Mile-High Identity Politics: What We Can Learn From the Same-Sex Seating Controversy

Image: Kevin Woblick/Unsplash

A recent New York Times story on the tension caused when Orthodox Jewish men request same-sex seating on airlines for religious reasons generated over 3,000 reader responses. The scenario as described in the story generally unfolds something like this: the individual reaches his assigned seat and finds that the seat next to him is occupied by a woman. He shifts uncomfortably in the aisle until the flight attendant or an alert passenger recognizes what’s going on and asks the woman to switch seats with a male so the Orthodox Jew may have his religious views accommodated. Often the woman is offended; sometimes she refuses to move. This has made for many challenging situations and some flight delays.

A significant theme in the comments was frustration expressed by women—and by men on their behalf—about the male privilege woven into religion and exercised by the Orthodox men in this situation. Here is a representative sample:

‘Why is sexism okay because of tradition?’

‘This is the United States in 2015, not the fourth century … You’re not free to practice your religion in my airline seat.’

‘This is male entitlement .. the height of male arrogance.’

One comment referred to this as a ‘back of the bus’ issue; as in, women being asked to move in such circumstances was tantamount to assigning them a lesser status as citizens and lower dignity as human beings. Other readers proposed that airlines set aside special seating for men requiring such accommodations—in the back of the airplane.

I fly frequently and while I have never witnessed the above situation I have seen many circumstances in which people have moved to accommodate others. I have seen people give up their aisle seat to a senior citizen and take his middle. I have watched passengers with first class seats hand their tickets to uniformed veterans and sit in economy. Several times I have witnessed people move further back to allow a mother to sit next to her children.

All of these required not only the hassle of moving, but also the discomfort of a worse seat. Sometimes the person with the better seat was asked, sometimes s/he offered. In most situations, the person moving to the worse seat appeared happy to accommodate. Moreover, the surrounding passengers acted as if that individual had done something noble. Interestingly, several responders noted situations in which they had moved for other passengers, suggesting that Times readers, like the general population of air travelers, are willing to accommodate some people in some circumstances.

The obvious question: why is exchanging seats on an airplane with a senior citizen, a mother with children or a uniformed veteran considered a noble gesture while doing the same for an Orthodox Jewish man viewed as acquiescing to patriarchal oppression?

The Matter of Identity

I have found it interesting to look at this situation in light of the influential identity politics formulation that ‘the personal is political’. First advanced by women in the feminist movement, it now serves as a pretty good one-line definition of cultural progressivism more broadly. I have heard it referenced in arguments for everything from Ethnic Studies departments to LGBT safe spaces.

That the personal is political centers on two chief ideas: 1) that identities matter (the personal); and 2) that those identities express themselves in public forms (the political). It was certainly the way many of those who commented on the Times story framed their views. As a woman (the personal), I interpret your request as patriarchal and will not move to accommodate it (the political).  

But isn’t being an Orthodox Jew also an identity that matters? And isn’t seeking an accommodation based on that identity a legitimate public expression? And isn’t the accommodation that individual is seeking something that is commonly offered to other people with different identities?

No doubt this is a distinct circumstance based on a very particular identity, but cultural progressives are often on the vanguard of fighting for special accommodations for specific groups. Women-only, black-only and LGBT-only spaces are a relevant parallel. Such spaces take into account the issues related to certain social identities (the personal) and advocate for a reshaping of the public square to accommodate it (the political). This requires some sacrifice of others. At the very least it means restricting their freedom by not allowing them to enter a certain facility while it is being used by a particular identity group. Why does this logic not include the Orthodox Jewish man on the plane?

One might argue that the Orthodox Jew is actively inconveniencing you by asking you to move. Yes, but so is the mother who wants to sit by her children. In twenty years of flying I have never seen anybody deny that request.

The central issue may be that the Orthodox Jew is targeting only a specific identity to move—namely women. Yes, but when black students at Oak Park River Forest High School held a black-only meeting to discuss racism (in collaboration with the African-American principal of the school), particular identities were marked as not-invited—namely, white, Asian, Latino, and other non-black students at the high school. Many cultural progressives supported the meeting, claiming that power issues in the broader culture and the long history of oppression of African Americans justified creating this protected space.

There is a parallel to be made to the situation on the plane. Women have long been marginalized by men. A man asking a woman to move on a flight may reasonably be interpreted as another chapter in a seemingly never-ending story.

I am sympathetic to such a view. But haven’t Orthodox Jews experienced a long history of oppression? As far as who feels marginalized in the specific context of a typical commercial flight, consider that separation of sexes is far more common in traditional religious environments. Does the Orthodox Jewish man have a case that secular modernity is marginalizing his identity, and that all those comfortable with the current system are complicit in his marginalization? This would probably include the majority of the passengers on the airplane.

Perhaps the central difference is that religion is a choice. One cannot help being a woman but one can choose not to be the kind of Jew who refuses to sit next to women. But cultural progressivism has long defined identity based not on straightforward physical features such as skin color or genitalia but on assigned meaning. A core value of the cultural progressive worldview is that people get to select the identities that matter to them and assign the meaning they choose.

For example, cultural progressives frequently advocate for minority ethnic groups to speak their native languages or dialects if they wish, and dress and wear their hair in ways that are meaningful and comfortable for them. It seems to me the Orthodox Jewish man on the plane can make the same argument. Just like the African American who chooses to wear an afro and the woman who does not shave her legs—both common expressions of the personal as political—he is assigning a particular meaning to his identity as a Jew. It just so happens that the expression of the meaning he assigns to his religious identity is in conflict with the meaning that the woman sitting in the airline seat assigns to her gender.

All of this can be summed up in a simple turn of the original formulation: for whom may the personal be political, and how?

A Religion-Shaped Hole

I am a proud and grateful product of cultural progressivism. As a brown kid who grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago wanting to be white, the cultural progressivism I encountered in college helped me take pride in my color and ethnicity. I believe identities matter a great deal, and that expressing those identities in public is necessary and natural. But I think there are challenges, contradictions and blind spots in the broader movement of cultural progressivism which ought to be raised. The airline example reveals some of these.

First of all, there is a religion-shaped hole in the worldview of cultural progressivism. The rancor expressed towards Orthodox Jews on the Times website is one example of this. The preferred identities of cultural progressivism are race, gender and sexuality. There are good reasons that these identities are favored. Each category includes large groups of people who tend to convene around certain symbols, ideas and issues. But preferring some identities ought not be done in such a manner that other clearly important categories are ignored or marginalized, namely religion. If the fundamental logic of cultural progressivism is that people get to choose the identity that matters to them and assign whatever meaning they see fit, then disqualifying religion effectively leaves out large groups of people. And those people have every right to point out the hypocrisy of the personal is political line of thinking when they are excluded.

In addition to favoring particular personal identities, the movement of cultural progressivism also hopes to match these preferred identities with approved political expressions. Consider the many bumper stickers that link the identity of being a woman with the political expression of being pro-choice. ‘Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries’ is a particularly visual example. But the General Social Survey demonstrates that women on the whole are actually less likely to favor abortion than men. Why is that? The data show that the ‘rosaries’ part of the bumper sticker turns out to be quite influential. Religiosity matters to people, including women, when it comes to deciding their position on abortion. This is a frustrating finding to many cultural progressives who want the link between preferred personal identities like being female and approved politics like being pro-choice to feel inevitable.

Alas, many human beings have other ideas about which identities matter most and what those identities mean, and generally speaking they do not like being told what should matter to them and how.

The final contradiction at the heart of cultural progressivism is its desire to create frictionless solidarity amongst marginalized groups. The idea is that oppressions are all alike because they are caused by western white male heterosexual Christians. Everybody else forms a single nation—or rather, political party—with similar interests and a common platform. The problem here is that this worldview does not account for the many places where the various subgroups of this ‘party of the oppressed’ are actually in tension.

An Orthodox Jewish man (marginalized by his religion) asking a woman (marginalized by her gender) to move on an airplane is a pretty good illustration of this. Another place this tension plays out is in mainline Protestant denominations with regards to same sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. Many Africans in the Anglican Communion and the Methodist Church are opposed to both. They claim that this position is an expression of their identity as Africans. This is a way that the personal becomes political for them.

This of course stands in sharp contrast to the desires of the LGBT community in the west—another objectively marginalized group. Such tensions create great discomfort in cultural progressivism because they fly in the face of the claim that oppressed people must always be aligned with one another. But they are real nonetheless and ignoring them undermines the credibility of the broader movement.

None of the above is meant as a repudiation of cultural progressivism. The movement has done a great deal for a great many. My own debt is massive. I have always been a brown kid; cultural progressivism made me a person of color.

Beyond its contribution to the consciousness of women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community, it has dramatically strengthened our larger democracy. For a long time it was possible to think that a democratic society was a place where identity differences did not matter. We would all read from a short list of sanctioned authors, reason together in the same mode and manner and come to the same conclusions about virtue, community, the good life, etc.

Cultural progressivism highlighted minority perspectives and women’s ways of knowing as primary modes for public discourse and therefore essential to the very fabric of a diverse democracy. It rolled its eyes at elementary school multicultural events that pretended diversity was about tasting samosas and egg rolls (extra points for trying both!) and spoke openly about the unsettling reality of power differences.

That’s why the blind spots, tensions and hypocrisies are so damaging. In a democracy as raucous and diverse as ours, a movement whose rallying cry is the personal is political needs to take into account a wider range of what our population considers personal and respect the various ways people express those identities publicly. If women saying they are voting for Hilary because she’s a woman makes sense to you, then women who are Baptists saying they are voting for Huckabee because he is Baptist ought to make sense too. Diversity is not just about the differences you like, it’s also about the differences you don’t like.

Finally, cultural progressives need to recognize that diversity entails disagreement. When marginalized groups (Jews and women, Africans and gays, blacks and Latinos) have a dispute, it is not always because they lack a sufficient analysis of western colonialism. Often it is because a dimension of their substantive identities are in conflict. A healthy diverse democracy is a place where people who disagree on some fundamental things do it without killing each other, and are able to move on and work together on other fundamental things.

This is the highest hope for America and the ultimate purpose of cultural progressivism.