Professor Mark Lilla: Politics Isn’t About Identity, It’s About Winning

Sp!ked Magazine,

Release Date
October 19, 2017


Education Free Speech Justice Politics & Policy

Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University makes the case that when people become too wrapped up in identity politics, they can lose sight of how to affect the change they want to see in society.

    1. Spiked Magazine Panel – “Identity Politics: The New Racialism on Campus?” (video): Does Identity politics cut us off from important conversations on issues that affect us all? Watch the Unsafe Space Tour panel discussion at Rutgers University featuring Kmele Foster, Sarah Haider, Bryan Stascavage, and Mark Lilla. Moderated by Tom Slater (of Spiked Magazine). 
    2. Shaming Someone Doesn’t Change Their Mind (video): So you want to fight prejudice and change people’s minds? Cultural scientist Alana Conner explains why shaming people does not help persuade them to consider new ideas. 
    3. “I’m Surprised Free Speech Exists at All In This Country” (video): Professor Thaddeus Russell explains the importance of students being able to distance their identity from their ideas in classrooms and on college campuses. 

MARK LILLA: There was a time when it was possible to talk about equal rights for these groups, civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay rights movement, without using the word “identity” at all. You talked about social justice. Then something happened. The word “identity,” the concept of identity entered the American language, and politics was no longer a question of being committed to a cause affecting people out there, but became a species of self expression. I am expressing my identity by getting involved in this issue, or that issue, and I’m focused on politics only because of my identity, and the point of that is: I need to speak truth to power. I need to call people out. I’ve got to fight the power. When in fact the point of politics is to be the power.
Identity movements have put themselves into a state of, at the moment, a kind of frenzy that defeats this very practical purpose, and two things happen, and then I’ll be done. One is that a radical rhetoric gets employed that gets in people’s faces in a way that is not helpful. Black Lives Matter, which laid out a call to the conscience of anyone with a conscience in this country, ended up breaking up meetings with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Suicide. But the other point, and this is where we come to free speech, is that if your politics are wrapped up with your definition of your self, it gets very hard to have a political discussion because people feel that in disagreeing with their opinion that you’re challenging their identity, and that’s what’s happened on our campuses. We’re no longer detached enough to argue without feeling that it’s about us, and the big lesson we have to learn it’s not about us. It’s not about how we define ourselves, it’s not about intersectionality, it’s not about my sensitivities, it’s about fighting for justice out there for other people, and to do that you need to retool.
TOM SLATER: Thank you very much, Mark.