The mob was unusually vociferous, even for Twitter. After the California-born ice skater Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics, the New York Times writer Bari Weiss commented “Immigrants: They get the job done.”
What followed that innocuous tweet was one of the sillier, manufactured controversies I have ever seen on Twitter. Twitter’s socially conscious denizens probably only realized they should be outraged at Weiss after they saw other people being outraged, as is so often the case. Outside of Twitter, some of Weiss’s Times colleagues were also offended by the tweet—and even hurt by it. The critics’ objection was that Nagasu isn’t herself an immigrant, but rather the child of immigrants, and so calling her one was an example of “perpetual othering.”
I, too, am the child of immigrants. And if I were an Olympic figure skater and people associated me with immigrants—or called me an immigrant outright—I wouldn’t think twice. I would take it as a compliment, particularly because immigrants are one of the main reasons America is great.
Perhaps Weiss should have acknowledged the hurt she caused and apologized—or at least tried to understand why her comments were perceived as insensitive, or worse. But the premise behind this suggestion is itself problematic: Just because hundreds of people found something offensive doesn’t mean that it was, in fact, offensive.
As an Arab and a Muslim, I get the questions “Where are you from?”—by which people usually mean “Where are you really from?”—and “Were you born here?” quite often. It doesn’t usually occur to me to get offended. Similarly, when I ask someone where they’re from originally, and they tell me Connecticut, I am tempted to roll my eyes, since I don’t necessarily care that they’re from Connecticut. It’s only recently, as I’ve engaged more deeply in debates around identity politics, that I’ve become more conscious that I am often the only Muslim in a room.
In our identitarian age, the bar for offense has been lowered considerably, which makes democratic debate more difficult—citizens are more likely to withhold their true opinions if they fear being labeled as bigoted or insensitive. (The irony, of course, is that I can be a critic of identity politics without being labeled racist in part because of identity politics.) In the longer term, the effects of identity-driven discussions become even more pernicious. As I recently argued, basing our positions on who we are rather than what we believe is polarizing precisely because identities are more fixed than ideas.
This is why identity politics can sometimes seem like a new sort of political theology. Belief and conviction are good things, but only if there’s something to believe in. Identity politics and the virtue-outbidding it necessitates often signal the absence of religion in search of religion—with followers mimicking its constituent elements: ritual, purity, atonement, and excommunication.
In purely practical terms, moral posturing doesn’t usually change anyone’s mind, because people intuitively interpret it “as a form of jockeying for in-group status.” But it doesn’t need to change minds, nor is it necessarily supposed to. Its point is to transform politics into a question of purity. It’s not enough to have the right opinion or intent: The precise words used to convey the right opinion become just as important, as Weiss herself quickly found out. Within this framework, acknowledging the legitimacy of different opinions—if the language used can conceivably be seen as insensitive to a disadvantaged group—becomes more than difficult, too; it becomes a moral failing.
The disagreement within the left about the role and relevance of identity has bled into the larger culture. It is a dangerous disagreement, and it needs to be fought. Identity politics, as the backlash to Weiss shows, is divisive; it is polarizing; and it distracts from more fundamental debates. The large part of the country that is left-of-center, if it has any interest in winning elections, cannot simply depend on anti-Trumpism. It needs new ideas, but that requires actually having them. In the place of ideas, there is whatever this is: small differences, indignation, and an infatuation with being offended.