to remain in the best interest of even whatever particular group a certain partisan attitude or ideology would pretend to serve. Reason saves us therefore from the consequences of the prejudices of our own selves and that of our own tribes, much to Harris’ point.

Yet if one’s commitment to reason is part of a larger commitment to morality, and if a commitment to morality necessarily implies a commitment to the well-being of not just one’s own group but that of humanity generally as much as possible, does it not stand to reason that in order to properly commit to moral truth one must commit to an identification with the greater ‘group’ that is humanity? Does the imperative of moral reasoning not ultimately spill over into a vivid identification with the agenda of the well-being of our species and perhaps vice-versa?

Is this identification also not likely to manifest itself in a way wherein increasingly broad subparts of group identification are stacked one on top of the other for each individual (so long as the connection between each level is solidified by the mortar of a commitment to ethical reasoning that is able to transcend one level in favor of the one above it where necessary)? Can we not reasonably say that we should be attached to our family, but be prepared to sacrifice some bit of our family’s immediate interest for the interests of our race, and that for our nation, and that for humanity, where reason and moral imperative demand it?

If we take Harris and Lilla together this is the picture that emerges. It should be noted that, while the tone of Harris’ arguments conveys an intellectual attachment to reason and Lilla’s an emotional attachment to groups of people, neither is arguing for a version of emotion or reason that is ultimately distinct from the other. (“There is no direct route from the rational mind to human action that does not pass through something emotional,” Lilla states in making the case for the necessity of the social bonds of the group.)

So then our question evolves once more. Can we have an emotional attachment to every level of humanity that exists at varying breadths of proximity from ourselves? Can we have this through the vehicle of an attachment to ethical reasoning that transcends our commitment to the temporal interest of the group closest to us in favor of the ongoing interest of the groups of which each group nearer to ourselves is inextricably a part?

Let us hope that we can. For only if this is true can reason see to it that the moral and social bonds of human brotherhood be sustained.

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