Aristotle’s answer to identity politics
Failure to engage with others as equals breeds revolution – a healthy society must seek common ground
Though Aristotle wrote about politics over 2,300 years ago, he nonetheless remains required reading for anyone who wants to understand our populist moment.
He taught that politics is not ultimately about safety or comfort, although he accepted that both are important. Instead, the true aim of politics is to increase happiness and to promote friendship. A government, in his view, did that well if it used laws to inculcate good habits in its citizens, so that they lived good lives in the company of people to whom they were tied by more than simple blood-kinship.
Unlike his teacher, Plato, Aristotle believed this good life could only be lived in what we would nowadays call a republican form of government. While Plato argued, in The Republic, for the rule of an enlightened philosopher-king, Aristotle contended that people should be both ruler and ruled in turn. Finding the right ruler means engaging in debate, which in turn requires treating each other as being equal in the most decisive respect. There are many differences between our liberal democracies and Aristotle’s ideal regime, but one can easily see the common threads that link the two across the millennia.
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Failure to engage with others as equals breeds revolution. Aristotle discusses this at length in Book Five of his Politics, and we would recognise many of the causes of revolution that he describes. Insolence, contempt, and the rapid introduction of strangers who “do not acquire at once a common spirit” all are things he cites as causing states to convulse and collapse. All those factors are present and visible in the populist movements of today.
Practitioners of identity politics on the Left and of doctrinaire libertarianism on the Right engage in insolent behaviour and display contempt for many of their fellow citizens, needlessly creating discord, strife, and conflict. Their inflexible and intolerant demands have created today’s populist backlash, which is nothing more than a cry that average, native-born citizens are people too.
Proponents of identity politics implicitly deny the possibility of reasonable discussion that can be conducted in a friendly, or at least civil, manner by all in society. They replace that with the idea that one’s lived experience is irretrievably shaped by race, gender, or innate orientation. If that is true, then political discussion is meaningless, because no group can truly understand an other – they are isolated from one another by the islands of their unique experiences. That is why we hear the epithets of racist, bigot, and sexist thrown about so wantonly – even to question the political demands of a group that feels powerless is illegitimate.