By Graham Peterson
The major difference between telling someone he has a booger, and telling him he is a racist, misogynist, nationalist, and so forth, is that booger notifiers just keep it to their close friends. “OMG thank you; see only you would tell me I had a boog.” Identity politicians feel it’s acceptable to offer anything from unsolicited advice — to vicious public humiliation — to perfect strangers and colleagues.
Why is that? Because the identity politician believes that people’s personalities and characters are politics, that is, that politics ultimately boils down to superficial character traits and attitudes, and that means that every interaction with people is a public occasion for protest. The identity politician hopes to make her own identity public — which is fine — and then expects that everyone else’s character and identity is public fodder as well — which is not fine.
The identity politician’s moral priorities are so urgent, that discarding normal, and useful, social injunctions against criticizing the private emotions and ethics of people one doesn’t know, and gossiping about that person, seems perfectly justified. After all, Bruce Willis breaks a few rules in Die Hard — he’s saving the world! — and restoring social justice is saving it too.
If social justice advocates have to trample the privacy and sovereignty of people’s backgrounds, characters, and personalities in order to reshape the world, so be it. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, I suppose. This would seem to be the same logic that motivates fundamentalist Christians to scream at young women outside reproductive health clinics.
Most identity politicians believe that those with boogers on their faces just don’t know it yet (institutional racism, sexism, etc.), and just need to be gently informed. “I don’t want you to feel personally guilty about your booger, I just want to help educate you so that you begin to understand that it’s shameful and embarrassing.”
This is of course is a distinction without a difference — the difference is merely between saying, “you have a booger; it’s gross; please remove it,” and saying, “your mucous membranes function to trap bacteria and sediment from the air in order to protect your internal organs — I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not to feel ashamed of willingly waving dirt and bacteria around on your face.” The second statement just works to make the whole dance feel less personal — it’s not.
If you believe social structures are made of people, and believe that social structures are shameful, it follows that people are shameful, specifically, the person you believe is acting out the social structure you think is shameful.
All of this patronizing and criticizing and shaming and even screaming, starts with a system of thought that says that politics and a history of racial, gendered, and other discrimination is a function of mere personality characteristics, daisy chained together into caricatures — or alternatively — that mere personality characteristics are a function of those deeper, material social and historical processes.
Either way, the task becomes to access politics through people’s personalities. If only it were that easy.
Identity politicians seem to believe that by obsessively identifying character traits in themselves, they can scrub away their guilt about injustice. Politics in this way moves from going down to the soup kitchen to help — to a self-serving spiritual quest for personal transcendence. And from this point of view, in addition to checking in the mirror for boogers, going around and telling other people they have a booger becomes a self-serving exercise in relieving one’s own anxiety and disgust — cleverly justified as some kind of expression of altruism and empathy.
It might occur to people at some point, that shaming, humiliating, patronizing, and condescending to people whom you think have a booger on their face, in public and professional settings, is not a kindly gesture of altruism and good faith. It’s just rude and hurtful.
And ultimately, it turns social advocacy from a potentially productive motivation for genuine aid to disenfranchised groups, into an insidious mockery of gossip and self referential booger mongering.