If you live long enough, you learn a simple, sad fact. Individual adversity does not necessarily build individual character. In other words, spend enough time in the real world and you’ll see people experience enormous challenges — like the loss of a spouse, the loss of a job, or severe illness — and quite simply collapse. They’ll disappear into the fog of depression. They’ll succumb to addiction. They’ll nurse a permanent sense of grievance that renders them incapable of maintaining functional human relationships.
In other words, the old phrase, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is often a lie. A positive reaction to adversity isn’t inevitable. In fact, when we see people respond to adversity with courage and dignity, we applaud often because it’s extraordinary. We highlight and admire those who’ve come through the fire and emerged wiser and stronger because they offer insight and inspiration that’s often rare in American life.
These truths should be self-evident, but they’re not. Consider this tweet from the Democratic party’s official account:
Let’s elect:— The Democrats (@TheDemocrats) January 7, 2018
Our progressive culture certainly doesn’t apply that logic to men — even though men face large-scale adversity as well. Men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women. They’re more likely to be killed at work and at war. They have shorter lifespans. They are less likely to attend or graduate from college. They have much higher rates of suicide and illicit drug use. In other words, in multiple key areas of American life men as a group face greater adversity than women as a group. Yet to the extent our progressive culture ascribes a group identity to men, it’s all too often as toxic oppressors — not as humans facing their own unique challenges.
Social movements go awry the instant they move from justice to identity politics. Movements like #MeToo are immensely valuable when they can lead to awareness and — crucially — accountability for the individuals who commit legal and moral wrongs. Reliably imposing individual justice on predators can have just as profound a positive cultural effect as permitting predators to victimize women with impunity can have negative effects. In other words, justice is a culture change — especially when justice has been systematically denied.
Identity politics, however, exploits suffering for the sake of power. Ambitious politicians hitch their wagons to other people’s pain. It’s odd that Democrats would argue that a person’s life experience as a Jewish woman, a black woman, an LGBT woman, or a Millennial woman should drive them to the same conclusions about health-care policy, gun rights, abortion rights, foreign policy, economic policy, and tax rates. It’s odd how Democrats would argue that those shared views would render, say, a wealthy LGBT woman who’s never experienced sexual harassment as a more “authentic” standard-bearer for women than a conservative woman who’s an actual rape victim.
It’s simple, really. Membership in a particular demographic group does not always produce suffering. Even when there is suffering, it does not always produce wisdom or virtue. Moreover, even when the response to suffering is virtuous, it does not produce ideological uniformity. Thus, it’s vitally important that we evaluate politicians as individuals. We don’t need more of any given demographic in American politics, we need better people in American politics — regardless of their group identity.
Identity politics rejects all these realities. It’s built on a series of fundamental untruths — that membership in particular demographic groups equates with victimization, victimization produces wisdom, and this wisdom is progressive and uniform across each and every marginalized victim group. The result is toxic. Because it flies in the face of reality, identity politics can only be maintained through tribalism and bullying. Dissenters are punished. Diversity of thought is suppressed. The virtue of accountability is transformed in short order into the vice of group blame.
We need better people in American politics — regardless of their group identity.
As with every social movement in our hyper-politicized time, #MeToo is at a crossroads. It can retain its focus on justice and maintain its extraordinary potency. Or it can devolve into just another partisan movement that attempts to carve America into ideologically uniform interest groups. The problem in our culture isn’t “men.” It’s individual males. The political answer isn’t “women” (or, more precisely, “progressive women”). It’s individuals who seek justice. Any other approach risks sacrificing real cultural progress for the sake of short-term political gain.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.