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Steven Pinker: The case for letting go of identity politics

Faces of all different colors in a collage
Black history month celebration of diversity and African culture pride as a multi cultural celebration.

Identity politics has become a highly contentious element within modern political discourse. Those who support this approach believe it bolsters the presence and power of those who would otherwise be marginalized to the borders of the political landscape. It also helps mobilize the coalitions necessary to win elections because, after all, politics is the politics of identity.
Opponents believe identity politics miss the point because we are all individuals. Any group we may belong to is simply one facet of our personhood and says nothing of our character or any other group we may identify with. If we are to support political agendas, it should be because we feel they will help individuals flourish and express their freedoms. And taken to the extreme, identity politics is simply majoritarian rule, in which the most populous group wields power over all others.
Which view is correct?

As is often the case, it’s complicated, and there are good arguments both for and against identity politics. However, there is an aspect of identity politics that can become pernicious if fomented within our organizations. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains in this video lesson:

Identity Politics, the Cure for Identity Politics?

Identity Politics: Thinking, arguing, and mobilizing for political action around group identities related to race, gender, sexual orientation, or other attributes.

  • Enlightenment ideals frame morality in terms of our universal human interests, like suffering and flourishing. Today’s identity politics tends to frame morality in terms of a power struggle among different blocs of people.

As Pinker notes, the reason identity politics may stir up division in our organizations is that it separates us into blocs. It becomes the prism by which our organization separates into different colors. Rather than individuals sharing a common goal, we become dissected into groups vying for power, respect, advancement, etc.
Here’s a telling example from U.S. history. After the Civil War, abolitionists and women suffragists formed the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). The organization’s goal was to gain civil rights for women and Black people. AERA proved a critical coalition fighting for the institution of human rights in a country that had lapsed in its duty for far too long.
Unfortunately, the coalition soon fractured into internecine fighting once it became clear that the struggle for women’s rights would take a backseat to the rights of Black men. Republicans in Congress wrote the 14th and 15th Amendments to appeal to Black men—note that the 14th specifically mentions “male citizens” in Section 2 and the word “sex” is conspicuously absent from the 15th Amendment. They aimed to garner support among Black men and turn them into an important voter bloc in the South. (Recall that, in this era, Republicans were the party of Lincoln.)
AERA’s abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, supported these amendments, believing it would not be possible to secure rights for Black men and women simultaneously. Though many abolitionists still supported women’s suffrage, they argued that women would need to be patient. Their day would come after Black men secured their rights.
Many of AERA’s suffragists, among them Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, felt betrayed and splintered from AERA to start feminist-focused organizations. And those suffragist organizations split further along the question of race.
That’s a quick summary of a nuanced chapter in American history, so there’s a hint of caricature to it. But it still shows the division inherent in identity politics. 
Both the abolitionists and the suffragists had the moral high ground. Their country had not recognized their fundamental human rights, and both deserved to have that gross injustice rectified. Yet, they fractured on the issue of identity, each staking a claim on putting their group’s interests first rather than on universal human interests and keeping their coalition whole.
Who knows what would have happened had the allegiance been maintained? Would women voters in the south have stood against Jim Crow laws or made them less comprehensive as they became more difficult to pass? Would newly enfranchised black women have become a force in American politics sooner than otherwise? We can’t say, though the alternative histories are fascinating, if a little heartbreaking, to consider.
Now, you can argue that AERA’s division was a matter of realpolitik, that the white men running Congress would never have supported an amendment granting both women and Black people the vote. And you’d be right. White identity politics, especially in the South, needlessly protracted the struggle of abolitionists and suffragists, causing much pain and suffering in the process.
But then there’s the rub. How can identity politics be the cure for identity politics? Any argument founded on the ideology that it’s right for me but not for thee is doomed to crumble under the weight of reason. In its place, we need to frame morality under the roof of universal human interests.

Be an Enlightened Colleague

  • To become an enlightened colleague, ask:
    • Do all individuals at our organization have a fair chance to prosper?
    • Does our organization appeal to a common logic? a common set of standards for reason? a common concern for human welfare?

If we don’t want our organizations to fracture into identity in-fighting, we need to cultivate a culture that admires our people’s character, allows everyone to flourish, and in which we create rules that enshrine fairness for everyone.
Asking and answering the questions above are a great place to start. But it needs to be an honest appraisal, and that’s where things become difficult. 
Cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, can blind us to problems within our organizations. We can believe in fairness and fostering the talents of others, while uncritically supporting practices that don’t live up to those ideals. 
To help, we need to empower our teams to speak and speak freely. We should also look to data and evidence, adjusting our views based on that information. We can also request outside parties to provide unbiased assessments.
Finally, pointing out the faults in identity politics does not mean never discussing identity at all. If we discover our organizations are limiting a group’s participation, are not hiring or promoting one group, or barring a group from accessing the inner circle, then that needs to change. And the starting line for that change is discussing the problem openly and honestly.
But that doesn’t mean picking teams like a high school gym class. Great justice, as Pinker says, comes from reason and recognizing each other’s universal interests, and fighting for those interests under the banner of our shared humanity.
Make our shared humanity your guiding principle with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, Steven Pinker joins more than 350 experts to teach management and organizational development skills. Learn how to cultivate an enlightened workplace with lessons such as:

  1. How Not to Dehumanize Your Opponent: The Art of Working With, Not Against, Our Natural Tribal Tendencies, with Adam Waytz, Social Psychologist and Author, The Power of Human
  2. The Power of Onlyness: Connect New Voices to the Group, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  3. Find Common Ground: What Evolutionary Biology Tells Us about Human Conflict, with Heather Heying, Evolutionary Biologist and Former Professor of Biology, Emerson State College
  4. Understand and Address Unconscious Bias, with Jennifer Brown, CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting
  5. How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Diversify Your Pipeline to the Board, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant

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