Universalism and the Courage to Change Society
By Christine Louis Dit Sully –
Conflict and Resolutions
There is now a constant complaint that we are too tribal or partisan in politics but the meaning behind this complaint often shows a misunderstanding of what politics is about. It is usually an objection to the fact that people support a set of political opinions or an ideology, that they are prepared to enter heated political discussions and conflicts over these opinions and even prepared to fight and die for their ideas. But politics does not exist without conflicts over ideas and opinions. Politics is our way of understanding our past, discussing our present and proposing visions of a possible future. Different interpretations and views of our world, different analysis and understandings of our social problems, and opposing beliefs and different interests will inevitably create conflicts between us.
In fact, these conflicts are often essential for social change and our search for the truth. Important legal and political rights started as heretical and controversial ideas that were challenging the orthodoxies of the time, creating clashes and conflicts. The idea that women could have the same rights as men was seen as foolish or unnatural, not that long ago. It was strongly supported, opposed, fought for, and many even died before it became an acceptable idea worth considering by the general public.
However, these past political conflicts are very different from the conflicts over identities and cultures we experience today. But like the past, disagreements over ideas, opinions and beliefs can still be resolved with more convincing ideas, opinions and beliefs. The underlying assumption behind political conflicts that did not lead to repression and oppression of those disputing orthodoxy has always been the belief that people could be convinced to join a side with ideas and arguments. The representational politics of the past was about convincing people that certain political ideas and policies supported their interests. Identity politics is now claiming that our identities, not our reason, determine our opinions, interests and the political platforms we should be supporting. If our identities determine our interests and our identities are based mainly on the demographics we belong to, or specific identity related experiences, the possibilities for compromise and for convincing others belonging to different identity groups, through ideas and reason, will become extremely limited.
Today, many proponents of identity politics claim that an extremely small numbers of the characteristics that could be used to describe me as an individual (such as being black, a woman and a foreigner) are supposed to determine my opinions, my reasoning styles, my ideas, my beliefs, my preferences for hairstyles, my taste in food, and other aspects of my life. Others who claim to be critical of identity politics are, however, happy to believe that the current social norms that ‘protect’ or ‘favour’ my supposed identity groups (according to the current victimhood hierarchy) will also determine my support for identity politics. In effect, these professed opponents of identity politics still believe that my identities and the supposed personal benefits they give me determine my opinions.
With the current widespread feeling that diversity is a value worth supporting, the emphasis on positive discrimination and apparent support for women and black people in accessing top jobs, for example, leads many to assume that this must translate into support for identity politics (by black people and women). This is very much a mirror of the wrong claim by some of the proponents of identity politics that ‘white privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ protect and give benefits to white people and men, and hence all whites and men are not prepared to challenge racism and misogyny.
I am, in fact, very strongly opposed to identity politics coming from all political directions because there is nothing positive that comes from this type of political thinking and from this way of interpreting the world around us. How can we resolve political conflicts, find solutions and compromises, and move forward in organising our society, if our opinions are already determined by factors outside of our own control? How can we find common interests between members of different identity groups if we accept that political thinking is only about highlighting our differences in particularities and personal experiences?
Hence, it is not the potential for political conflicts that makes me strongly oppose identity politics. One of the reasons for my opposition is its tendency to create conflicts that cannot ever be resolved, but often engender hatred because of the personal aspects of these conflicts. This divisive aspect creates smaller and smaller identity groups based on different personal experiences (lesbian black women versus heterosexual black women versus lesbian white women or gay black men). The leaders of these identity groups have no willingness to look for common interests with others, but are still very keen to enter the competition for resources to gain benefits for themselves.
The political fight they enter, despite the fact that many supporting identity politics are concerned with social justice, is not about looking for solutions that would benefit most of us, but a very ugly brawl trying to get resources and privileges for subsets of the population. This ugly contest only benefits a few; mainly our political and cultural elites, as well as those self-appointed identity gatekeepers and community leaders.
This contest also fails to challenge the extremely pessimistic notion that the only possibility to change the world for the better is to compete for resources seen as limited because of the current mistrust in humanity’s ability to develop new resources and solutions to environmental problems.
The Temptations of Victim Culture
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to move away from identity politics in a world where the ideas and language promoted by identity politics and victimhood culture have become so pervasive. This set of language, ideas and concepts has become so accepted that identity politics is often seen as a continuation of the social or civil rights movements of the past, or just a natural and feature of human activities resulting from tribalism, our natural hatred of the other, or our supposedly instinctively concern for our selves as individuals. Even books and articles that promote features of identity politics (such as the idea that a particular characteristic determine opinions and interests) are perceived as a challenge to identity politics. Instead these books and articles merely do identity politics about groups that are demonised by more conventional proponents of identity politics (such as ‘white’, ‘working class’, and ‘left-behind’ people).
In a world with strong historical amnesia about the social movements of the past (as well as a complete lack of imagination) some see the only possible way to support the currently demonised groups is emphasise their victimhood; reproducing the same politics which is now inclusive towards even more identity groups that demand recognition and special privileges. The ‘white identity’ group, the ‘working class identity’ group, the ‘angry white men identity’ group, the ‘white working class identity’ group and the ‘vegan identity’ group are some of the new identity groups that have recently been promoted by so called opponents of identity politics. The now common ‘what about us!’ plea for a new identity group with the usual demand for a positive version of their identity, a recognition by society of a perceived threat to this group’s existence, and a call for all the benefits other groups apparently have is now considered a challenge to intersectional victim hierarchies. In reality, it’s clearly just an acceptance of victim hierarchies, with a call to include more groups at the bottom.
It is an ahistorical understanding of politics to think that politics has always been identity politics. The political concepts that lead to demands for recognition and the particular way of organising ourselves through different identities started in the mid 20th century. The mainstreaming of identity politics was particularly done through the 60s and 70s social movements such as the women’s liberation (after the first wave of the feminist movement), the late civil rights movement, and the gay and lesbian liberation movement. Before these movements, earlier political demands by black people were not articulated through a ‘black identity,’ for example. There was no demand that their identities be recognised by others. They demanded to be free, to have equal rights and to be treated the same way others were treated. They did not demand to be recognised as ‘blacks’ who were different to others, but they instead demanded that all peoples have the same rights, regardless of skin colour and ancestry.
As Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn mentioned in her very interesting book ‘Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution’:
Racial identity theory, oppression pedagogy, interracial etiquette, ethnotherapy-these are only a few examples of the new ministrations of the self-appointed liberation experts. That we have allowed the civil rights revolution to be hijacked by these social engineers is one of our best-kept secrets and one of our greatest tragedies.
The turn away from pre-1950s demands for black freedom, equality, ‘universal standards of conduct’ and the earlier recognition of the necessity of proper ‘democratic civic life’, in exchange for recognising black identity, is truly a tragedy, and a problem we have to deal with today if we really want justice for all.
The concept of identity itself has to be analysed for us to understand the current pervasiveness of identity politics. Do we really need to have recognised identities to be seen as morally autonomous individuals? The specific characteristics of a person or group that are highlighted and used to make claims in politics today are essentially ‘fixed identities.’
As Marie Moran says in her book ‘Identity and Capitalism’,
To speak of an individual or group identity is precisely to make the claim that certain features or characteristics – which may be social or cultural and not only biological – are essential to that person or group. Identity is an essentialising mechanism that offers a particular way of constructing or experiencing self-or grouphood, and does not pre-exist this categorical practice.
The very process of creating an identity, of defining a very specific characteristic of a person or a group as particularly important, is essentialist. It is creating a fixed identity that did not exist before the start of the process of categorising people. Black identity, for example, did not exist before the last century, before we started thinking and classifying ourselves through identity categories, but it did not prevent black people from fighting for their rights and freedom. White identity did not exist until very recently and it is an example of the widespread influence of identity politics where all political claims are now demanded and experienced only through specific identities. The idea that all black people, or all white people have common interests just because they belong to a particular identity group is ludicrous but increasingly just a norm of political culture. But we should not forget that ‘black’ once had meaning only through the racism black people had to deal with, not because of beliefs and experiences inherently associated with black people.
But historical amnesia and lack of imagination certainly do not explain, on their own, the acceptance of identity politics today. The way we see ourselves in society is one of the underlying reasons why promoting new identity groups is seen as the only available option in our political life. The individual today is seen as a vulnerable being in need of protection from others, and from society itself. We can all be vulnerable and in need of help and protection at some point in our life, and for some aspects of our life. We are vulnerable and in need of protection when we put our lives in the hands of surgeons and nurses, for instance. It is actually impossible for us to live without a minimum of trust in others. However, this is not the same thing as viewing entire demographic groups as vulnerable people needing protection. There is a big difference between defining human demographics as vulnerable victims, and acknowledging the fact that we can all be victims at some point in our lives, even though for the most part we are responsible adults capable of making independent decisions.
Vulnerability and weaknesses are used to define human nature today and this will affect collective actions. The collective entities formed from these vulnerable individuals will be formed on the grounds that they have some specific characteristics that make them particularly at risk from the actions of others, or from the society and its institutions.
The identities organised around victimhood are not the results of solidarity between autonomous individuals who believe in, and are believed to have the capacity to reason, to formulate their own opinions, to make their own decisions (including deciding who their enemies are), or to act upon these decisions and direct their own destiny. They are identities based on seeing people as helpless beings, facing oppression or threats to their existence, and who need to be recognised as part of a group by others to have protection.
The new ‘white working class identity’ and ‘white men’ groups promoted by those claiming to oppose identity politics are in fact portraying individuals who are men, white and/or working class as vulnerable individuals suffering from the demonisation of others, the actions of other groups such as immigrants, Muslims, or women, and needing representatives and protections other identity groups already claim for themselves. The real denigration of these particular groups of people results from the idea that a certain shared identity determines a common struggle. The struggle supposedly consists of a social oppression that can only be challenged by making sure new victim groups, understood as previously silenced, are represented and heard, with a redistribution of power designed to create equality between the victim groups and the supposedly privileged groups.
The ‘male’ identity group and the ‘white’ identity goupe are seen as having too much power by proponents of left-wing identity politics, while the ‘working class identity’ group is seen as benefiting from the oppression supposedly suffered by others.
The ‘white working class’ is also used by non-progressive white identitarians to distance themselves from other white people and promote their moral superiority. This ridiculous argument has led to demands from progressives to reduce the power of men and whites in order to allow other previously oppressed groups such as women and blacks a voice. As a reaction to the negative characterisation of men and whites by progressives, white identitiarians are entering the competition for victimhood.
But this cycle gives us no way forward if we want to challenge the divisiveness of identity politics.
The current anti-democratic trends and the attacks on freedom of speech are symptoms of this view of the identitarian view of people as vulnerable individuals needing protection. One can only support democracy and complete freedom of speech in principle if one believes in the ability of all adults to make their own decisions about what to read, what to hear, what to see, what to think, what to say, and what to vote for. The assumptions underlying the idea of ‘hate speech’ and the demands for self censorship and formal censorship is that whole groups of people are too vulnerable to deal with the effects of speech and that harm or pain resulting from speech always has unacceptable consequences on people.
The increasing number of demands for new identity groups to be recognised is occurring at the same time as the attacks on freedom of speech and the lack of principled support for freedom of speech. This is not a coincidence. To support freedom of speech in principle, and not just for the friends one agrees with, demands a certain trust in the ability for all of us to be reasoning autonomous individuals. This trust in others is not often found today, even amongst those opposing identity politics. It is easier to call for the ‘left-behind’ to have their own small minority of individual representatives to express their apparently common interests (judged ‘common’ solely on the basis on some shared characteristics such as ancestry, culture, skin colour or level of education) instead of developing ideas and visions of the future.
Let’s let all the ‘left-behind’ discuss any and all ideas, trusting them to decide for themselves.
Tribalism vs Universalism
Open political debates should allow us to understand each other’s ideas, engage with these ideas, convince others, compromise and adopt particular sets of opinions over others. Today, there is a reluctance to engage with each other’s ideas and arguments because many see humans as having no free will; beings determined and controlled by factors outside of their control. If we are not told that we are controlled by our identities, we are told we are controlled by our biology, our neurons or DNA, our social circumstances such as income level, our ‘black culture’, our technology such as the internet and social media, our tradition or ancestry, or simply by the words of others.
We are ‘tribal’ in the sense that we are happy to have articles and books that confirm and reaffirm our own personal opinions, fears and concerns, but are not prepared to understand and engage with the ideas of others. Dismissing others, or dismissing opinions has become an easy way to participate in political ‘discussions’ when we do not have any trust in human reason anymore. The current political conflicts are not created by the process of all of us challenging each other’s ideas, but by us ‘protecting’ ourselves and promoting the particular political side of our identities, dismissing or ignoring any and all contrary opinions.
Seeing the vulnerable being instead of the reasoning individual capable of making its decisions and acting upon them, while claiming and seeing offence everywhere, has become our political language. Engaging with an idea, criticising an opinion or politically disagreeing is increasingly seen as just having been harmed. For those who do not mind curtailing our freedom and liberties, using the justification that it’s for the safety of the vulnerable against the allegedly damaging society, mistrusting others is already part of the basis of their opinions. Any criticisms, judgements, and disagreements are reasons enough for them to attack our right to free speech, rather than let us decide what to believe for ourselves.
The curtailment of speech and the refusal to deal with ideas are then done on both sides. One side by openly demanding some speech such as ‘hate speech’ to be curtailed while the other side dismisses all criticisms of their positions and all claims as just identity politics claims. The dismissal of ideas has replaced the necessary political attitude of taking ideas seriously, understanding them by analysing the consequences of these ideas, discussing them, agreeing with them, or challenging them.
To really challenge identity politics, instead of accommodating it and participating in the extremely divisive competition for privileges and resources, the support for freedom of speech in principle is necessary because it will also challenge the current belief that people are helpless beings not capable of dealing with others and their ideas unless protected by a self-selected minority of people claiming to have all knowledge and answers and by the introduction of new laws, rules, regulations.
This identitarian way of thinking results in conflicts that cannot lead us to solidarity, common interests, solutions and compromises. It cannot move us forward in our understanding of the world we all inhabit and in the control of our destiny because our individuality as free-will thinking individuals capable of dealing with life and its problems is denied. Making identity politics more inclusive by increasing the numbers of claims and identity groups such as ‘the white working class identity’ or ‘the vegan identity’ groups is not a solution but a defeatist and accommodating attitude that refuses to engage with the ideas, the concerns, the people and the world around us.
Supporting freedom of speech for all and especially for those we strongly disagree with is the positive step that makes us take others and their ideas seriously so that we can all argue, disagree, challenge each other, convince others, and find solutions to the problems we are facing today.
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