Identitarian Deference Continues to Roil Liberalism

Elephant deferring to the voices of oppressed peoples.

Seven years ago, I coined the term “identitarian deference” (ID) to describe the idea that “privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression.” Over the years, I have argued that ID is clearly unworkable, easily gamed, and awful for those with invisible identities and oppressed groups that are necessarily locked out of the discourse (such as the lower class).

Despite all of these fantastic blog posts, ID has almost entirely swallowed liberal discourse in the intervening years. ID has become so pervasive and so universally accepted in the liberal discourse that most commentators don’t even seem capable of putting their finger on it. Instead, when ID generates abhorrent results, as it is so often does, the liberal commentariat ends up grasping in the dark and then discussing a totally different topic that is, at best, downstream of ID or, at worst, totally orthogonal to it.

This is the story of “cancel culture” as it is currently being litigated among US liberals. Firing people for ideological disagreements is nothing new of course. But nearly all of the recent terminations and similar actions or threats (not talking about being mean online) are rooted in cynical or insane invocations of ID.

What happens in each of them is a person gets mad at the political views or expressions of an individual and then calls for their termination by making a statement that invokes their own identity and claiming that justice for people of their identity absolutely requires that a firing be done. Co-conspirators in this cynical game then excitedly proclaim that we need to defer to the voices of the oppressed and fire the person. And then other liberals who are not exactly on board make a Larry David face while tilting their head sideways and mumbling to themselves “well they did preface their ridiculous claims and demands with ‘As an x person.’ Got to do it. Thems the rules.”

ID is so easy to game in this way that even a small child could see how to do it. If what you say receives deference because of what identities you have, then you can use that deference to demand anything that you like no matter how silly or calculated it is. And if anyone tries to call bullshit on it, you just point back to the ID rules that disallow anyone to separately evaluate it. After all, the fact that it doesn’t make sense to the person calling bullshit is just further evidence of the epistemological limits that require blind deference in the first place.

What’s wild about ID is that it has won a complete and total victory. The much-ballyhooed dissenting blow against “cancel culture” — the Harpers open letter — played the ID game when selecting its signatories. According to Thomas Chatterton Williams, the signature curation was “aimed at getting a group that was maximally diverse politically, racially and otherwise.” The goal was to show that “we’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter.”

For as long as liberals keep indulging ID, people will take advantage of it in precisely the way that they have. And honestly, who can blame them? If we create a button that, when pressed, magically requires everyone else to agree with your ideas and demands, people would be foolish not to press it.

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