The bulletin board of Ms. magazine's Web site erupted with an explosive crisis last week when a frequent contributor to the bulletin board was "outed" as being transgendered. This prominent anti-male voice in the forum had been born male and became female with medical assistance.
Or did she? The ensuing mudfest revolved around whether womanhood was biological or constructed by society. The debate splintered the Ms. bulletin board, with one group calling for the establishment of a "Woman Born Woman" board that would exclude "WBMs" (Woman Born Man), also known as "M2Fs" (Male to Female).
The Ms. bulletin board offers a microcosm of what identity politics has wrought on society. Identity politics is an approach to political analysis and action that views group identity as the foundation for this analysis and action. The fracas also revealed the absurdities of this approach.
The politics of exclusion and group separation, identity politics began within feminism by claiming males could not be feminists because they did not share women's collective experience. Then, "anti-feminist" females were dismissed because their social indoctrination prevented them from realizing they were part of the collective experience. From there, the splintering continued. White women could not speak for minorities, heterosexuals could not understand lesbians, born-women could not be represented by transgendered ones who could never be understood by cross-dressers.
Identity politics is an essential part of what defines current gender issues, race relations and the gay and lesbian movement. It is applied in a self-righteous manner to the pettiest of events. Consider the case of the "double-parking mom."
A scuffle broke out when two (white) mothers became tired of a third (black) mother habitually double-parking in front of an elementary school where they all picked up their children. Because of the language the black woman hurled at the other mothers, the black mother now faces two counts of "ethnic intimidation," which carry a possible two-year sentence. In turn, she hurled a yet-to-be-confirmed allegation of having miscarried due to the scuffle.
The Rev. Horace Sheffield — president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, the civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton — has publicly declared, "These white women have literally ripped this black child from the belly of a black woman ..."
The incident should have demonstrated that both races act like idiots under the sway of traffic rage. But identity politics sees class conflict even in double-parking.
A key assumption of identity politics is that only someone who lives an experience can understand it and, thus, have the right to speak of it. A politically neutral example of this would be "only those who have had a brain tumor can understand what it feels like." As far as it goes, that statement is true.
But, even a healthy person has had some experience with pain and pressure and has some foundation for understanding suffering. He relates and empathizes through a common, though not identical, experience.
What about doctors who know more about tumors than those afflicted by them? If only those with brain tumors have a right to speak out, should doctors remain silent?
The parallel in feminism is that, although a man does not experience womanhood, he nevertheless understands injustice. Depending on his life experiences, a man may empathize with a rape victim more deeply than many women do. Moreover, like the doctor, men can have perspectives on "women's issues" which are valuable precisely because they are different. And "womanhood" is not so fragile as to be damaged by listening to the opinions of men.
There is nothing inherently wrong with dividing people into separate categories or classes. A class can be defined by almost any factor — income level, hair color, age, nationality, etc. The factor chosen depends on the purpose of whoever is doing the grouping. Doctors often divide men and women into different classes: they screen women for breast cancer and men for prostate problems. But, in doing so, doctors do not deny that both men and women share the same fundamental biology. For example, they have the same basic nutritional requirements.
Equally, separating men and women for political purposes — perhaps in order to discuss an aspect of abortion — is not a denial of the fact that they share fundamental political interests. Both men and women enjoy the basic human rights all people hold in common, such as freedom of speech and of conscience.
However, in stressing the separateness and antagonism of groups, identity politics dismisses the shared humanity that underlies these secondary differences. The differences between human beings become a source of bitter division rather than enrichment.
Yet, even on this main point, identity politics contradicts itself. Consider that if it is true that a person must experience something in order to speak of it, then each individual is the only person who can speak of his own experience because everyone is unique. But identity politics deals with collective identity. To create a group called "woman" out of a mass of unique women, identity politics has to argue that the commonality of shared womanhood is more important than individual differences.
Unhindered by contradictions in my approach, I would go one step farther. The broader category — the shared humanity of men and women, black and white — is more significant than any secondary characteristics of gender or race. We are, first and finally, all human beings.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.