But identity politics isn’t inherently divisive. In fact, identity politics can lead to greater unity, something I realized anew in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Every time I hear about a mass shooting, it takes my breath away. But if I’m being honest, certain shootings punch me extra hard and deep in the gut: I felt that way after the horrific mass shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando. I felt that way when news of the Tree of Life massacre reached me. In both cases, the people being killed were my people.
Clearly, I’m not harboring a version of the bigotry or hatred that the shooters themselves held. And I don’t think I’m unduly “fixated” on difference in a way that will lead to partisan resentments — quite the opposite. Identification, in these cases, with the victims and survivors provides a context and a vocabulary through which to both feel my own community’s pain and begin to know the pain of other communities, and begin to confront our world’s divisions and inequities. Identity politics isn’t the fire, it’s the smoke alarm. It’s how we spot the danger of inequality and injustice, situate ourselves in relation to those problems, and start to envision and enact solutions. I’m not saying identity can’t be used to divide: The suspect charged in the killing of 11 congregants at Tree of Life weaponized religious identity; the man arrested and being investigated in a racially motivated shooting of two African American patrons in a Kentucky supermarket weaponized racial identity; the apparent right-wing extremist alleged to have mailed bombs to Democratic Party leaders and others weaponized political identity. But identity can also be the means to build bridges of understanding, empathy and solidarity.
I am 18. I belong to the massacre generation.
In 2013, a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany studied how we empathize with one another. Study subjects were paired up and given one of two kinds of stimuli: either unpleasant, where, for example, they were shown a picture of maggots while holding toy slime; or pleasant, where, for example, they were shown a picture of a puppy while holding synthetic fur. Each person could see what the other person in their pair was seeing and holding, as well.
“As long as both participants were exposed to the same type of positive or negative stimuli, they found it easy to assess their partner’s emotions. The participant who was confronted with a stink bug could easily imagine how unpleasant the sight and feeling of a spider must be for her partner.
“Differences only arose during the test runs in which one partner was confronted with pleasant stimuli and the other with unpleasant ones. Their capacity for empathy suddenly plummeted. The participants’ own emotions distorted their assessment of the other person’s feelings. The participants who were feeling good themselves assessed their partners’ negative experiences as less severe than they actually were. In contrast, those who had just had an unpleasant experience assessed their partners’ good experiences less positively.”
In other words, shared experience was the bridge to greater empathy. And, it turns out, science echoes the Torah. Exodus 22:21 says: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s the lesson I remember relearning every year on Passover, about how historical oppression of Jewish people — my people — in the Holocaust and long before, was central to our obligation as Jews to work to counter violence and hate against all people. Identity in that sense was a tool, a window through which to better see and understand the suffering of others. Being driven out of Egypt might help us better understand the many people facing evictions in Milwaukee or families fleeing violent homelands trying to migrate toward the United States. Being stripped of our land and our lives by the Nazis might make us more compassionate in the face of other genocides or racially motivated shootings or the forced resettlement and occupation of Palestinians. These lessons are not perfectly learned, nor perfectly applied, but within the experience and pain of our own communities, there’s a profound potential to understand, connect with and advocate alongside other communities confronting marginalization and hate.
How Trump’s immigrant bashing feeds white supremacists’ obsession with Jews
The American story has always been a story in which lofty rhetoric about equality has been used to obscure systemic and habitual oppression, from appropriating Native Americans’ land three centuries ago to building a nation on the backs of enslaved African Americans. It is critical to name those abuses then and now: Proposing to revoke birthright citizenship, as President Trump did this week, is xenophobic. Trying to ban people from Muslim countries from entering the United States is Islamophobic. It’s not the language of identity that creates divisions, it’s the effect of hateful rhetoric and capricious policies. Dismissing identity politics — saying we shouldn’t point out differences and inequities, and trying to convince ourselves that we’re all situated exactly the same — just gives cover to perpetual inequity.
Not incidentally, when voices on the political right fulminate over the anxiety felt by those whom Trump calls “the forgotten men and women of our country,” a nod to an older, whiter, straighter, blue-collar, non-coastal slice of America, they’re practicing identity politics, too. Since Trump’s election, we’ve collectively spent hours upon hours reflecting on their plight, often at the expense of other segments of the body politic. If I’m being generous, I don’t think this white working-class identity politics is necessarily meant to be divisive, but that’s frequently the effect — perpetuating the zero-sum premise that any movement toward greater equality for others is somehow oppressive to white Americans, and white men in particular. Those same white men could use their feelings of encroaching marginalization (real or perceived) to empathize with members of communities who’ve been marginalized for centuries, and work together to advance mutual solutions. Or they can prioritize their concerns over others and allow resentments to be stoked and politically manipulated. Both are options. And both, frankly, involve identity — just in very different ways.
By the same token, when a gay nightclub or a synagogue is attacked, I can choose to focus only on the attacks on people like me, or I can use that experience of suffering as an opening. Communities don’t suffer the same, just as different forms of oppression aren’t the same. But we can use our own experiences of marginalization to recognize and try to counter marginalization in general. We are different, we move through the world differently, and we are treated in history, by policy and by our fellow humans, differently. When we can see that reality, and situate ourselves within it, we have more potential for compassion, not despite our differences, but because of them.