Robyn Blumner, the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, has a much discussed editorial in the current Free Inquiry about a split that she describes as between identitarians and humanists. It starts with a couple of definitions, or a definition and an affirmation.

Identitarian: A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit. (Source: Urban Dictionary)

“The Affirmations of Humanism”: We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity. (Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry, Spring 1987)

I think the Urban Dictionary is a less than ideal source of definitions if you’re trying to be fair to the side you oppose. For a start I think “identitarian” is a pejorative more than it is a standard noun, and for a continue I think the Urban Dictionary’s definition is not all that careful. Also, of course, the UD is not and doesn’t claim to be any kind of scholarly source.

I think I’d define “identitarian” as someone preoccupied with identity politics, but I would not go on to claim that identity politics=”group identity is the most important thing about a person.” I think that’s quite wrong (and I suppose that’s why I think Blumner should have looked for a better source). People who practice or perform or promote identity politics are aware that various identities are more or less favored, and they think life would be fairer if the most basic, comes-with-birth type identities didn’t have to overcome a Less Favored status. One doesn’t at all have to make that politics the most central thing in her life, let alone thinking a disfavored identity is the most important thing about a person. I’m a feminist, for example, and that’s an important thing about me, especially now when it’s all being thrown on the bonfire, but it’s not the most important. I think that’s true of most people.

So, in short, the editorial about identity politics v humanism starts with a non-scholarly definition of idpol from a famously non-scholarly source, and proceeds from there. The well is a tad murky from the outset. The dice are loaded.

And Kurtz’s affirmation sounds nice but it too has that ignoring the realities problem. It’s all very well to talk about transcending “divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” but the trouble is that some people – most people in fact – can’t transcend them, because everyone else remains fully aware of them. Jews in Nazi Germany couldn’t “transcend” their pesky Jewishness; you do the math.

It’s true that people can get very bogged down in the identity stuff, and it can be tedious or clogging or beside the point or all those, but still, we’re not free to “transcend” our identities in the eyes of everyone else.

Blumner says we need to work together particularly now, so this split is a bad thing.

The division has to do with a fundamental precept of humanism, that enriching human individuality and celebrating the individual is the basis upon which humanism is built. Humanism valorizes the individual—and with good reason; we are each the hero of our own story. Not only is one’s individual sovereignty more essential to the humanist project than one’s group affiliation, but fighting for individual freedom—which includes freedom of conscience, speech, and inquiry—is part of the writ-large agenda of humanism. It unleashes creativity and grants us the breathing space to be agents in our own lives.

It’s too Ayn Randian for my taste. In particular, “one’s individual sovereignty [is] more essential to the humanist project than one’s group affiliation” comes across as ruthlessly Me First. Yes, it’s good for people to have lots of freedom and independence, but it’s also good for people to take heed of others, and give up some freedoms in order to live and work with others. The freedom to have a rave on your front lawn at 3 a.m. isn’t a freedom worth protecting. The freedom to destroy the planet isn’t a freedom worth having.

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