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)
The humanist project is at a dangerous crossroads. I fear that our cohesion as fellow humanists is being torn apart by a strain of identitarianism that is making enemies of long-standing friends and opponents of natural allies.
Just at a time when it is essential for all of us to come together to work arm-in-arm against Christian Nationalism and the rise of religious privilege in law, humanism is facing a schism within its own movement. It is heartbreaking to watch and even more disheartening to know that the continued breach seems destined to grow.
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.
Or at least that idea used to be at the core of humanism.
Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.
This has given rise to a corrosive cultural environment awash in controversial speakers being shouted down on college campuses; even liberal professors and newspaper editors losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; the cancellation of great historical figures for being men of their time; and a range of outlandish claims of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and other crimes against current orthodoxy.
It has pitted humanists who stand for foundational civil liberties principles such as free speech and equal protection under the law against others on the political Left who think individual freedoms should give way when they fail to serve the interests of select identity groups. The most important feature of the symbol of justice is not her sword or scales; it is her blindfold. Identitarians would pull it off so she could benefit certain groups over others.
Good people with humanist hearts have been pilloried if they don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle of the identitarian gospel. A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.
Apparently decades of past good works are erased by 280 characters. Just poof. No wonder a New York Times poll1 recently found that 84 percent of adults say it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.
This is what identitarians have wrought. Rather than lifting up individuals and imbuing them with autonomy and all the extraordinary uniqueness that flows from it, identitarians would divide us all into racial, ethnic, and gender-based groups and make that group affiliation our defining characteristic. This has the distorting effect of obliterating personal agency, rewarding group victimhood, and incentivizing competition to be seen as the most oppressed.
In addition to being inherently divisive, this is self-reinforcing defeatism. It results in extreme examples, such as a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement.2 Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.
Not only does the truth suffer under this assault on common sense, but we start to live in a Harrison Bergeron world where one’s natural skills are necessarily sacrificed on the altar of equality or, in today’s parlance, equity.
Of course, the identitarians’ focus is not just on racial issues. Gender divisions also play out on center stage. I was at a secular conference recently when a humanist leader expressed the view that if you don’t have a uterus, you have no business speaking about abortion.
Really? Only people with female reproductive organs should be heard on one of the most consequential issues of the day? Such a call, itself, is a form of lamentable sexism. And it seems purposely to ignore the fact that plenty of people with a uterus are actively opposed to the right to choose, while plenty of people without a uterus are among our greatest allies for abortion rights. Why should those of us who care about reproductive freedom cut fully half of all humanity from our roster of potential vocal supporters and activists?
As has been said by others perplexed and disturbed by such a narrow-minded view, you don’t have to be poor to have a valid opinion on ways to alleviate poverty. You don’t have to be a police officer to have a valid opinion on policing. And, similarly, you don’t have to be a woman to have a valid opinion on abortion rights.
If the Affirmation quoted at the beginning of this article that rejects “divisive parochial loyalties” based on facile group affiliations isn’t a rejection of identitarianism, I don’t know what is. In his 1968 essay “Humanism and the Freedom of the Individual,” Kurtz stated bluntly:
Any humanism that does not cherish the individual, I am prepared to argue, is neither humanistic nor humanitarian. … Any humanism worthy of the name should be concerned with the preservation of the individual personality with all of its unique idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. We need a society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle. The existence of individual freedom thus is an essential condition for the social good and a necessary end of humanitarianism.
The individual is the most important unit in humanism. When our individuality is stripped away so we can be fitted into prescribed identity groups instead, something essential to the humanist project is lost. Those pushing for this conception of society are misconstruing humanism, diminishing human potential and self-actualization, and driving a wedge between good people everywhere.
1. The New York Times/Siena College Research Institute February 9–22, 2022 1,507 United States Residents Age 18+. Available online at https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/free-speech-poll-nyt-and-siena-college/ef971d5e78e1d2f9/full.pdf.
Jacey Fortin, “California Tries to Close the Gap in Math, but Sets Off a Backlash,” New York Times, November 4, 2021. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/04/us/california-math-curriculum-guidelines.html.
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, …