What are we to make of the phenomenon of identity politics? Here are some exploratory theses.
There is a vast debate on the merits and meaning of identity politics today. This debate springs from the increased use of claims of exclusive political authority grounded in the lived experience of one or other shared attribute of a group of persons: race, gender, sexual identity, disability and so on. The debate has taken a sharp turn in recent years. The politics of social movements, not all based on concepts of identity, has transformed into a more aggressive politics of exclusive and narrrower identities. We have moved from second wave feminism to debates on transgender bathrooms, from rainbow coalitions to deplatforming Germaine Greer.
This form of political argument has become pervasive across more and more advocacy groups, and has moved to the front of the political stage, bringing to prominence issues previously considered not worthy of the attention of parliaments and governments. In many countries, including my own, there have been central debates on gay marriage, a quintessential topic of identity politics. Identity politics transforms the political into the personal, and turns politics into a theatre of confession rather than a tradition of compromises.
Identity politics has also become increasingly aggressive or exclusive, even within its own coalitions. Its aggression is rarely displayed through violence, but through intimidation and attempts to control the language and thoughts of others. The characteristic tactic of identity politics is to invent a new political language to describe identity, and then to claim the inherited language of others as inherently discriminatory or subjectively oppressive. Gay and lesbian are replaced each year with variants on LGBTIQ+. Even the common parlance of man and woman become questionable, and assumes a meaning that denies or “erases” the existence of those who claim fixedly a more fluid gender.
While identity politics is not new, it has become more salient over the last ten years, and with a growing awareness of its negative consequences and risks. This debate on the problems with identity politics has escalated with debates on race in America, the defeat of Hilary Clinton’s rainbow coalition, and the emergence of Trump’s blue-collar nationalism. Now identity politics has become not only a theology of the left, but a virus threatening democracy. Identity politics is the political form of cultural fragmentation, and is corrosive of some features of an effective democracy – social cohesion, talking with strangers and working across the aisle.
The three talismanic claims of identity politics are: “nothing about us without us,” “the personal is political” and “I am oppressed because of who I am”. “Nothing about us without us” is a claim for involvement, voice and authority. Yet it also denies the ability to cross cultures, to move between identities, and to make social compromises through empathy and communication. “The personal is political” reorders the priorities of governments, and expands the domain of political conflict into matters of private life. It invents lived experience as a fourth source of political authority – to replace charisma, tradition and law. This can be liberating and it can be authoritarian. Freedom, after all, requires a refuge from politics, and a willingness to live and let live. “I am oppressed because of who I am” brooks no argument. It condemns us to an ecoho chamber of self-professed political authority.
Identity politics is a politics of minorities. It makes claims not on the basis of traditional utilitarian or majoritarian calculus – the greatest good for the greatest number -but on an inverted calculus of the greater injustice that belongs to the most invisible. Identity politics does not claim we are the 99 per cent, oppressed by the 1 per cent, but we are the 1 per cent made martyrs by the blindness of the 99 per cent.
It is also a politics of identification. A ceremony of coming out, and coming to awareness of how the attribute of identity of lived experience defines the person’s social experience and the truth of their politics. But this emotional regime of confessions and separate identification creates an engine of division and fragmentation. In this way, identity politics is a fissiparous transformation of an older politics of ressentiment. It does not enable a plural shared identity between the past, present and the future. It is a “we” who are the same, and not a “we” who are strangers dwelling together despite our differences.
A politics of identities is antithetical to institutions, and so struggles with an ethic of responsibility that is required for governing. It becomes a denial of all forms of authority beyond the lived experience of the oppressed. Activism corrodes institutions, and there is no good government without strong institutions. Thus identity politics is a politics of opposition, and not a politics of governing.
Fukuyama argues that identity politics is a demand for dignity and a struggle for recognition, rooted in the human drive for thymos. But it may be more accurate to argue that identity politics is a distortion of dignity by victimhood and the false authority of lived experience. Can we find an a way of acting with dignity that goes beyond narrow personal identities, and that extinguishes the self in the common good of an inherited culture?
To be continued….