It’s tough to be a Martin Luther King liberal. All his life he has believed that bias ends when we recognize people as unique individuals, not group representatives. He will talk about groups in big terms, the “black vote” and “equal pay for women,” but he knows that equality comes down to person-to-person contact in daily affairs, and there he takes everyone as distinct. Each encounter starts from scratch. If he’s a white man having lunch and a black waitress serves him, her race and sex register as physical attributes—that’s all. That’s the classical liberal’s first condition.
My parents taught it well when I was a kid, and the greatest social sin was “stereotyping”—judging people by (presumed) group traits. You avoided it by remembering that skin color, sex, and wealth do not set the content of one’s character. There is more to a human being than his place in a demographic profile. Only when he transcends it does an individual reach his full dignity and potential.
A half century after his hero’s death, our liberal looks on the U.S. with ambivalence. The no-discrimination maxim has settled into law and mores, but it has increased our focus on identity differences, not lowered it. The course from the Civil Rights Act to President Obama should have diminished it, but separatism persists in everything from public schools to Black Lives Matter. Our MLK liberal expects each person to become a particular individual and have an idiosyncratic perspective, but that independence doesn’t seem so compelling to others. When our liberal hears educators assert that African-American students need an Afrocentric curriculum, he recalls W. E. B. Du Bois:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.
Rousseau’s claim at the start of Confessions states the same premise: “Je ne suis fait comme aucun de ceux que j’ai vus”—I am singular, there is nobody quite like me. This is the basis for individual rights: Identity is not destiny. If everyone is unique, then the categories found on a population survey are a reduction.
So when someone begins a statement, “As an urban woman of color . . .” or “I’m a gay man and, therefore, I feel that . . .,” the MLK liberal sympathizes, but the principled part of him thinks, “Wait, these identifiers are too strong—they constrict and define—we were supposed to shake them off long ago.” They remind him of the days before civil rights and women’s lib, when discrimination relied on put-downs such as “You believe that just because you’re a woman.” To align an opinion so firmly to a profile hampers what another father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, called “the free development of individuality.” People shouldn’t condition their remarks upon census-form categories. Instead, “people should be eccentric,” for “whatever crushes individuality is despotism.”
But ardent expressions of individualism have little moral weight today. There is no Emerson proclaiming “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” no Thoreau asking indignantly “by what degree of consanguinity They are related to me,” no Invisible Man demanding to be seen in his full and specific substance. Instead, we have the Utah Democratic Senate candidate Misty Snow’s statement on LGBT equality, in which the phrases “As a member of the LGBT community . . .” and “As a trans woman . . .” introduce her policy stand; and the declaration of triathlete Chris Mosier, broadcast widely through Nike’s “Unlimited” campaign: “Being the first trans man on a U.S. men’s national team was a dream come true for me.” How did such crimping, passive-aggressive avowals displace the great patrimony of self-reliance?
The answer isn’t as complicated as you might think. It has less to do with the crass appeals of identity politics than with the empty promise of liberal transcendence. This radiant ascent into untethered individuality, the “Me myself,” as Walt Whitman called it, isn’t the fulfilling end that our liberal anticipates.
A nice illustration appeared recently in Mark Edmundson’s latest volume, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals. Ever since the publication of Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference in 2002, he has proven a sharp defender of liberal education, an egalitarian in politics but a votary of Great Books and aesthetic judgment. Self and Soul reasserts the value of humanistic study against the materialism of students and administrators. He holds up Socrates, Achilles, and Jesus as models for undergraduates, worthy alternatives to what young people see on TV and the web. Given the degree to which race-class-gender-sexuality routines have degraded the humanities, it is gratifying to hear a prominent English professor in the thick of it hail “profound stories about heroes and saints.”
Edmundson is not insensitive to identity concerns. At one point he turns to a common theme in academia, the dearth of women in certain fields, in this case, philosophy: “One has no doubt that as time unspools and women have more opportunity to choose their paths, more and more will take their places as lovers of wisdom and potential guides to their fellows.” Here we have the liberal premise that the scarcity of women philosophers is the result of artificial restraints on their “opportunities.” Remove those restraints and the field will balance out.
As more women choose philosophy, Edmundson continues, deeper changes may take place. “Will their wisdom be substantially different from the wisdom of male thinkers? Will they cut new routes toward the center of the major questions?” The first question “genders” wisdom, leading us straight into identity orientations. In the 1980s, the phrase was “women’s ways of knowing.” You showed your sophistication by maintaining that there is no knowing per se, no universal wisdom. Even reason is conditioned by the identity of the reasoner. A different demographic in the philosophy department will mean different philosophy.
Edmundson agrees—“Perhaps they will”—but only for a moment. Then comes a prediction that cuts against identity thinking and stays true to the MLK liberal’s hope: “But it is more likely that as they approach universal questions, issues of gender will matter less to them (though such issues can never disappear) and issues of humanity writ large will matter more.” In other words, the more women enter the philosophy ranks, the less they will see themselves as women philosophers. It is discrimination that makes people narrow themselves to an identity group. Lift it and individuals will graduate to “universal questions.” They will join a bigger union, “humanity writ large.”
It’s a beguiling vision, a pleasing escape from contingency. But here’s the problem. People don’t want this kind of escape. They dislike restrictions that don’t seem true to themselves, yes, but they still want to be part of something. Liberal transcendence gives them the one but not the other. That’s because it doesn’t go far enough. What does the individual transcend into? Humanity writ large. Edmundson explains it in a chapter called “The Saint,” where he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself: this is the central teaching of Jesus.” That love shows “the way to liberation”; hence we can call it “liberal.” It gives us entry into “the community of men and women,” and “You can feel that you are at home in the world.”
But people need a nearer residence than “the world” and a closer fellowship than a generic “community of men and women.” The glue of universal love isn’t sufficient. The key ingredient is precisely what precedes the “central teaching” Edmundson draws from the words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Martin Luther King understood this as a matter of course. His dream didn’t end with free individuals mingling without prejudice and pursuing benign desires. It ends when all join together as “God’s children.”
Liberal transcendence is a disappointment; it can’t prevent the decay of individualism into atomism. Here lies the appeal of identity politics. People prefer race, class, gender, and all the rest to liberal freedom because identity groups promise a solid, sympathetic home. It is a degraded expression of the desire for belonging and infinitely inferior to the household of God. But for many people, the ersatz belonging promised by politically correct categories is better than the unbounded world of the independent self.