Opinion

Identity politics run amok in a middle school

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It was an otherwise innocent stroll through Frank Harrison Middle School, where my oldest son goes to school, when my eye caught a display on the wall.

It appeared to be a project — specifically a survey — conducted by students in the school on the issue of discrimination.

The display had six large sections, each with a different color and a label. Race and skin color. National origin. Sexual orientation. Gender (including gender identity and expression). Disabilities. Religion.

At the bottom of the display was a question. “Which of these categories do you think is the most discriminated against in our school?” A chart with the results was next to it.

Some people may see this display and think it is wonderful. That it is preparing kids for an ugly world and trying to make them aware of how people discriminate against others.

A noble goal, I would agree. Sadly, you have to think deeper to see why I have such a problem with it.

To start with, this display sends two very specific messages to the kids who see it.

The first message is that the students are to be defined by their inclusion in a series of social demographic groups. This grooms children to define themselves, and their peers, by a series of superficialities.

Of course, once we start sorting people into groups, we naturally begin assuming things about them, assigning terms like “privileged” and “discriminated against” to them, based on nothing more than their membership in that group.

When I grew up, I was taught not to label people, and to reject attempts at categorization of human beings. It led, I was told, to inappropriate judgments based on stereotyping and perpetuated the various -isms that plagued society.

I prefer judging people by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin or their membership in a pre-defined demographic group.

Concepts like “privilege” flow inexorably from the brand of identity politics we are training our children to think in. Here, the lack of membership in a group listed on this display automatically assigns you a status, and once again it has nothing to do with the realities of your life, but rather how you have been categorized.

This way of thinking is toxic, and fosters the very thing that we should be trying to stamp out of society.

We shouldn’t be teaching kids that they are fundamentally different from each other at all. If my son has a friend who happens to be gay, I do not want him to think of his friend as “my gay friend” but rather as “Steve,” who just so happens to like guys.

Which brings me to my second issue with this display. The question at the bottom.

In framing it as they do — asking which group is discriminated against the most — they are indoctrinating kids to think that discrimination in a middle school exists. Whether it really does or not. Whether they think it does or not.

Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But this predetermined to kids that it does.

Imagine being a member of one of these groups, and having never in your life experienced anything resembling discrimination.

Now imagine that you see and participate in this, and it is followed up by years of psychological cultivation. You see surveys like this that label you as being a member of a class of people that is experiencing discrimination.

Do you think that maybe, over time, you might start to look for discrimination, whether it is there or not? Do you think you might start to look at the world around you as full of hostility?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is where the concept of microaggressions and privilege points comes from. This is how we get Social Justice Warriors. This is why identity politics is so toxic.

If you have been taught all your life that group membership is paramount, and that those group
memberships dictate the level to which you are discriminated against, or how privileged you are, than such thinking is the natural outgrowth.

I have no doubt that the creators of this display meant well, trying to teach children that the world is imperfect and that discrimination exists. I applaud the motivation behind it.

Ironically, though, the fostering of identity politics is instead creating a world in which the identification and judgment of other people based on superficialities rather than substance — the very thing the civil rights movement fought to end — is perpetuated.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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