Stop calling identity politics ‘divisive’ when it is actually ‘destructive’
A cookie-cutter version of this complaint – which is often heard from “sensible” centrists and “old-fashioned” left-wingers – came at the weekend from David Isaac, chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.
“We are living in a world that is more divided, there’s more individualist thinking in relation to what is happening and less empathy, less hope,” Isaac told the Guardian, urging Britons to look beyond “what works for me and my narrow group.”
The picture he paints is of separate gangs, each sitting in their own playhouses on the lawn, refusing to share their toys. If only we could come outside and be more considerate towards each other, the tensions created by identity politics would dissipate.
But this is not what identity politics is, or how it works.
Right from its roots in the black power movement in 1960s America, it was never about mere self-interest. Rather, it was about political self-organization on the basis of your race, gender, income, religion, or sexual orientation.
Nor did it view the world as a level playing field with competing aims. It was intrinsically bound up with a narrative of power and oppression, but merely made them an irreducible part of us. A black woman was a victim from birth simply by the virtue of who she was, while the white man the villain.
In short: identity politics is the kids without playhouses banding together to take toys away from those who have too many.
It is not even particularly “divisive.” Its adherents are perfectly capable of forming blocs and representing the interests of their allies – as long as everyone perceives themselves to be victims of the same power structures, or feels guilt for enforcing them.
How else would you explain the inseparable comradeship between feminists and proponents of Islam in the West? Or that much of the social and race inequality activism is performed by white, bourgeois college kids, journalists, and Silicon Valley employees.
Save for the sliver of “White Pride” identitarians, politically it is also an idea explicitly embraced almost exclusively by one side – the left. This is no secret: just last week Georgia Democratic politician Stacey Abrams urged fellow progressives to be proud of this worldview, saying “identity politics is exactly who we are.”
There are jargon-heavy academic debates about the relationship between Marxism and identity politics, but their shared ideological DNA is unmistakable. “Cultural Marxism” – in the sense of redrawing the criteria of class struggle according to segments other than just economic status – has identity politics at its heart.
Once identity politics is seen as a political movement, then the opposition to it crystalizes, and not just among Anglo-Saxon Trump voters in the flyover states.Also on rt.com Prof. Jordan Peterson on the radicalization of the left, identity politics & inequality! (E728)
Many reject the story of eternal oppression, or that people should be rearranged into castes based on historic injustices.
They do not see themselves defending Isaac’s “narrow interests” – but saving the world from a new tribalism, where people are again judged by the characteristics they are born with, not what they do.
They believe that the values they espouse – universalism, representative democracy, meritocracy, civil rights – are most capable to achieving justice, even if they are not the only tools.
Meanwhile proponents of identity politics actively attack these foundations of modern Western societies as complacent white inventions that must be swept away for the greater good.
Here is an excerpt from a recent article in praise of identity politics from the leading left-wing UK magazine the New Spectator: “Our idea of ‘human nature’ is a tortuous hangover of enlightenment norms, which classed the straight white western intellectual man as the archetypical human. His concerns were the imprint for a shallow universalism, sustained only by the rigorous silencing of anyone who might show it up as the sham it was.”
Yet again, there is no crypto-plan – it’s all on the tin. The author, Eleanor Penny tells us that “politics of shared rationality, infinite compromise and universalist politesse” are a “comforting myth” and ends by saying that “we need to get used to the fact that all politics is identity politics – and it’s time to pick a side.”
Now, some might find those sentiments a little alarming, chilling even.
So, forgive opponents of identity politics if they get annoyed when told that they are just another group out for themselves by mealy-mouthed officials, who refuse to identify who is driving the division.
Or when what they see as an existential threat to modern society gets trivialized as something “divisive.” I mean, you could describe Robespierre’s guillotining of the French aristocracy as “divisive” but that would hardly be the first word that comes to mind. Yet, the aims here are starkly similar – and it is not clear what the allowable means of achieving them are. Thus, we probably need different words to characterize identity politics: “revolutionary”,“extremist”, “backward” or even “terrifying.”
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.
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