Strangely, it seems as if the very forces that could bring us together are tearing us apart. Internationally, the ability to communicate globally and establish common ground is giving way to fragmentation and isolationist policies. Nationally, the values of liberty and equality are giving way to entitlement and victimization. Locally, economic development simultaneously generates an excess of personal wealth and an increase in systemic poverty.
A similar process is taking place in the arena of identity. The inexorable urge towards emancipation dominates the history of the past 500 years. Slowly but progressively, freedom and equality have been granted to people who previously were slaves or were otherwise treated as second- or third-class citizens, such as African Americans, women and homosexuals. There have been periods of retrenchment during which social and political backlash slowed down the process of emancipation; overall, however, the arc of history leans towards freedom.
Yet we now find ourselves in a technological age like no other. Never before have tools existed that so readily allow people to connect and form affinity groups based upon identity. In this way, both progressive and regressive social attitudes find adherents, who are then able to organize, proclaim an identity and make efforts to influence others. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, began in response to the spate of accounts and video recordings of the killing of blacks by law enforcement. Black men in America suffer a long, sorry history of lynching, imprisonment, cruelty and economic discrimination; their fight for emancipation is long-standing. Now, however, nativist white men are mobilizing under a “white lives matter” banner. One movement engenders its counter-movement; this is not new. What is new are the communications and media tools facilitating this process.
Our technology is speedy, hurrying the growth of identity politics, and with it the fragmentation of society, a phenomenon of “re-tribalization.” In a world of over seven billion people, even small percentages add up to many people, now able to easily find each other. The spectrum of human types is nearly infinite, and so too is the identity potential. Within our rights-driven, ever-more-individualistic society, emancipation-by-identity quickly assumes the mantle of entitlement, and society is expected to adapt. Adaptation does occur, but not without conflict.
Here in Sonoma Valley, the conflict of class identity is becoming sharper. The super-wealthy identify themselves as entitled to pursue their personal goals as vigorously as possible, and have the money to do so; they want to build hillside mansions and pricey hotels. Those who identify as low-income renters actively pursue legislation to constrain landlords from imposing rent increases or eviction, but have the disadvantage of little money to do so; they want rent-controlled housing. Both sides feel entitled, but the power dynamic is anything but equal.
Sorting out identity, emancipation and entitlement is complicated, and left to government and the courts, ends up adjudicated as a matter of “rights.” Those who identify as originalists look to our Constitution for guidance. This does not solve the social problems of a fragmented society, however, nor does it forestall new fragmentation into yet more finely-grained identities.
Finding common ground is difficult, but the alternative is greater conflict. Unless we can reestablish social unity and sort out the imperatives of individualistic identity politics, our problems will only expand.