By Jason Michael
Identity politics are weakening the left at a time when workers’ rights and the traditional goals of the labour movement are under threat like no time in the past half century. It is time for us to grow out of this selfish and self-serving nonsense.
What was born from unreflective language within the radical street politics of the late 1970s’ black feminist Combahee River Collective in the United States and what was adopted by the academy has entered into the mainstream of political discourse. Identity politics – the fragile and needy positioning of the self, the subjective, and the individual experience at the heart of all public and political thinking – to quote Brendan O’Neill, has become “the only game in town,” and we all have to play it. This mode of politicking has successfully insinuated itself into a position in public discussion and debate where it is able to effectively blackmail detraction into silence by claiming rational, objective objection to be emotional, personal, and subjective slight.
In its pretence to be the logical end of individualism it is nothing more than the complete opposite of John Stuart Mill’s ideal of the individual as a strong, free-willed person who is capable of engaging with and rationalising the world. One who introduces him or herself as a person who “identifies as…” rather than affirming “I am…” betrays an internal lack of self-assurance, wholly at odds with that dictum of individualism; “Man, to thyself be true,” that we find in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. There simply is no truth, no objective reality to the whimsical and fluid cherry-picking of identities as though from a buffet. One either is or is not a man, a heterosexual, or a Catholic for example.
Identity politics – which has sadly become the mire of the new left – has two detrimental effects on real politics in particular, and we shall address these here. In manufacturing fixed identities from biological and cultural categories the identitarian re-orientates the nature of social tension; turning the horizontal or class-based struggle into a vertical or identity-based struggle that pits members of the same class against one another on the grounds of cultural, ethnic, or sexual difference. As these are fixed identities the new tensions – unlike class which can be transcended – become unresolvable. All that this does is transform what was one social hegemonic system into a plethora of reproductions consisting of increasingly more homogenous groups.
Arguably the greater tragedy is that identity politics erodes the boundary between the public and the private in its irrational quest to make the person the focus of politics. It is true that some amount of personal experience is pertinent in public discourse. Government debate, for instance, on the potential of Islamist terrorism in the State would benefit greatly from the experience of Muslims living in the State. Yet the constant requirement of ever more narrowly defined sexual and gender sub-groups for official validation has bogged the left down – at a time when class warfare is being waged as aggressively as it was during the Reagan-Thatcher era – in counterproductive narcissistic fantasies.
Sam Harris – The Religion of Identity Politics
Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)