What If We Renamed Identity Politics, ‘Humility Politics?’

During a recent encounter on social media, a friend of mine, who is a brilliant professor at a leading American law school, was trying to think about two legal stories in the news media: Donald Trump’s statement that the judge in a civil case against him should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage; and calls for the removal of a judge who gave a short sentence to Brock Turner, a Stanford University student convicted of rape.

My friend admitted to having trouble articulating the difference between the calls in the two cases. Trump was suggesting that Judge Curiel had a bias against him because of his own background, which, in light of Trump’s very public calls for building a wall with Mexico, Trump assumed would lead the judge to side with Trump’s accusers and prevent him from having a fair trial. In the other case, the judge appeared to have allowed his own biases to lead him to a lenient ruling towards the defendant: like the defendant, the judge was a white male, and had been a student, and a swimmer, at Stanford.

In both cases, the accusation was that the judges were allowing their biases to affect their rulings. Setting aside everything else, was there a difference on this score?

One important difference, as another very smart friend pointed out in the social media conversation, is that Trump was making a categorical assertion: not that Judge Curiel was himself active in immigrant causes, or might have specific reason to be biased against Trump, but simply by virtue of his ethnicity he would be incapable of fairness. That’s not a defensible assertion. In the Turner case, by contrast, the charge is that the judge was individually biased toward the defendant because of specific attributes they shared in common. That is grounds for questioning a judge’s impartiality, and a general reason judges will recuse themselves or counsel will ask them to do so.

Now I’ll hedge: I’m not a legal scholar, and I would need to know much more about all of these issues to make an informed decision. But I see something else here, and it has to do with identity politics, and the way we talk about identities.

At a recent conference presentation, someone asked me about our tagline at Ask Big Questions: “Understand Others. Understand Yourself.”

“Shouldn’t it be the other way round?” they asked. “Don’t you need to understand yourself before you can understand others?”

My first response was a bit of a dodge: From a linguistic point of view, it’s simply nicer to end the first clause with an S than an F. (Looking for a linguist assist here, so if you’re a linguist and can explain that one, please do!)

But my more substantive response is this: Yes, there’s a reason. It’s about humility.

The most important thing about our tagline is that both self and others are braided together. At Ask Big Questions we believe we can’t understand ourselves unless we understand others, and we can’t understand others unless we understand ourselves. The two processes are inseparable.

My selfhood is bound up in yours, and yours in mine, and therefore neither of us is greater than the other. Each of us is unique, and each of us is part of a greater whole. As we learn about ourselves and one another through talking and listening and being together, we find that our stories shape our values and our actions. At the same time, they don’t have to be determinative: Our stories don’t tell us we have to have certain values, or behave in certain ways.

If we take this idea seriously, then it should lead us to a sense of humility: We can’t predict what someone will do, and they can’t assume they know us before they’ve heard our story. To do either would reflect arrogance.

In recent years, our society, and our college campuses, have been infused by an approach to identity politics that, in my view anyway, seems to be struggling with this tension of humility and arrogance. At its best, the movement to appreciate each other’s stories, to learn about one another’s backgrounds, to discover one another more fully, leads to curiosity, a capacity to make room for each other, and greater trust between people. At its worst, identity politics can shut down conversation, lead to othering and exclusion, and degrade the trust on which communities depend.

I wonder, then, whether we might consider using a different term than identity politics. Maybe we could call it ‘humility politics.’  This would be a politics imbued with the values of diversity, inclusion, listening, making room, and building the capacity for trust. For judges, it would mean cultivating the humility to be aware of personal biases. For political leaders, it would mean demonstrating the humility not to assume we know someone else’s story before they’ve told it. For citizens—and in a democracy, all citizens are judges and leaders—it would mean practicing the humility to listen, to engage, not to rush to judgment (even, perhaps especially, on social media).

We are all in this together. We can’t know ourselves outside of relationship with each other, and we can’t know each other unless we understand and bring our selves to the conversation.

Humility politics: Let’s give it a try.