identities, interests, and opinions

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, this is the zone we’re currently in:

We all need some account of what would make a good–or at least a better–society. This idea can be provisional and open-ended; we still need something to orient us. If you think that it’s easy to define “social justice,” consider that it was the name of Father Coughlin’s antisemitic and pro-Nazimagazine in the 1930s.

We must consider the potential of bottom-up, participatory, social movements to promote justice, because the powerful won’t reliably offer justice. However, reasonable people disagree about how important bottom-up politics is. Maybe top-down leadership or impersonal forces are much more significant.

Finally, we must consider how identities (what we are, as opposed to what we think) fit in. Is all politics identity-politics? Or should we distinguish between “old” social movements, which made universalist claims, and “new” ones, which are identity-based? If the distinction holds, is the change good or bad? Also, does justice require fair treatment of identities? And what is an identity? For example, religion: an identity or a set of beliefs?

As always, it’s our students’ job to navigate their own way through these shoals; I don’t offer answers. But I do think it is interesting to distinguish:

  • An identity: “Speaking as a …”
  • An interest: “I want …”
  • An opinion: “We should …”

I’ll stipulate that we all use all of these forms of speech, and they are all protected under the First Amendment. Which ones are allowed is not a good question. But we might ask:

  • Which of these can be right or wrong?
  • Which can/should be subject to compromise?
  • Which does one have a moral right to? (Relatedly, which ones do other people have an obligation to honor in various ways?)
  • Which should we be open to changing, and why?

Here is an example of a view, although I am not wedded to it:

People have a right to their identities. Sometimes we should change our identities in response to new understandings. For instance, some people didn’t used to see sexual orientation as an identity, especially if they happened to be straight; now they should see heterosexuality as an identity. We should not, however, compromise our identities as part of a deal with others. We are usually right about our own identities, but not inevitably. We can lie or even lie to ourselves about who we are.

We should be open to compromising our interests in order to share the world with others. Whether to compromise depends in part on the moral standing of the other party. We should also be open to changing our interests in response to principled arguments, but that is a different process from compromise. We have a right to certain basic interests, but we can claim interests that we do not have a right to. You can disagree that something is my legitimate interest. I may even owe you an argument that it is.

Our opinions can be right or wrong. We should be open to changing them on the basis of evidence and arguments. We shouldn’t easily compromise them (in the sense of splitting the difference), although there are times when that is wise. Opinions should be sincere, so if you do compromise them, you should mean it.

See also: the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today; don’t confuse bias and judgment; and why study social justice?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.