Identity politics stifles real debate

Identity politics, at its worst, it is a form of expression so easy, so blunt, and so social media compatible that it gets entered into thoughtlessly, supporting hostility to nuanced debate and dissenting opinions.

comment1Etes-vous Charlie? N’etes-vous pas Charlie? Are you a feminist? Are you not a feminist? Do you “check your privilege”? Or do you not understand whose privilege it is, exactly? Whatever your opinion, you’ve probably formulated an answer to one of these questions in the last year, and if you’ve read a single newspaper, you’ve been bombarded with other people’s answers to them. Identity politics has been a driving force in conversation about political and social issues in Trinity since I arrived in 2012, and with articles in this publication such as “Dear white people: stop listening to white people” (Naoise Dolan, December 18th, 2014) the trend doesn’t look set to disappear any time soon. I spent the first two years of my degree in the debating chamber, so it may be that my view of the conversational landscape was skewed by the prevalence of identity politics rhetoric there. But with that taken on board, you don’t have to look far to find examples of the kind of discourse I’m talking about. The #thisiswhatafeministlookslike profile pictures that were popular before the t-shirt embarrassment of last year, and the recent debate about whether protecting the role of TCDSU LGBT officer as one which had to filled by someone identifying as LGBTQ was “exclusionary politics” belie a similar background assumption: that the personal identity of individuals is (and should be) indissolubly linked with the political aims they have and activity they undertake.

Development of identity politics

Identity politics is a loose term that covers a vast array of activity and schools of thought. The phrase is relatively recent, and what it is most famously used to refer to are the civil-rights movements of the 60s and 70s that focused on emancipation for specific social groups, namely African-Americans, LGBTQ people, and women. Such movements grew out of a realisation that the equality promised by liberal democracies was not being felt by those outside of the dominant social group. Western liberal democracies are strongly influenced by a philosophical tradition that imagines each person within them as a sort of characterless, roughly similar blueprint, and tries to formulate a political system in which all of these blueprints will do equally well, or at least have equal opportunity to do so.

By the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that this model citizen was actually someone with a specific identity – white, male, wealthy and educated, and it was these people that liberal political systems provided for. This led to a move towards campaigning for rights and protections on the basis of specific identities that did not fit this mould. Doing this meant switching from campaigning for ‘abstract’ values like equality for all, or economic demands made along traditional class boundaries, to campaigning for specific legal rights and social recognition as someone of a certain identity – a black person, an LGBTQ person, a woman, an aboriginal person. Identity politics focuses on analysing the ways in which the societal structure inherently disadvantages members of marginalised social groups, and acts to overcome that oppression.

While many people consider the focus on securing rights and social protections on the basis of being a distinct group with distinct demands a philosophically or politically dubious project, it has no doubt been a successful strategy for many groups that employ it. Whatever your opinions on the essentialism, reductivism and divisiveness entailed by identity politics, it is impossible to argue that certain groups do not face oppression on the basis of their identity, and difficult to see how the situation for these groups would have improved without drawing attention to their distinction from the mainstream. The gay liberation movement of the 1960/70s especially required people to come out, openly and pointedly identifying themselves with a particular identity not just as a show of pride but also to make it clear that the issues they brought to public attention affected large numbers of people who were usually overlooked.

Oppositionary rhetoric

In contemporary political discourse, this practice of placing an emphasis on a particular element of the identity of oneself and other people in order to make political claims has become an obsession. The rhetoric employed by identity politics – the set-up of an identity with which to relate, the claims to that identity and the implicit conditions for membership – invites rapid, passionate response and rebuke. Recently, this type of language seems to be infecting all spheres of politics. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, #jesuischarlie swept through the western world on placards, newspaper headlines, cover photos and in George Clooney’s Golden Globes speech. This was almost immediately followed by a backlash, first in blog posts and followed by articles such as Roxane Gay’s “if je ne suis Charlie, am I bad person?” in the Guardian, subtitled “nuance gets lost in groupthink”.

Whether or not you agree with her hyperbolic framing of the issue it does hit the nail on the head in terms of what goes wrong in the rush to identify with a (real or abstract) persona on either side of a political debate. Using an identity slogan to stand for solidarity with the victims not only as victims but also as champions of free speech meant that many possible reactions to the events were discouraged. When someone says “I am Charlie” the response left to people who do not want to commit themselves to everything that statement could possibly entail is to say “I am not”. This makes a complicated issue into an oppositionary one, where people who do not want to subsume themselves under a vague identity but rather express particular opinions have little space to do so and face being branded as “against” whatever the amorphous positive identity comes to denote. Although the problems with the #jesuischarlie phenomenon have been well addressed, many of its critics fell back on the similarly reductive #jenesuispascharlie. This personalising, oppositionary rhetoric is not necessary to make a point, as Peter Gowan demonstrated in his exceptional article for this newspaper, published online on January 9th.

Entering into political debates as a warrior from a certain pre-defined and recognisable camp is a far more welcoming prospect than doing so with nothing to say for yourself except your opinions, and it allows you to be visible as a supporter of one side or the other while remaining almost completely passive if you wish. This is potentially a great advantage of identity politics rhetoric: it gets more people involved. I am much more likely to see myself, and vaguely present myself, as a feminist and LGBTQ ally, than I am to get involved in specific debates or projects to do with either women’s or LGBTQ issues. Having a large group of people who will ‘like’, share, and post things on Facebook or Twitter creates both an image and environment of support for those issues and makes them easier to talk about in a casual way, creating more visibility and subtly affecting the views of usually disinterested people. If you see that most of your friends post a viral status or picture about being a feminist, you might passively assume the same identity for yourself, and be more inclined to accept the views presented under that guise in the future.

Moralising, artificial binary of positions

This phenomenon of creating large, relatively passive communities who buy into identity statements about themselves or others stifles real debate though. People identifying with a certain group mind set are likely to accept the views of the vocal minority within that group in a relatively unconsidered way. Once an identity binary, such as feminist/antifeminist has been set up, one is discouraged from doing things or saying things which would trouble one’s identification with the chosen camp. Thus when you go to see a debate on abortion, most people will accept the dominant ‘feminist’ view, that the issue boils down to a woman’s autonomy and nothing else, not just on the basis of the arguments but also on the basis that in the chamber it is clearly seen as the view that ‘feminists’ have. People who deter even slightly are viewed as ‘anti-feminist’, deviant feminists, or people that don’t understand what feminism is about. This results in an air of hostility towards people who might express other viewpoints because they are seen as a threat to the dominant identity within the room. Debates on emotive topics can end up very one-sided, with students on the less popular side often apologising for their position or arguing for the popular side in a roundabout way.

What is notable about identity politics rhetoric is that it encourages conversations that have little to do with current events and consequences of actions taken in response to them, and all to do with personal morality. This leads to the guilt-driven opinion pieces that flood the web, telling you who should identify as a feminist (all women ever or else they are evil, by the way), how you are privileged by whatever specific identity characteristics you happen to have, and who you should listen to speak about certain topics. These stances are not inherently guilting and patronising, but become so when people refuse to recognise that the identities they talk about are far more complicated than fits their purpose. This happens when female celebrities refuse to take on the ‘feminist’ label. I am not arguing that they usually have good reasons for the decision, but when their critics fail to accept that ‘feminist’ does not simply mean ‘believing in equality for all genders’ and in fact carries a vast array of competing meanings, implications and historical baggage that might accord for the stars’ problem with the label, they gloss over the implications of identity labels and enforce a moralising, artificial binary of positions.

Ignoring minority minorities

This focus on taking up positions which reflect on personal morality also results in certain things getting talked about while issues that don’t easily fit this mould are neglected. Travellers are probably the most disadvantaged group in Irish society, but you will hear scarce discussion on this topic from even the most social justice-focused young people around. Organising political activity around the needs of specific groups requires those groups to have a certain amount of people belonging to them, as well as a certain amount of social capital with which to attract allies (as has been so successful for the LGBTQ movement). The most minority of minority groups are incredibly unlikely to possess those things, meaning their issues are overlooked by the people who would ordinarily be interested in them on the grounds of a general social justice concern. Intersectionalism seeks to address this problem, but in an environment where most discussions play out in a digital social realm it seems unlikely that people will ever be as concerned about aligning themselves with genuine minority issues as they are about whether they can still be a proper feminist if they like Disney princesses and shave their vaginas religiously.

Identity politics seems to have some weighty advantages in its ability to foster popular, visible movements and draw attention to formerly invisible, harmful social structures. But at its worst, it is a form of expression so easy, so blunt, and so social media compatible that it gets entered into thoughtlessly, supporting hostility to nuanced debate and dissenting opinions.