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The age of identity politics

As people increasingly define themselves by their gender, faith, sexuality or race, our empathy is ebbing away, according the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. How is the drive for greater acceptance among marginalised groups actually hardening opinions among many people? 

In May, David Isaac, chair of the UK’s equality watchdog, made a damning case against identity politics. Speaking to the Observer, he said the tendency for people to define themselves by a particular subgroup (gender, sexuality, faith, race, etc) was undermining empathy among Britons.

“The key issue is how do we move beyond the ‘I’ to the ‘we’, how do we think of ourselves as citizens in a country or in the world who are not just focused on what works for me and my narrow group,” he said. “How do we ensure that we think about people who are different to us?”

His comments were driven in part by an ongoing row in Birmingham, where a group of Muslim parents were protesting against LGBT education in schools. It was a stark example of the ways one identity (a faith group) could clash with another (LGBT), and seemed to rest on the assumption that protecting one’s interests was a zero sum game.

The challenge, suggested Isaac, was to ensure “we don’t end up in the siloed world where everybody is hypersensitive about their own individual interests and less empathetic about how other people are treated.”

Of course, this was far from the first time identity politics as a concept had come under flak. Francis Fukuyuma’s recent book Identity pegs identity politics as a threat to liberal democracies. Amy Chua’s Political Tribes suggests that ethnic and tribal affinities are becoming a source of fragmentation and ultimately conflict.

In Australia, a recent parliamentary inquiry has labeled identity politics a ‘source of intolerance’ alongside right-wing nationalism. And an academic journal, the Journal of Controversial Ideas, has been set up to combat the creep of identity politics into academia.

In fact, so prevalent are critiques of identity politics, it’s sometimes hard to determine what’s being criticised – is it a clearly defined concept or a bogeyman that changes its meaning according to the critic? Dr Timothy Oliver, a lecturer in British Politics and Public Policy at the University of Manchester, feels the term has become shorthand for ‘something we don’t like’.

“The central argument appears to be that identity politics is a barrier to compromise, it’s a barrier to community, it’s a barrier to togetherness,” he says. “But everyone practices identity politics, in that all politics includes an element of identity at all times. Often the people who shout the loudest about how terrible it is, are people who have got quite attached to a certain identity.”

The classic case here might be a white working-class Trump voter, who sees the Democratic party as placing minorities’ interests above their own. Or, a Brexit supporter laying into the ‘metropolitan elite’ – a supposed ruling class who are out of touch with more authentically British concerns.

More toxic are the likes of ‘white pride’ and ‘men’s rights activist’ movements – privileged groups that have clearly adopted the language of identity politics, despite professing to stand against it.

As Oliver points out, many politicians speak as though they’re somehow exempt from having an identity. He cites the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who once described identity politics as a ‘poison’: ‘insidious, irrational, and lead[ing] to decisions that threaten out liberty’. The irony isn’t hard to spot.

“Tim Farron had a lot to say about the importance of religion as an element of his identity – when he resigned he said he found it impossible to reconcile his faith with being the leader of the Liberal Democrats,” says Oliver. “Well that’s a question of identity – am I a Christian first or am I a liberal first? Apparently these things are now in contention, and that’s a question of identity politics.”

Professor Dennis Altman, a fellow in human security at La Trobe University, Melbourne, agrees that identity politics are fundamentally impossible to escape.

“I think everybody to some extent reflects their identity in their political positions and the problem arises when that’s the only thing that’s talked about,” he says. “The current obsession by the right to attack identity politics is silly, when they themselves do so in the name of a different identity. The term is being misused.”

While a history of identity politics is beyond the scope of this piece, a good place to start might be the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. These movements were fuelled by the desire for equality for all. In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls imagined a society structured without reference to ‘race, gender, religious affiliation, [or] wealth’.

However, by the 1980s and 90s the ‘I have a dream’ mentality was coming to seem utopian. Many conservatives were using the language of equality – claiming they ‘didn’t see colour’, for instance – as a means of opposing progressive policies and entrenching the same old hierarchies. The left responded with a new movement – one that centred the rights of the group.

Although these two strands of thought (“I want recognition as a human being” versus “I want recognition as a black lesbian American”) have co-existed ever since, today’s discussion is dominated by the latter. For many people on the left, a focus on group identities means foregrounding inequalities and combating oppression.

As Altman has argued, the problems begin once a person’s group identity becomes more important than what they say. He gives the example of running into a conservative acquaintance at a Greens fundraiser during the last Australian election.

“He said, but the Greens have a gay candidate and I’ll support any gay candidate,” he recalls. “Now I think that’s just silly – someone’s sexuality when they’re running for office is less important than the positions they hold.”

The discussion on the left can also contain an uncomfortable element of essentialism, in which identity is understood as something inflexible and rigid (and therefore prone to splintering into ever-smaller subgroups). Altman, who has been a gay rights activist since the 1960s, is not a fan of all the labels on what is now called the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

“It actually undermines the idea that sexuality and gender are fluid,” he says. “I don’t like talking about political correctness, because that’s such a bogey of the right, but people can feel morally superior by positioning one identity against another.”

For many of today’s critics of identity politics, what they’re really seeking is a return to a more universalist kind of discourse. To return to David Isaac’s comments in the Observer, his point was that we should identify as ‘citizens in a country or in the world’, as opposed to members of a subgroup.

This impulse makes sense in Brexit-torn Britain, which (like many other countries) is deeply fractured. However, as Oliver points out, if you want people to cohere around a national identity, you’ve got to work out what it is that you can sell to them.

“One of the problems with these common identities – Britishness for example – is that a person might say, well, that doesn’t speak to my identity or it represents something antithetical to my identity,” he says. “You might be a person of Indian descent who associates Britishness with colonialism. So yes, a national identity can be a unifier, but you’ve got to think about how you represent and manufacture that identity.”

He adds that there are many factors in play today that make it easier to put the ‘I’ before the ‘we’.

“The way we consume media and culture and consumer goods lends itself to a more atomistic understanding of society,” he says. “Quite simply, it’s easier to go out and find something that’s close to what you want now than it’s ever been before in human history. So there are broader social and economic forces at work here.”

These issues are nothing if not complex. Unfortunately, it isn’t a complexity that translates well to our current political climate, which seems to be characterised by people talking at cross-purposes.

In Altman’s most recent book, Unrequited Love, he talks about identity politics might play out in the forthcoming US presidential election.

“My hunch is whoever is the Democratic nominee, it won’t be an old white man,” he says. “There are some very formidable women candidates for the nomination, two African American candidates, one or two Hispanic candidates, an openly gay man… I think this is a reflection of a much greater acceptance of diversity. But Trump appeals to the sense that American white men are somehow under threat, and if he survives long enough to fight for re-election that will be a major factor in the way his campaign unravels.”

Whatever your opinions on identity politics, we can all agree that there’s a lot at stake here. These are issues are not going away any time soon, and the onus will be on all of us to try to make sense of them.

This article appears in the Dec-Feb 2020 edition of Overseas Magazine

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