Identity Politics and Backlash

Identity politics differentiates; it draws distinctions to reveal social oppression. This movement emphasizes differences that have historically been suppressed in the interest of domination by the most powerful. We can look at a social group foregrounded by identity politics (e.g., people with disabilities, the transgender community) as a communication system that is created by a distinction. The system must then continually reproduce that distinction. Otherwise, the system’s environment will erase the difference, and it will no longer be meaningful to speak of people with disabilities, the transgender community, or any other marginalized social group.

Here is an Google Books Ngram from 1980-2008 that shows that the term transgender community first arose the late 1980s.


A major problem with identity politics is that it produces backlash, as shown, for example, in the violence against the transgender community. And we can theorize backlash as a system’s environment “trying” to erase a distinction, though environments aren’t really agents as such. Every autopoietic system establishes its own environment when it establishes itself, because a system is really a system/environment difference.

For example, we can situate Trumpism in the environment of progressive identity politics. The fact that Trump supporters took pleasure in or ignored Trump’s attacks on and mocking of just about every marginalized or vulnerable social group–and the fact that he got elected–suggests that the these voters think that identity politics has gone too far. They might say that women, racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, people with disabilities, etc., are just overly sensitive and like playing the victim.  They accuse progressives of playing “the race card,” “the gender card,” etc. Yes, Trump openly mocked a person with disabilities and never apologized. But he and his supporters (mistakenly) say no real harm was done–it was “just words” and gestures–and people who were offended are thin skinned or “weak.” The same goes for the obscene statements about women–“It’s just words, folks. Just words.”

Trumpism, with all its racism and misogyny, represents, to a large extent, a backlash against decades of liberal/progressive identity politics. There are also fears of globalization, but I think this is a lesser factor. Of course, Trump’s “America first” nativist rhetoric is just another form of identity politics. These people portray themselves as the aggrieved party, or victims of contemporary society.

If we think of racism (and other forms hate and ignorance) as an autopoietic communication system, we can understand that it reproduces itself, and there is no central authority steering the process. The racist or nativist communication system “wants” to survive and reproduce itself just like any other living or social system, and the human beings who spread this kind of communication are like virus hosts.

There is absolutely no “natural” improvement or moral progression of society. There is no telos or tendency toward perfection. Systems just arise, reproduce themselves, and rub up against other systems–or coevolve.

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