What is arguably the most contested aspect of twenty-first century politics is identity politics. It is the forward edge of the battle era in cultural wars over sex, gender, marriage, justice, welfare, race, ethnicity, and immigration. But what is identity and how did it become the thing shaping so much of our politics?
We might say that that identity is the perceived homogeneity between a person and a group of persons – whether it is ethnic, racial, national, religious, cultural, gender-based, or sexual orientation – which enables a person to regard themselves as part of that group. According to sociologist Jenny McGill identity pertains to “the totality of a person’s self-conception and includes one’s beliefs about oneself, one’s roles, and one’s group memberships.” Instead, identities are plastic and malleable, capable of being moulded into any number of forms and taken in any number of directions.
Sociologists of the twentieth century were accustomed to referring to the concept of human personhood and mapped the rituals and behaviours of persons in relation to others. But then in the nineteen-fifties sociologist, Erik Erikson began to talk about the “identity crisis” facing adolescents as they emerged into adulthood. Concurrently, it became apparent that some people, especially American immigrants, were wrestling with multiple identities. Afterwards – and I’m glossing over a lot of details – the politics of class and the individual rights gave way in the sixties and seventies to a focus on various minorities, eventually considered discreet “identities,” facing various types of discrimination and oppression, including women, indigenous peoples, and ethnic groups.
In addition, the postmodern turn led to a suspicion of the normal ways ascribing identity, they were not innate or intrinsic, but constructed. For example, a person considered white in Brazil might be considered black in America. Being female was defined according to stereotypical patterns prescribed for femininity. To be considered manly often required a certain persona, voice, interests, sense of dress, and stoic emotional life. Postmodern philosophy exposed the artificial and oppressive nature of the norms that were imposed in order to fit a type of identity, norms which rested entirely on the authority of the institutions and culture-makers that imposed them. Such norms – like girls wear pink and boys don’t cry – were then exposed for what they were, plastic rather permanent, relying on authority rather than being an expression of personal autonomy. The backlash was to reject cultural norms on sexuality, gender, and anything else and to then construct one’s own eclectic and hybrid identity. As a result, a human person is a blank slate, who can choose to be any identity or cluster of identities that they like, even a non-binary gay Muslim. You find this view of self-willed identities in the musicals La Cage au Folles with the lyrics, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation” and in Hamilton when Aaron Burr suddenly lets rip with a moment of millennial identity defiance “I am inimitable and I am an original.” As a result, identity has become unmoored from its historical harbours as something inherited and determined.
What has this to do with politics?
Well, arguably the most salient impact of a focus on discreet identities has been the rise of the alt-right and right-wing populist movements. Western governments have always had to deal with racial issues, indigenous groups, former colonies, and immigration. As a result, this typically yielded socio-political groups such as the Ku Klux Klan – arguably America first identity politics movement – or white supremacist groups that were unable to adjust to social and demographic changes and scapegoated some racial group for their perceived travails. In Germany now there is the Identitäre Bewegung (“Idenitarian Movement”) which is a right-wing movement concerned to put stricter limits on Muslim immigration.
In Australia, the classic example of this right-wing identitarianism is Pauline Hanson, who has evolved over the course of a thirty-year political career to challenging indigenous rights, to opposing Asian immigration, to sounding an alarm over an influx of Muslim migrants. Emblematic of Hanson’s deployment of identity politics in favour of the white majority was her attempt to pass a Senate motion that “It’s okay to be white.” Such a motion erstwhile assumes that whites are somehow under threat and need the same succour offered to other ethnic and sexual identities. The “genius” of Hanson, if I can call it that, has been identifying ethnic groups who can be blamed for social upheaval or eroding the privileges enjoyed by the white-majority culture. Hanson’s “othering” of ethnic groups has been electorally successful.
However, right-wing populism is not based on mere xenophobia. Right-wing populism and its attempt to preserve the privileges and norms of the white majority culture cannot be understood without the evolution of identity politics by the progressive left. I’d be prepared to argue that if there never was a President Obama then there never would be a President Trump. Similarly, if there were no Greens then there would also be no One Nation. The identity politics of the right is parasitic upon the identity politics of the left. For some, this will be a hard pill to accept. But right-wing populism is the monster created by the identitarian left.
We might glibly say that a political progressive is a person who has never encountered an identity that they cannot affirm. What is more, progressive identity politics adopts a paternalistic view of minorities that need to be protected and demonizes the white majority culture as the source of all social evils. Indeed, when it comes to culture wars, the progressive left by far possesses the most vocal and visible voices. On the progressive side, identity politics is not simply about multiculturalism, morality, or a manifesto, it is their raison d’etre.
As a political entity, progressive identitarians are comprised of a hierarchical tribe with three primary tiers.
First, there is the identitarian oligarchy, a class of social elites consisting of political leaders, media personalities, celebrities, woke business leaders, and various cultural influencers. These elites espouse beliefs and values that reify a division of the country into either the oppressor or the oppressed. They do that through the sharing of personal stories of alienation and abuse, constantly replaying media clips of right-wing pundits, perpetual outrage on social media, and reinforcing the narrative that society is a cesspool of incessant injustice. Their solution to these perceived injustices is a plenipotentiary state invested with the power to direct the thought and speech of the electorate in directions congruent with the progressive vision. Ironically, the progressive oligarchy champions themselves as the saviours of marginalized minorities even while they remain socially and safely removed from them. The progressive oligarchs inhabit the world of millionaire journalists with beachfront mansions and successful entrepreneurs turned activists living in their stylish inner-city pads. These woke enclaves exists in café saturated inner-suburbs, between Circular Quay and Newtown, where gourmet coffee and queer safe spaces are easily found. In their mind, the rest of the country could be called: “And here there be racist bogans.”
Second, next there is the identitarian retainer class, consisting of young professionals, the old yuppies or the new hipsters, also enmeshed in the inner-city hubs of progressivism. This is your journalists, lawyers, doctor’s wives, start-up entrepreneurs, and intermediate level bureaucrats. They are, as David Brooks calls them, the “BoBos,” or “bohemian bourgeoise.” The highly woke professional class who combine sixties political radicalism, with seventies sexual mores, with eighties consumerism. People who can crack open a bottle of $200 bottle wine and toast to a socialist utopia. Thirty-something who still live off their parents’ privileges while raging against inequalities of capitalism. One instantly thinks of the leadership group of the #OccupyWallStreet protestors who raged against capitalism while staying in $700 a night hotel rooms. This retainer class can include woke millennials who view life with a hyper-sensitive need to take offence at everything and Baby Boomer liberals who gave up class warfare for identity politics in the nineties.
Third, one finds various minorities, LGBT+ persons, ethnic groups, indigenous people, new immigrants, and refugees. These are the ones who have lived experiences of discrimination, who know first-hand racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Although the experience of minority groups varies corporately and individually – every Uber driver I’ve had has been foreign-born and thinks Australia is the greatest place in the world – activists representing these groups narrate stories of injustice, alienation, and prejudice. While identity politics is largely about them, and many buy into it to some degree, there are mixed perspectives on whether they actually want any or all of the identitarian package.
What unites these groups together are three things.
First, a sharp polarity that everyone can be divided into either the oppressor or the oppressed. This yields an unstated social contract whereby elites and their retainers become saviours of oppressed minorities in exchange for moral capital and the right to lead the progressive cause. This is the place where ironically acknowledging your white privilege actually gives you a license to wield it!
Second, and a corollary of the above point, the agent of oppression is the mostly white middle and working classes, who are horribly heteronormative, committed to detestable nuclear families, full of racist prejudices, prizing social stability over social revolution, who prefer steak over tofu, and choose economic expedience over environmental intervention. The deplorables en masse.
Third, the currency in political discourse is weaponising the grievances of oppressed groups, persons downtrodden by the various the “isms” and “phobias” attributed to the middle and working classes. Here intersectionality is not just a map of degrees of discrimination, but a religion, their creed is: In the beginning was the victim!
My thesis is that the progressive identitarian tribe cannot and will not last for several reasons.
First, the demographic and electoral realities will deprive it of oxygen. I do not have a degree in political science, but I know that demonizing the middle and working class as “men in blue ties” or “basket of deplorables” will not get them to vote for you. Similarly, if you attack those with traditional values of family and marriage, you will have a hard time winning electorates among the Asian and Middle Eastern migrant communities in western Sydney. If you alienate large segments of the demographic as bastions of misogyny, racism, and prejudice, a demographic who feel the contempt and condescension of cultural elites, they will turn on you! This is precisely why BREXIT, Trump, and various populist movements emerged.
Now I have to say that it utterly boggles my mind why some on the political left have not noticed this and they have instead dug their heals in on the notion that being a cis white male or believing in male-female marriage makes you ontologically evil.
For example, the British model and activist, Munroe Bergdorf could say on national television that “the white race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth” which is the very definition of racism. Also, American activist Amy Siskind tweeted: “I will not support white male candidates in the Dem primary.” Not voting for someone because of their gender is textbook sexism. If this continues, it does not end well for the progressive left, it means President Trump for four more years and then perhaps President Pence.
Second, the identitarian tribe will divide and even turn cannibal. If you divide everyone into the oppressor and the oppressed, if you divide everyone by their degree of victimization, if you divide everyone by race, gender, and sexuality, then society will be – no surprises here – divided! From that division, social conflict will arise within the progressive camp as some groups will claim to be more victim than others. There will be internal tensions as to establishing the hierarchy of victimologies. Then, in addition, the marginalized classes are going to notice that their progressive protectors look rather privileged and they might actually be the oppressors themselves. As Claire Lehmann tweeted, “What will the champagne socialists do when the revolutionaries come for their champagne?”
Examples are not too hard to find. Democratic royal Chelsea Clinton was blamed for the New Zealand Mosque massacre by an NYU activist because Clinton had criticized Democratic Rep Ilhan Omar for her anti-Semitic comments. There is a whole narrative out there that white women can never be allies to black women, because white women generally marry white men, they give birth to white children, they don’t want to help people of colour, they just want access to the power and privileges that white men enjoy. There is a debate in the USA about Asians being discriminated in college admissions processes in favour of Blacks and Latinos. Plus the US women’s march has been accused of anti-Semitism against Jewish white women and one march had to be cancelled because it had too many white women. Quite sadly, some on the progressive left, especially in the British Labour Party and the American Democratic Party, are willing to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism by Muslim leaders over Israeli policies and the allegedly prominent place of the Jews in a capitalist society. Then, to call out progressive Muslims for anti-Semitism gets labelled Islamophobia. In other words, rather than say Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both equally bad, the progressive left is deciding that Islamophobia trumps anti-Semitism. In which case, identitarian politics is dividing the progressive tribe, pitting Asians against Blacks/Latinos, Jews against Muslims, and white women against black women. Alas, all revolutions eat their own children.
Third, the intellectual resistance against identity politics that will render it untenable. You can see this on the one hand in comedian Andrew Doyle’s twitter character @TitaniaMcGrath who is the parodic epitome of the incoherent excesses of progressive identitarianism. For Doyle, the fact that the most vocal and vitriolic of progressive identitarians are not muddled masses of the poor, but educated, wealthy, white women relishing in their self-righteousness and saviour complex, means he says, “Titania was an attempt to highlight the inescapable hypocrisies of such a mindset.”
On the other hand, and more seriously, there are non-partisan sites like Quillette and the Heterodox Academy that expose the utter incoherence of some elements of progressive identity politics. These platforms expose the absurdities that gender is a social construct, but transgender is a real thing to be protected. Or else they argue that human life is not a blank slate and maybe biology really does compel men and women into certain professions. That androgyny, erasing the distinctions between the sexes, is not the same thing as gender equality. The ludicrousness of banning classic plays like The Vagina Monologues for being transphobic. What the intellectual resistance proves is that some strands of identity politics, with its anti-science ethos and incoherent beliefs, will be mocked to death, and will be crushed under the weight of its own absurdity by people unwilling to confess ridiculous propositions like trans penises are biological penises and the Soviet Union was a paradise.
Fourth, identity politics can never be the basis of electoral success. Eventually, at some point, you have to be able to run a government. So you need economic success, effective policies on foreign affairs, achievements in education and healthcare. When all is said and done, competence will matter more to the public than superficial and symbolic gestures in favour of an endless assortment of grieving identities. A white man in a blue tie who leads a competent government with policies that bring people on board will always be better than a gay non-binary disabled refugee who is divisive, susceptible to media gaffes and is hopelessly incompetent. Or, as Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is slowly discovering, like it or not, but political competence will usually trump political correctness.
One might hope that there is a better way beyond the identity politics of right-wing populism and the progressive left. If so, what might it look like?
Several things come to find.
First, abandon identity in favour of individuality.
The problem with identity politics is that we all have multiple identities. No one is just black, just Muslim, just gay, or just Indigenous. Our identities are multiple. One can be an Australian Born Chinese Christian Cricketer. One can be a Gay Greek Goth. An Irish-Indigenous Buddhist Male. Identity politics forces us to prioritize one aspect of our identity over others, as if my skin colour, the place of my birth, my one hour of weekly religious observance, my genitals or the things I like to do with my genitals is the decisive factor as to who I am and how I am to be known.
But rather than focus on identities and ranking their worth based on victimhood, we do better to address the holistic needs of persons who are layered, complex, and multi-valent individuals. To prioritize one identity over another will inevitably mean dividing society and dividing persons. It is a trait of empires, like the British, Habsburgs, and Ottomans, to divide their subjects into ethnic-religious groups, played them off against each other in a typical divide and conquer strategy, which in turn yielded violent conflicts and social collapse. We should remember that government legislates for the rights of individuals, not identities, the rights of persons with multiple identities to be treated fairly and justly before the law.
Second, a focus on solidarity and the common good.
The identity politics of the right and left forces us to concentrate on our differences, to engage in deviant labelling of differences, to scapegoat the “others,” to crush all dissent with vitriol, and demonize those who persist in dissent. The upshot is that people would rather see the other side lose than anything where we win together. It becomes more enjoyable for some to see Catholic hospitals close or Muslim refugees to be turned away than celebrating the fact that we live in a country where Catholics and Muslims can live side-by-side in relative harmony.
Whatever our differences, progressive or conservative, whether urban or rural, gay or God-fearing, immigrant or fifth generation ocker, we are stronger together than we are apart. We need the resilience of our national identity and the resources of our differences to confront the challenges of the future. The fact is that death, poverty, and domestic violence do not discriminate upon who they impact (even if we must proactively address the underlying reasons why they impact some groups more than other. In addition, we have shared experiences of the economy and the environment, equal needs in education, healthcare, and welfare, as well as common interests in national security and social stability. The Aussie public should not throw away their status as a successful pluralistic democracy in the world just to land a few cheap shots on people and parties that occasionally cheese them off. To move beyond the fissures and fragmentation of identity politics we need a sense of corporate solidarity in what unites us and a commitment to a common good over short-term tribal triumphs.
Third, a fresh defence of the value of diversity.
Diversity is really an easy principle. It is the right to be different without fear of reprisal. Let the vegans veg, let the Muslims Muslim, let the gays gay, and let the greenies green. Treat people the way they want to be treated. The populist right needs to be told that ethnic diversity is an immutable demographic reality and there is no prospect of a return to a White Australia Policy. Diversity is real, so stop whinging that KFC now sells halal chicken! The identitarian left needs to learn that an alternative to the weaponising and ranking of identities is a comprehensive conception of individual liberties that establishes the rights and freedoms of persons with their multiple identities. Diversity is real, so stop pitting identities against each other and stop trying to censor dissent to progressivism.
So what are the prospects of a post-identity politics era in Australia. In the short term, not good.
The tragedy is that the centrist parties of the left and right, pursuing that extra clump of votes to form government, are courting groups on the fringe-left and fringe-right. Thus, the mainstream political parties have been driven to their extremities to outflank minor parties, to woo fringe votes, in a move which threatens any notion of centrism or consensus in favour of pandering to extreme identitarian tropes.
But rest assured, in the long term, identity politics must end, it is not electorally sustainable or ideologically coherent. Australia cannot be ethnically homogenized, and the absurdity and authoritarianism of the progressive left gets exposed more and more every day. Hopefully, the practical need for solidarity and consensus will triumph in the final wash up. If not, the only alternative would be an ethno-religious civil war.
Rev Dr Michael F. Bird is an Anglican priest and Academic Dean at Ridley College, in Melbourne, Australia. He can be followed @mbird12
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