Identity Politics and Functional Differentiation

What is the place of identity politics in a functionally differentiated global society?

Identity politics often speaks of communities–e.g., the African American community, the LGBTQ community, the disability community.

We can begin with observation. Some observer (observing system) must observe a community as a community and a marginalized community as a marginalized community. So, for example, who or what observes the LGBTQ community as an marginalized or oppressed community?  A theory can make this observation. A theory is a schema of observation. What is the primary distinction the observer makes?

One weakness of identity politics is that it tends to distinguish a particular community from society as a whole, or it chooses one aspect of society, such as capitalism, as the source of injustice. As a two-sided form it looks like, for example, LGBTQ community/society, with the first term being marked and society being unmarked.  The LGBTQ community is carved out of society. It didn’t exist (was not observed) until this distinction was made. The two-sided form brought the community into existence. Society, as the other side of the form, is a huge blank; it hides in a blind spot. It cannot be known; it is just assumed to exist as the environment of the system.

But, from a social systems theory perspective, society is a complex global communication system, consisting of a number of social systems–function systems, organizations, interactions, social protest movements. We have to ask which social systems stand in opposition to the LGBTQ community.

Is the LGBTQ community a social protest movement, like the Green movement or anti-nuclear movement? If we call the LGBTQ community a social protest movement, we can look at the many organizations that advocate for this community.

We might look at identity politics as an observation schema, or as a catchall term for many related observation schemata. Each brand of identity politics (feminism, etc.) can be seen as communication about certain topics. Only some topics are admitted into a particular communication system. We can call the LGBTQ community an observation schema, or two-sided form used for observation. The community, in this sense, does not consist of human beings (not an aggregate of human actors), although human beings can be a topic of communication. We can then speak of LGBTQ communication as an autopoietic communication system.

LGBTQ communication would not include, for example, baseball qua baseball as a topic–that is, it wouldn’t include discussion on the merits of the designated hitter rule; it would only discuss baseball in connection with some kind LGBTQ marginalization, as in the harassment of gay baseball players. In this case, LGBTQ communication would resonate with or irritate the global sports system, along with other structurally coupled function systems such as that mass media and the economy. The LGBTQ community cannot do battle with society, because society is all connected communication; it must target particular social systems.

In identity politics, a difference that has historically be used by a majority population to marginalize and oppress a minority population is embraced. One demands to be identified as a gay man, for example, rather than being absorbed into the heterosexist mainstream. The difference is embraced rather than denied.

But a criticism of identity politics is that it treats a person’s identity as unitary, as if being a black woman, or a gay man, or a person with disabilities, etc. sums up a particular person’s identity. It is one particular difference that establishes a person’s identity.  In other words,

To the extent that identity politics urges mobilization around a single axis, it will put pressure on participants to identify that axis as their defining feature, when in fact they may well understand themselves as integrated selves who cannot be represented so selectively or even reductively. (Identity Politics)

This foregrounding of one feature may serve to exclude some people (a minority within a minority) from a political movement.

For example, in his films Black Is, Black Ain’t and Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs eloquently portrays the exclusion of Black women and gay Black men from heterosexist and masculinist understandings of African-American identity politics. (Identity Politics)

It’s well known that black women were long ignored by the American feminist movement, and black women were also marginalized within organizations such as SNCC. And Bayard Rustin, one of the most important figures in the Civil Right movement and the anti-war movement, was marginalized and mocked because he was gay.

The main problem may lie in focusing on people or the features of these people rather than communication systems. If we look at the Black civil rights movement, for instance, as a communication system we see that only certain kinds of communication, or certain topics, are accepted as meaningful. It wouldn’t be meaningful to bring Tolstoy’s War and Peace into a civil rights discussion unless that novel could somehow be connected to a civil rights issue. Of course, some civil rights workers might happen to read the novel and happen to talk about it among themselves, but that discourse wouldn’t be included in the civil rights communication system; it would remain in the environment of the system, along with the speakers.

This all comes back to how we conceive of social systems. If we focus on communication itself, it doesn’t matter which human beings contribute to a communication system.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.