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.