Education

On the Uses and Abuses of Identity Politics

In the past few years, the Georgetown University philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has gained notice for his lucid, subtle writing on such subjects as identity politics, climate change, reparations, and more. He first garnered broad attention with a 2020 essay for the British magazine The Philosopher that explored the limitations of “epistemic deference”: that is, calls “to ‘listen to the most affected’ or ‘centre the most marginalized.’”

In practice, Táíwò wrote, such calls often mean passing the mic to someone like him, because he is Black — even though he is also a tenure-track professor who grew up among the highly educated Nigerian diaspora. Amplifying certain voices on the basis of group membership, he argued, could serve as a merely cosmetic change, leaving structural problems unaddressed. What’s more, compulsory deference is no way to forge authentic relationships. “The same tactics of deference that insulate us from criticism,” he wrote, “also insulate us from connection and transformation.”

Now, building on that essay as well as a related piece in Boston Review, Táíwò has published a short book: Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else). Elite capture, he explains, is a concept that emerged from the study of developing countries. It initially referred to the tendency of the upper class to gain control over foreign aid; in other words, the rich get richer. But the concept has also come to encompass the ways that elites appropriate political projects and monopolize attention.

Elite capture, Táíwò says, is “not a conspiracy” but rather “a kind of system behavior.” Systems are a major theme of the book, a theme Táíwò develops by drawing on the philosophy of games. Another motif is his impatience with the symbolic gestures and efforts to avoid “complicity” that have come to take precedence, in his view, over actual political outcomes.

Elite Capture incorporates sociology, history, and folklore; Táíwò finds pertinent lessons in sources ranging from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to the Cape Verdean independence movement. For all his focus on the traps systems set for us, he holds out hope that we can recognize those traps and escape them. “Despite all our social programming, we can just do things,” he writes. “We can do the thing that will be punished; we can ignore the potential reward, choose the smaller prize.”

I spoke with Táíwò recently about deference politics, the gamification of contemporary life, and how he sees elite capture playing out in higher education.

Early in the book, you distinguish between the original intent of identity politics and the ways that it’s been distorted. You write that the term was popularized by the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, a queer, Black, feminist, socialist organization, and “it was supposed to be about fostering solidarity and collaboration.”

So [the cofounder] Barbara Smith says that when the Combahee River Collective was theorizing around this idea of identity politics, what they were talking about was a kind of right to start somewhere. A right to take your own experiences seriously when you’re thinking about your agendas, your actions, your priorities. Also a sort of political origin, a starting point. You could start off by thinking about your priorities and still end up in coalition with other people, working in concert with other people, and collaborating. And they in fact did that.

But some people have taken up identity politics in ways that are anti-coalitional in various ways. I don’t think the anti-coalitional impulse is very promising, politically speaking.

There’s also the issue of elite appropriation of identity politics, right, and symbolic gestures by corporations. Do you see that as part of it too?

That kind of cooptation is certainly prevalent, especially now. It’s interesting being in D.C. and thinking about this. Every time I go to the fish market, I end up driving on what is now Black Lives Matter Plaza, and the mayoral administration that was responsible for that is also responsible for budget increases to metropolitan police departments, which is in direct contradiction to the stated aims of the most prominent Black identity struggle which is happening in the U.S. right now.

There’s the sorts of people that fall under the heading of what some call the professional-managerial class, people in academia or in business or maybe at the middle-manager level. And talking about identity politics in particular ways works out very well for people like me. I’m in that fraction. It helps get speaking gigs or jobs or whatever.

The question is, What are we trying to explain? Are we trying to explain the behavior of the people who do that? Or are we trying to explain the broader social/systemic fact that that’s the course that identity politics has taken? You have to zoom out from the partially true but not quite as helpful framework of thinking about the cynical or dishonest things that people do as individuals. You have to ask, Why are those the people that are winning? That is something that’s better explained by greater social balances of power than it is by personalities or moral failure.

You use the term “deference politics” perhaps more often even than “identity politics” as the book proceeds. Can you talk about how you see the relationship between the two?

One of the things I think is sometimes misunderstood about my position: I’m in favor of identity politics. I think identity politics is great. Who you are, where you stand in society, affects what you know, it affects what you want, it affects what you can do. Those are things worth self-consciously taking into account.

How should we take them into account? That’s the question that deference politics answers, and in my view it’s not a good answer. It says, well, you should figure out which people are marginalized or, perhaps, which people are more marginalized than you are, and you should defer to their judgment. You should take on board their political judgment, their knowledge claims if we’re talking about knowledge and epistemology, their political direction.

Olufemi Taiwo

Chronicle photo by Michael Theis

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

And to be clear, I don’t think that you should never do that. I just think that, as a default orientation to politics, it gets a lot of things wrong. It’s a little too convenient. One of the ways it’s convenient is you can always — because people of different identities and social positions and backgrounds come to different conclusions — find somebody who agrees with what you agree with, right? So deference epistemology, or deference politics, is often only aesthetic, if the thing that you’re doing is really just coming to an independent political judgment and then slapping someone else’s face or identity on it.

But I also think it’s unfair. While we should reject and be suspicious of ways of thinking through political questions that ignore marginalized perspectives, we should also be suspicious of approaches that tokenize marginalized perspectives. Everybody’s capable of error, everybody has a partial perspective. Those aren’t problems that we can get out of just by adopting a different person’s perspective, even if that person’s perspective is more likely to be accurate than ours.

As an alternative to deference politics, you propose a “constructive politics” that would focus on outcome over process: “the pursuit of specific goals or results, rather than mere avoidance of ‘complicity’ in injustice or promotion of purely moral or aesthetic principles.” Do you think there are any risks in emphasizing results over process?

There are definitely risks to this. And I think in general risks are a thing we have to accept. The only sure thing is the status quo, and if we want something other than that, we’re in the realm of risk-taking.

That said, I think the risks here are particularly serious. There’s a long history of different forms of activism or the pursuit of justice throwing people under the bus, and that’s not something we should be less than serious about avoiding.

But I think one of the ways I would try to think about it would be to expand what we think of as outcomes. So the kind of core outcome that we’re organizing around might be starting a union in this shop or something like that. That can be the core outcome without it being the only consequence that we’re paying attention to. We should value the other people we’re organizing with as ends and not just as means — if I can use some Kantian language, which I’m very sad to do, but he got this one right. Other people aren’t just tools for us to use to reach our political goals, right? If we’re doing this because we care about justice, and if justice is, at the end of the day, a concretization of our care for other people, then it actually doesn’t make sense for us to treat people as tools.

So I think the constructive view has to itself be a way of looking at the world that has a deep moral core, and not just this Machiavellian realism that sometimes people think is appropriate given the difficulty of the political struggle.

One of the things I think is sometimes misunderstood about my position: I’m in favor of identity politics.

It almost seems as if, when you refer to the mere avoidance of complicity or purely moral or aesthetic principles, you’re criticizing a concern with one’s own personal purity, rather than with how one is contributing or not contributing to any other outcome.

Yeah, exactly. Am I a good person or a bad person because of this thing that I’ve done? Am I maximally radical?

Can you talk a bit about how you see that concern with personal purity playing out in academe today?

Look, I read so many academic articles where every move made in the paper or book is just making sure to cite the right person, or avoid using the problematic language, and that’s the whole paper. That’s it. I meet so many people in the nonprofit sector who are tying themselves up in knots about whether they’re feeding into the white-savior complex — while they’re doing work on famine relief or something. It’s not like it doesn’t matter how you talk. It’s not that we shouldn’t have questions about those things. But how have we gotten to a point where we valorize making people more fixated on those questions than on the actual consequences of the things that they’re doing? That’s my bugbear.

You cite C. Thi Nguyen’s work on the philosophy of games, and you make the point that capitalism itself is a gamified system, and that elites sometimes “manipulate and control others with game design-like tactics.” Education is another realm with obvious analogues to games, in terms of admissions, grades, etc., and for professors, publications, citations, etc. Can you talk about the game-like aspects of higher education, and how those have evolved?

Thi’s work was really helpful for a couple of reasons. One is Thi’s way of explaining how ecologies of interaction can end up working in game-like fashion. One of the key concepts for him is “value clarity.” So one of the things that explains why domains of interaction can get gamified is the existence of clear standards or metrics, quantifications that let you take a sort of rich practice keyed to many complex values and simplify it to revolve around those narrow but easily identifiable standards and metrics. In education the initial values would be the notions of being a developed adult and community member and citizen. In a country or a state, it would be having a flourishing economy and home life and intellectual life. Those are rich, tough-to-pin-down ideas. But when you introduce notions like GPA and return on investment, then you introduce value clarity. Because those things are easy to measure. And people’s behavior in these institutions ends up trying to optimize these metrics.

Can you talk more specifically about how you see it manifesting in higher education, especially recently?

I think one of the big changes that has happened is the rate and organization of work around publications. Number of publications is itself a metric, and is responsive to other metrics like citation counts and h-index and so on and so forth. And increasingly we’re encouraged to confine our intellectual work to the kinds of things that make those numbers go up. Meanwhile, the planet’s on fire, you know, kind of literally. And we’re — especially in the social sciences, and to perhaps a lesser extent the humanities — underproducing the kind of work and the kind of engagement that would respond to a political crisis of the magnitude and severity that that requires. It affects what questions we ask, it affects how we answer them, it especially affects who we answer to. Everything conspires to give our peers in the discipline who are our likely peer reviewers an outsize amount of rent-free space in our heads.

Toward the end of the book, you write that the fact that you have experienced your share of traumatic experiences “is not a card to play in gamified social interaction or a weapon to wield in battles over prestige.” Did you read Rachel Aviv’s recent New Yorker piece about the student at Penn whom the university seemed to embrace for having a traumatic background, but then — as some people saw the situation — disavowed her when it seemed that it wasn’t traumatic in the right way? Did you have thoughts on that and how it related to this point about gamification?

I’m aware of it. I didn’t read it fully. I don’t want to say too much about that case, but I would say in general that there’s definitely a gamification with respect to trauma. It’s wielded in various ways, often as something of a credential. And I think that just goes hand in hand with the instrumentalization of everything else in a hyper-competitive environment. I don’t want to accuse anyone of being personally disingenuous; I just think that, ecologically speaking, that’s the kind of behavior that’s being rewarded and selected for in various ways.

I don’t actually think that serves anyone, really, except maybe the institutions that gain something from claiming to be a safe haven for people who have experienced trauma, while failing at doing that.

That said, taking trauma seriously, rather than papering it over and pretending that it’s not there, is a positive development. The specific phenomenon of wielding trauma as a kind of credential — that’s not something I view positively.

How do you see elite capture operating within higher education?

So many ways. There’s the domination of theories and research approaches that come from the R1s in the global North. There’s the outsize research capacity of the handful of researchers at the top of their various disciplines. Even media coverage is swayed by the academic hierarchy. We’ve all read a million articles about campus politics at the Harvards and Yales and UPenns of the world, while students at CUNY and Howard and community colleges face huge resource crunches and problems with basic physical infrastructure. Whether we’re talking about money for funding, whether we’re talking about citation counts or other metrics of attention, or whether we’re talking about news coverage, there’s the same kind of skew toward the top of the various distributions.

What’s the biggest thing you want people to take away from this book?

Basically the thesis is that elite capture is a system behavior rather than an individual or even a class behavior. It’s a thing that societies do. And it’s a thing that societies do essentially when constraints on elite impunity, constraints which usually take the form of organization by nonelites, become weaker than elite power. We should build the kind of things that can challenge elite domination over various aspects of society. Those are the usual suspects, like unions. They might include newer forms of organization, like debtors’ unions. That’s the long and the short of it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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