The Identitarian Epoch
For a long time it seemed that we were living in The Technological Age, a time of progress and promise for the human race made possible by significant advancements in science and technology. Scientific preeminence and technological innovation were going to deliver humanity into its long sought utopia where, because of the development of medical treatments through the free exercise of scientific inquiry, there would be no more death, disease, or pain. In a similar vein, internet communication and digital capitalism would allow us to connect with others over vast distances, while simultaneously fulfilling our every desire — whether material, sexual, or existential — so that there will no longer be any mourning or crying or sadness in the human experience. At long last, in The Technological Utopia, the old order of things will have passed away, and all things shall have become new. The Technological Age was creating the world as it should be, the final destination of mankind’s long and bloody journey into civilization.
We are no longer living in The Technological Age. The utopian claims of science and technology were always dubious, but we should not be surprised that they failed to deliver on their promises. Such utopianism should always be treated with great skepticism. Rather, the twist in the plot is that The Technological Age has resurrected an old monster, one that perhaps never truly died, but had at least been cast into the sea. This monster, running like a viral parasite through the same fibers that were meant to unite humanity, has now arisen in a form far greater than we could have ever imagined, leaving us all dumbfounded in awe, wonder, and terror. This monster has swallowed up The Technological Age, crushing the advancements of science and Enlightenment understanding in its iron jaws. It is a voracious beast with endless appetite, filled with bluster and rage and fire. The Technological Age is dead. We are living in what it has created, and by what it was killed: The Identitarian Epoch.
Identitarianism is the “politics of social identity,” or, more typically, identity politics. In The Identitarian Epoch, identity markers such as race, sexuality, sex, and gender identity are the primary means by which people understand themselves and around which they form communities. Because these characteristics are all physical in nature (in one sense or another) and they are essential to understanding the self, the term “somatic essentialism” is a useful philosophical descriptor of identitarianism. (Soma is the Greek word for body, so the term “somatic essentialism” means that the body is essential, even primary, to the individual’s sense of identity.)
Within identitarianism, these somatically-based identities are understood to exist within a power matrix which is defined by oppressor/victim status, where multiple identities intersect within a single person, moving that person further to one side of the power matrix or the other. Orienting oneself within the power matrix is essential to personal agency, status, and understanding, with the ironic twist being that greater status is given to those on the victim (powerless) end of the spectrum while shame and blame are heaped upon those at the oppressor (powerful) end. The power and position of oppressors (white, straight, cis, men being the furthest end of the oppressor spectrum) is understood to have been given to them by society largely (or perhaps solely) because of these identity characteristics. Justice demands that the oppressor acknowledge his position within the power matrix and give away his power to those on the victim side. His power, after all, came to him through the unjust elevation of his identity markers at the expense of those with any and all other identity markers, because people like him have long been those who hold power in Western culture. He is responsible for the sins of the past because of the privilege of his whiteness, heterosexuality, and cis-maleness, and therefore must devote himself to doing better for the sake of those in the victim classes, elevating their voices, working for equity, and monitoring himself for manifestations, whether internal or external, of his own toxic privilege.
The Identitarian Epoch is the age in which the politics of social identity takes preeminence and in which all people are judged according to their identities. The proverbial chickens of Western history — racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia — have come home to roost, and there must be a reckoning. In this age there will be justice for every person in the victim classes, who will themselves define for society what that justice is and how it will be enacted. The power will be transferred, and the oppressor does not get to dictate the means of that transfer. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The victims will see to that.
The Identitarian Epoch lurches forward with stunning rapidity, obliterating boundaries which many people naively believed could never be crossed. Teens are being cancelled by peers, adults, and celebrities for racist comments and posts. Family members of those accused of bigotry are being fired from their jobs. STEM fields are being shut down. Science itself is denounced. The fires of identitarian judgment are burning Western civilization to the ground, and nothing and no one is safe from its wrath. There can be no reasoning with identitarianism because reason itself is a legacy of the white supremacist patriarchy, and therefore must be utterly and completely abandoned. There can be no forgiveness for bigotry because the power matrix is fixed and steadfast, established by history, immutable. Oppressors cannot be forgiven because they cannot be redeemed — a man may be able to become a woman, but a leopard cannot change its spots. There is no salvation from the oppressor status, no way to exit the sinful state, because identity markers are indelible, permanent, unchangeable.
But this raises a vital question: Should the beast of identitarianism go unchallenged? Should the epistemology, philosophy, and politics of somatic essentialism be allowed to overtake society, from elementary schools to the halls of government, without first being rigorously questioned? The totality and rapidity with which identitarianism has swallowed up the culture, combined with the unquestioning posture so many individuals and institutions take toward it, demonstrate that it absolutely must be interrogated. We need to know what it is to which we are giving absolute power. There are important questions that must be asked, and time is running out to ask them. Here are a few with which we can get started.
What mechanisms native to somatic essentialism and identitarianism would prohibit its usage by those who fit the oppressor class (white, cis, hetero, male) but who, for their own reasons, refuse to identify as oppressors or assume the guilt imputed to them by their identity markers? How does identitarianism prevent white working class people (perhaps those whites trapped in generational poverty in Appalachia) from expressing pride in their immutable genetic characteristics (i.e. their whiteness) in the same way that it encourages black people of all classes to express pride in their blackness? In other words, are the truths of identitarianism universal? If so, do they not then allow for, or even actively encourage, for example, white supremacist attitudes in lower class whites? And if not, how can a self-consciously discriminatory worldview (with such discrimination based solely on physical characteristics which are, themselves, infallibly tied to a universally-applied power matrix) create a just society?
What historical examples can be provided that demonstrate how identitarianism creates a just society? In contrast to these, what historical examples can be provided that demonstrate how identitarianism creates an unjust society? Does the historical balance of identitarianism lie on the side of justice or injustice? Are there examples of great evils being perpetrated against people groups because of their identity categories, whether applied to themselves by themselves or by the group that persecuted them? If so, how is the present instantiation of identitarianism uniquely structured to prevent such evils from occurring under its own governance? How will The Identitarian Epoch prevent, by its own internal coherence, such atrocities as chattel slavery, the Holocaust, the extermination of the kulaks in Soviet Russia, the Armenian Genocide, and so many other identity-based calamities in human history?
Is the current identitarian movement, which is being taught in high schools and universities across the Western world, internally coherent? How can one reconcile the apparently competing statements that one’s body provides the self with its greatest truth (in regards to race) and that one’s body provides the self with its greatest lie (in regards to trans)? What are the rules of identitarianism and when do they apply or not apply? Why can a man become a woman but a white person cannot become black? Surely sex has been with humanity longer than race, and females have always felt the oppression of the patriarchy; why, then, can the sex boundary, which is older and has oppressed more people by far, be transgressed but the racial boundary cannot? If a transwoman is a woman, is a transblack person black? If not, what is the explanation for this contradiction?
Has identitarian philosophy been vetted through a vigorous intellectual process? Have its advocates read and satisfactorily answered its critics? Can its assertions be questioned without rebukes and accusations of bigotry? Can it be defended without its adherents resorting to ad hominem arguments against its detractors? Given the climate of fear that arises from all accusations of bigotry (or even from the threat of the accusation), can the merits of the current instantiation of somatic essentialism be properly addressed? Identitarianism makes extensive use of psychology and sociology through its claims of internalized bias and systemic bigotry; are these sciences being invoked and applied in a way that is worthy of the strength and magnitude of these claims? Does the data support these claims? Are there other explanations that make sense of the data with equal, or perhaps greater, coherence? Are these other explanations explored and studied in good faith? Is the science behind The Identitarian Epoch good? Is it being used responsibly? Is identitarianism falsifiable? If not, how can deficient psychology and bad sociology enable a society to overcome real problems of prejudice?
What internal structures exist within identitarianism that inherently prevent it from becoming a totalizing system in which righteous ends justify wicked means? In what ways does identitarianism refuse to use fear, manipulation, and intimidation to achieve its goals? How is it making room for conflicting perspectives in a reasonable debate, so as to prove its worth in the arena of ideas? To what outside of itself is it accountable?
Toward what vision is it pointing humanity, and how is it uniquely capable of realizing that vision? Is this a vision that all or most people, or all or most groups of people, can support and desire? Are there inconsistencies internal to it that might prevent humanity from achieving this vision, and if so, what is the process by which it repairs and corrects itself? What is the evolutionary process of identitarianism, and how has the present instantiation of it evolved from past instances? What lessons has The Identitiarian Epoch learned from the past, and how does it plan to implement those lessons both now and in the future? In what concrete ways is the current reality different from the somatic essentialist movements of the past?
What are the identitarian virtues? In what ways do these virtues make people and societies better? How are these virtues better than the traditional virtues, whether the cardinal or Christian virtues? On what basis are these judgments made? What are the practices and habits of identitarianism? How have these been shown to improve an individual or society, and in what ways do they help The Identitarian Epoch achieve its ends? In what ways do they move an individual or society toward greater justice more thoroughly and effectively than other practices and habits, particularly Christian ones? If identitarian virtues, practices, and habits are faithfully inculcated in a person, and Christian virtues, practices, and habits are faithfully inculcated in another person, which person will be more just? Which more loving? Which more humble? If this is done at a group level, which group is more likely to create a just and peaceful society? If these virtues, practices, and habits are unfaithfully or selfishly inculcated in a person or a group, which person or society is likely to be more unjust, more violent, and more hateful? Are there historical examples of such societies at both their best and worst?
Is power the best explainer of human history? Does the oppressor-victim matrix make sense of the world in a more coherent way than other explanations? Are there examples of previous movements built upon the foundation of power dynamics between groups of people? If so, what was the result of those movements? What came from the implementation of their ideology? Has the philosophy behind these movements been rebutted in a serious way, and how has the current instantiation of identitarianism responded to or accommodated these rebuttals? Is it possible that a power-based explanation of the world is not merely deficient, but sinister? Does a power-based ideology make a person more just, loving, and kind? If not, what are the demonstrated characteristics of a person who believes in power-based ideologies like identitarianism? What is the status of their mental and emotional health? What are their relationships like?
It may not seem like it, but these are honest questions. These are the kind of questions to which we must subject every philosophy or religion that attempts to explain history and govern the world, and we must query it before we allow that philosophy to control our societies. Every movement that claims to be just and good must have an answer for these questions, and the many more questions that have been left unasked. Where bad or no answers are given, the movement must adjust. If there are too many bad or no answers, the movement must be abandoned. There are too many problems in the world, particularly around race, for humanity to indulge a deficient solution. Racism is real, and it was created by and grew under the philosophy of somatic essentialism — meaning that the characteristics of your body (particularly race and sex) are what are most essential about you. Somatic essentialism is the bedrock philosophy of every racist regime. A return to somatic essentialism, which is precisely what The Identitarian Epoch is, should be viewed with great suspicion because of the systemic evils that have been created and perpetrated by this very way of thinking. We have reason to doubt that identitarianism and somatic essentialism can solve the problems they themselves created, however inverted a form they might take today. Identitarianism should be made to answer for itself, not simply asserted and then defended through empty accusation of its detractors.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash