Gutmann examines 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of identity politics

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- At a time when issues of identity and politics are in sharp focus, Amy Gutmann stresses that "there may be no more important goal for the 21st century than that we break down the barriers that lead people to fight one another on the basis of hostile group identities."

Amy Gutmann, provost and Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values

Gutmann's latest book, "Identity in Democracy," published this winter by Princeton University Press, examines the role of group identity in democratic justice, addressing what she calls a "surprisingly neglected part of democratic politics with profound implications, both positive and negative."

The provost of Princeton since 2001 and the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values since 1990, Gutmann joined the faculty in 1976 as a professor of politics. She is the president of the American Society of Political and Legal Philosophy and was founding director of the University Center for Human Values.

Gutmann's other books that explore democratic principles include "Democratic Education," "Democracy and Disagreement" (with Dennis Thompson) and "Color Conscious" (with K. Anthony Appiah).

Discussing her most recent book with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, Gutmann described how groups of people work together and work against each other to constantly shape democratic society.

Why did you write "Identity in Democracy"?

I wrote "Identity in Democracy" partly out of concern with the polemics that too often characterize discussions of identity groups, which either demonize or elevate them above considerations of justice. I noticed the very wide range of identity groups -- based on religion and race, gender and sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability -- along with the equally wide range of roles that group identity plays in democratic societies. To render a simple positive or negative judgment on all these groups and all these roles seemed to be terribly misleading. I therefore wanted to offer a fair-minded account and assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly of identity politics.

How can identity groups benefit or harm democratic society?

They benefit democratic society when they fight against injustices, which are often based on negative stereotyping of group identities, as the NAACP has historically succeeded in doing despite the enormous obstacles placed in the way of achieving civic equality for African Americans in this country.

Identity groups are harmful when they do just the reverse, elevating group identity above justice (as does the KKK) and negatively stereotyping members of unjustly disadvantaged groups.

Identity groups contribute or detract from democratic values such as civic equality, liberty and opportunity. They publicly express important aspects of people's identities. They conserve or destroy valuable cultures. They gain more material goods for themselves and their groups, whether justified or not. They make some individuals feel more or others less secure in the larger society. They express and act upon commitments that they share with a group.

Can a democratic government justifiably encourage or discourage identity groups?

A democratic government can do both. It can justifiably encourage identity groups by securing freedom of association for all individuals, and it also can discourage those groups that threaten to harm other people by ensuring that free association does not become a license to harm others. Identity groups can be prevented from excluding disfavored people from public accommodations or otherwise denying them equal educational or economic opportunity.

Because identity groups are an important manifestation of individual freedom within democracies, and individual freedom is an essential part of democratic justice, democratic governments should tolerate a very wide range of identity groups, including those that are not themselves committed to democracy. Such toleration also supports those justice-friendly identity groups that fight against the negative stereotyping of minorities on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. Such identity groups have been a prominent source of social movements that have helped move democracies in the direction of democratic justice.

A democratic government can also discourage those identity groups that discriminate in unconstitutional ways. A white supremacist, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim identity group that tried to set up discriminatory schools, for example, should not expect public accreditation, let alone subsidies. A democratic government can encourage identity groups in general -- on the basis of free association -- while discouraging (even outlawing) those whose existence depends on violating the constitutional rights of individuals. The relationship of a democratic government to identity groups is therefore complex.

You remind us that Salman Rushdie called "The Satanic Verses" a "love-song to our mongrel selves." If individuals increasingly view themselves as "mongrels," is this to the good or detriment of democratic society?

Individuals as well as societies are multicultural. The "culture" of every modern democracy is not monolithic, but consists of the intermingling of diverse cultural currents. It therefore tracks both the truth about ourselves and the good of democracy -- and the world -- that more and more people recognize their multiple identities, since we are all so much more interdependent than ever before.

Individuals need to organize together to achieve important public goods, and therefore we will be better off if we can achieve more mutual identification, and cooperation, across various ethnic, racial, gender, religious and national identities. The narcissism of small differences obscures the far greater commonalities and mutual interdependencies among us. Increasing recognition of multiple, overlapping identities can make it easier for individuals to join together in political coalitions across what otherwise would be unbridgeable gulfs of hostility and distrust.

Should people get closer to identifying across and beyond ascriptive groups such as race, and how?

Yes, but we should also recognize the worthy causes that have been served when people joined together on the basis of ascriptive identifications such as race, gender and disability that have been negatively stereotyped by the larger society. Ascriptive associations -- such as the NAACP, National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Deaf -- have helped millions of individuals publicly express a far more positive identity, and achieve far more civic equality as a consequence, than would otherwise have been feasible in the context of historically entrenched negative stereotypes. Ascriptive associations also mobilize people in democratic politics to combat injustices to which members of more advantaged groups turn a blind eye. They also provide mutual support to people who otherwise would be left out in the cold.

This said, democratic justice would be better served were more people to identify across and beyond ascriptive identities. The possibility of cross-ascriptive identities is far from a pipe dream. The civil rights movement in the United States and the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, for example, both provide existence proofs of this possibility.

Why can't we just identify around universal human rights?

Logically speaking, we can just identify around universal human rights, but logic surely is not sufficient in human affairs. An ideal theory of justice says that when people associate for political purposes they should do so on the basis of a general moral commitment to justice, regardless of their group identity.

But in a society still characterized by injustices that accrue to people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender and disability, it is an error of practical judgment to assume that people will associate together simply on the basis of moral commitment, disregarding their group identities. To assume that they will do so is to ignore reality, not to build a better world on the basis of it. An ideal theory is therefore no substitute for a set of moral considerations about how we realistically can move closer to the ideal in the world as we know it, with many historically entrenched injustices that accrue to people because of their ascriptive and other group identities.

You point out that middle-class blacks are often criticized when they do not support African-American causes, and that this is an indefensible criticism. Please explain.

It adds insult to injury to single out middle-class blacks for criticism for not contributing to African-American causes. Compelling evidence exists that even middle-class blacks are still subject to widespread de facto discrimination in our society. So why single them out for criticism if they do not dedicate their lives to overcoming racial injustice? The criticism is indefensible because assigning moral obligations to individuals according to their ascriptive identities is problematic. Such a racially based assignment distracts attention away from the general obligations of all individuals, regardless of our ascriptive identity, to do our part to overcome injustice.

Faith-based initiatives by government have been pushed by the Bush administration. You warn us to be "suspicious" of them. Why?

There are good moral and prudential reasons to keep organized religion largely separate from the state. When church and state are separated, religious identity becomes far less a matter of everyday political contention, and the stakes of politics become something less than those of eternal salvation or damnation.

This does not mean that constitutional democracies can or should keep religious ideas out of politics. To do so would be to restrict the free speech and civic equality of religious citizens.

Both church and state have a lot to gain from a genuinely two-way separation. Conscientious citizens -- religious and secular alike -- have toleration and mutual respect to gain by separating church and state as far as is feasible. Conjoining church and state power almost always threatens tyranny of majorities over minorities.

Current affairs are intensely charged with issues of identity. What are the dangers of this and is democratic justice out of reach?

Issues of identity are unavoidable in contemporary politics. We become more aware of these issues, and more fearful of group identities, when the identities are radically different from our own and radically intolerant of others.

Democratic justice is an aspiration that includes the idea that we can improve our understanding and our practice of human rights over time. Democratic justice, therefore, will never be within any individual's or group's grasp, once and for all. What is within human grasp, however, is to combat the most egregious injustices of our time by orienting our hearts and minds toward human rights and responsibilities. We can do justice to identity groups by distinguishing among the good, the bad and the ugly, while recognizing that they cannot be counted upon to do likewise to others.



March 24, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 20
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Page one
Gutmann examines 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of identity politics
Changing tigers: Gilley trades career in China for study at Princeton

OIT to provide high-performance computer cluster
It takes a village to showcase technology at fair in Frist March 25-26

Seven faculty members transfer to emeritus status
Erickcek wins Churchhill Scholarship for study at Cambridge next year

Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
By the numbers: The Trees of Princeton University

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