The Point of Society Is Cooperation


Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker has some worth-reading thoughts on identity politics in a Weekly Standard interview:

… when [identity politics] spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Pinker goes on to label as “one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment” that people really can imagine another person’s lived reality and sympathize.  The conversation brings to mind a recent episode of EconTalk with Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who from their perch as moderate atheists, position Enlightenment modernism as against post-modernism (on the Left) and pre-modernism (on the Right).

In attempting to situate himself in their schematic, host Russ Roberts suggests his devout Judaism must place him somewhere in the pre-modern category, but his guests insist that religious belief, itself, isn’t a disqualification from the desired modernist category.  (Indeed, it could not be, inasmuch as people who are atheists rather than agnostic must rely on a degree of faith.)  The decisive factor seems pretty much to accord with Pinker’s thoughts:  The critical attributes are beliefs in individual rights and in our ability to communicate sympathetically across our differences.

In public debate, this comes down to a willingness to work our differences down to the key assumptions of the other person and to understand how he or she could choose a different option.  In public policy, it means understanding the spaces in which we can work together, and identity politics is fatal to that endeavor because the question stops being whether you and I as individuals can agree on some concept, but whether our two groups can do so.  Obviously, compromise and (gasp!) changing one’s mind are more difficult when we have to leave one foot in some abstract identity defined largely by others.

The EconTalk episode’s use of taxonomy and emphasis on communication made me think that my proposed political spectrum would be of service in this context, because it provides a framework by which to understand the ways in which we disagree.

A conservative and moderate differ essentially in their understanding of the appropriate role of government, so they could agree on goals and find some balance between private and public action based on practical evidence.  A moderate and a progressive disagree ultimately about how malleable humanity is, so they can adjust their prescribed actions in a way that acknowledges that as an open question.

The key ingredient, here, is that the discussion focuses on ideas, not groups.  If we emphasize the latter, nothing remains but power and pragmatic segregation.  In that case, when somebody like Ta-Nehisi Coates complains of white tribalism among Trump supporters, he must be hoping that his readers or viewers don’t notice that his entire philosophy is built on the primacy of tribes.  This allows him not to address opposing ideas, but it leaves only the options of allowing one side to dominate the other or keep all sides separate so that their interests never come into conflict.