Identity Politics and the Web

What got American politics into this mess anyway?

Many say it was something called “identity politics.” You know, the kind of politics you see on the back of Volkswagens plastered with bumper stickers promoting abortion rights, gay rights, animal rights, and a cleaner environment. It’s also on the back of pickups whose bumpers feature a Jesus fish and bumper stickers proclaiming support for the Second Amendment and the rights of the unborn.

For all these good middle-class people, a single group identity has them seeing enemies all around them, enemies whose threats must be advertised and warned against. These people live wholly within their identity groups, never listening to the perceived enemy, never considering that reasonable people might disagree or reasonable compromises might be possible.

Although the choices seem black and white, it is possible to change identities and, thus, magically change positions. I well remember a pair of hippies from my college days. Back then, they were into sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll and given to making wild political pronouncements about the storm troopers who (they assumed) were out to bust them.

They never got busted, but they did find God. They became right-wing fundamentalists who homeschool their kids and seek to ban any semblance of fun from the face of the earth. They truly hate the people they were and might even hate their own kids if the youngsters found out about them or, worse, became like them. (Think I should snitch?)

The point is that the Internet makes such identity politics even easier. When you have cable, it becomes possible to ignore the other side, even if that other side includes outfits like Disney. With the Internet, it’s even easier. You can get all the entertainment, education, and validation you want from your own group and never step outside it. With your filters set properly on the Internet, you can keep your kids’ minds as closed as yours.

When I started covering this medium in the 1980s, it was agreed that the Internet would change the world in profound and wonderful ways. I made friends in Norway and Japan who opened my eyes to new worlds and new ideas. I assumed everyone would approach the medium in the way I had.

Well, maybe I was wrong. As the online world has broadened and deepened, it seems more people have closed their minds, not opened them. As more members of identity groups have come online, their members have found ample validation and support within those walls to make them, if anything, more paranoid about and angry at “enemies” than before. So in a nation that’s prosperous and at peace, we have a political system that’s the equivalent of an unmoderated newsgroup, filled with flames and vitriol, signifying nothing.

I was lecturing a friend about this over lunch recently, hoping that wireless technology might break down these walls for my son’s generation. My son was playing Pokimon on his Game Boy. He has become totally obsessed with this world of imaginary monsters. If the device were online, he might battle with other fanatics, and he might never come up for air. Pokimon, it seems, has become his identity.

That identity will surely change, but however it changes, there will be enough depth, content, and community online to keep him within its virtual walls forever. A technology geared to opening minds, it seems, can also bring validation to those that are closed.

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