How Identity Politics Divides Us

How Identity Politics Divides Us

Those of us who oppose to identity politics often do so because we believe that it is a worldview that increases societal division, by encouraging people to divide themselves into groups within society and then pitting those groups against each other. This would be in contrast to worldviews that strengthen society by seeking to focus on what unites and brings people together, perhaps as citizens of a nation, members of a community or even employees of a company. There have been numerous books and studies written about this, such as the one described here showing that, in many cases, diversity training can actually increase discrimination, by emphasising differences and thereby bringing biases more prominently to mind.

Last week presented a perfect example of this, when what should have been an inspiring story of international science collaboration to capture the first image of a black hole soon became overtaken by different factions debating the contribution of one of the lead researchers, Dr. Katie Bouman. The New York Times(1) has a fairly good summary of the facts of the case; the TL:DR version is that Bouman was one of the leading contributors in an international collaboration of over 200 scientists. It should be noted that – as far as I’m aware – every single member of the team has repeatedly emphasised that it was a group effort, and upheld the contributions of other members of the team.

Of course, the press likes a human face and, for various good reasons – including her scientific contribution; the fact that designing an algorithm is (to a layperson) one of the more comprehensible components of the project; perhaps her relatively young age (29); and a particularly good photo that captured the joy of scientific discovery – Bouman captured media interest more than some of her colleagues. This was entirely deserved and, in the initial reports, entirely in line with other breakthroughs, where one or two people are often used as the face of wider team efforts. Within 1-2 days, however, a miniature culture war had broken out.

On the one hand, there were people keen to emphasise her contribution. Widely shared comments and articles I saw ranged from the factually incorrect (‘the woman who single-handled photographed a black hole’); through those criticising the media for downplaying or erasing her contribution; to those which while not inaccurate, clearly cared far more about the fact that it was a female scientist than about the discovery itself, and were often using the opportunity to promote broader agenda about women in science. On the other hand, there were also large numbers of people sharing articles and memes denigrating her contribution, making spurious comparisons with other team members based on numbers of lines of code written, direct trollish harassment and even setting up fake social media accounts to misrepresent her. My own social media bubble leans socially progressive, so I saw very few of the latter myself, but I’ve read convincing accounts of them and believe they exist and that they were widely shared. By day three, posts arguing about Bouman’s contribution significantly outnumbered posts about the actual discovery on my social media timelines.

My point is not to rehash this particular case, but to observe that this was not something unusual, but rather an increasingly common phenomenon in our society. The reaction, on both sides, is the inevitable consequence of an ideology that emphasises division and separateness, pitting groups against each other rather than focusing on what unites and brings us together. Though it does so unintentionally, identity politics promotes division and hatred in our society.

There were so many aspects of unity that could have been celebrated in this case, from the global community of science to the stunning international collaboration involving researchers with dozens of nationalities and eight different telescopes around the world. The team members themselves wanted nothing more than to uphold each other’s contributions and celebrate the discovery. But until we, as a society, learn to focus on what unites rather than what divides us, these conflicts will continue to occur.

(1) The New York Times is generally regarded as a reputable paper with a centre-left / socially liberal editorial stance.

One thought on “How Identity Politics Divides Us

  1. This was a bizarre one. From what I could tell the source seems to be a Facebook photo that Katie Bouman posted herself, which the media ran with based solely on the short caption (with little out no context). (To be clear, absolutely no fault attributed there to Bouman!). Within my twitter bubble it *seemed* to play out OK in the end. Bouman ended up as a bit of a role model (though she is not on Twitter herself, other than in the guise of a number of fake accounts), and the message was clear that she was leading one of four teams (which are, for what it’s worth, led by 2 men and two women, if I recall correctly) to analyse the data simultaneously and independently (to allow cross-checking).

    However, I certainly heard of and saw links to the more troll-like behaviour (including someone trying to argue that her Wikipedia page should be deleted as she’s not senior/important enough, only to be revealed as the same person who created a page for a fake cat called Brexit!). The problem is that such behaviour discourages other members of underrepresented groups from stepping into the limelight, and the problem perpetuates.

    One ray of sunshine was that I didn’t see any mention of her age or marital status in what I read, though maybe I wasn’t reading the right (or wrong!) pieces…

    It is a credit to the EHT team that they largely all seemed to come out of it very well (again, from what I saw). And the world is now more aware of another example of a female computer scientist.

    What I find odd is that the fact that this image was the result of hundreds of people’s labour is a much more inspiring story than highlighting one person’s role, not to mention the technological challenges involved. For a start 50 people writing one piece of code together is *much* harder than 50 people writing 50 different pieces of code.

    That’s one of the reasons the a group in LIGO started “Humans of Ligo” ( to showcase the diversity of people (and one raven…) working on the project from all over the world, in all sorts of roles. The “people like me” aspect is important, but it doesn’t have to be the people at the top who are “like me” for the message to work.

    I notice a similar thing with other international science stories. There’s a habit of focusing on what a particular [country|institution|group] has done. Sure, mention that there are people from X working on this, and that they built component Y. But the impressive thing should be that people from X are working in a huge team to develop Z. The press releases normally aren’t too bad (providing the PR team haven’t gone over board!), but the media stories are normally very narrow. The most galling recent story was the New Horizons flybe of 2014 MU69. At the press conference there were US flags flying in the audience, and chants of “USA, USA”, which seemed somewhat undignified (not to mention the team’s approach to naming things, which is a different issue).

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