Weapons of Reason, Power Issue
“One cannot individuate on top of Mt. Everest. One can only individuate with or against something or somebody.” Carl Jung.
With the election of Donald Trump in the US, and Brexit in the UK, social commentators of Left and Right have queued round the block to blame a strange modern construct called ‘identity politics’ (in the UK) – or ‘identity liberalism’ (in the US).
Identity politics has been characterised as the undermining of previously assumed commonalities, traditions and values, in favour instead of the perceived different experience of minorities. This in turn – it is argued - has resulted in a backlash by white, particularly working class, voters who have increasingly felt marginalised and ignored by politics and the media.
To understand how identity politics came to be such a dominant force, we need to understand not just how social progress has become focussed on individual rather than collective action, but also how the concept of self-discovery and individuality has become increasingly fundamental in ‘Western’ society.
One of the most vocal and eloquent critics of identity politics has been Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked magazine. For O’Neill, the trend is nothing but regressive:“Identity politics is about pushing people back into the biological boxes that progressives in particular spent a lot of time trying to free mankind and womankind from, so it’s a backward step,O’Neill says.
It’s based on the corrosion of the old sources of identity. People used to get their identity from class, religion, nation. As all those old institutions have fallen apart and withered – trade unions, churches, the idea of the nation-state – we have this new frenetic invention of identities which tend to be very fluid.”
This fluidity has certainly questioned previously solid social definitions. In 2014 it was reported that 10m Americans had changed their declared ethnicity at some point in the previous 10 years. In 2015, the media humiliation of Rachel Dolezal – a black rights activist who self-identifies as black but was revealed to have white parents – drew worldwide attention.
While race is largely accepted by biologists as a socio/cultural construct (there is no genetic difference, only regional variation), gender is – we are told - genetic. And yet, it is gender which is the main battleground for identity politics. Charlie Craggs is a Transgender activist, who personally eschews ‘self-identification’:
I am a woman. Self-identification puts emphasis on the self. My passport says I’m a woman. I act like a woman. I am a woman by law. I am a trans-woman because it’s such an integral part of who I am and what I’ve be through. A lot of my trans friends are on the spectrum of identifying 100% as a man or woman. Friends who are non-binary, gender fluid, they’re more likely to say that they self-identify.
Even Craggs struggles to remember the full list of accepted acronyms that define the various flavours accommodated within contemporary gender politics – LGBTQQIAAP – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, and Pansexual.
But she rejects the idea that all these acronyms are unnecessary and - in being confusing to the outsider – are unhelpful to activism and political engagement.
“I’ve heard people say that before, but people who say that are coming from a place of privilege where how they identify is more important, more mainstream. It’s easy for them to say that because they’re not the ones who would be losing their identity. It’s usually gay guys and people at the start of that set of letters – (who say) we don’t need pansexual or whatever - but yes we do. Just because it doesn’t suit your agenda…”
In addition to the fluidity and multiplicity of identities generated in the new taxonomy of identity politics, critics have also been disturbed by a perceived tendency of activists to close down the voices of those in disagreement – including the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for certain groups, and the ‘no-platforming’ of individuals by banning them from public speaking.
The latter has been all the more striking as the most prominent speakers to be banned were, in previous decades, thevery voice of radical dissent – feminists Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, and gay rights activist Peter Tatchell – all banned for offending Transgender activists. Tatchell has seen radical protest groups come and go, and remains keen to defend the achievements of identity politics:
“Identity politics was necessary to redress the way mainstream politics previously ignored women and minorities”, he says. “It’s moved us towards a more inclusive and equal society and away from monocultural uniformity, which ignored and marginalised those who were ‘different’.
But for Tatchell and others there is an obvious irony that the forces that uses to outrage society, are now the outraged: “It is now often being interpreted in exclusionary, sectarian ways that divide women and minorities against each other. Progressive politics has been turned on its head. In the past, progressives caused offence by challenging political, religious and sexual orthodoxy in the name of progress. Nowadays, it is often progressives who most vociferously oppose causing offence and demand that offenders are censored, banned and no-platformed.”
Identity Politics can be seen as part and parcel of the ongoing thirst for self-realisation. As the position of the individual in an ordered, hierarchical world has been transformed in the historical millisecond of the last 100 years, the need for narratives of self-discovery has become even more deeply engrained in the cultural milieu.
Since the early 20thCentury literary critics and psychoanalysts have sought to categorise the commonalities in the mythologies and faiths of human history. From James Gordon Fraser’s //The Golden Bough// which scandalously gave equal treatment to ‘primitive’ beliefs and the Bible, to – most recently – Christopher Brooker’s //The Seven Basic Plots//, the sum total of unique stories has been variously distilled to a periodic table of 36 (Georges Polti), 7 (Brooker), or 1 (Joseph Campbell).
Brooker’s recent contribution joins the works of criticism based in the work of Carl Jung, for whom the mythic world of stories and dreams was the route to ‘individuation’ - the discovery, definition and acceptance of the self. This process included doing psychological battle with archetypes representing the personal and social issues that prevent self-realisation. For Brooker and other Jungians – narrative storytelling across the ages merely reflects the human need for these archetypes.
All the great social movements for equality (race, gender, sexuality) have met with initial dismissal, outright opposition, often physical violence, and ultimate acceptance. This dynamic has been celebrated in ‘western’ culture as it has achieved change for the good of many people, removing the threat of real violence, fatal poverty, discrimination and abuse. But its cultural value arguably also stems in part from fitting the narrative arc of storytelling – filling the human need for narratives of struggle and the defeat of archetypes.
In addition, popular culture in the late 20thand early 21sthas come to celebrate sub-cultures as sophisticated conduits for expression and reform. Influenced by the ‘post-structuralist’ academic Dick Hebdige, an army of social studies graduates have learnt that the gender-bending of glam rock or aggression of punk are not merely youthful experimentation but semiotic challenges to the dominant hegemony by theotherwise disempowered.
Could society have evolved a inherent sympathy to the protestors cause and identification, which clouds our judgement of the issue at hand? To its critics, identity politics is emblematic of this - characterised by the fetishisation of the ‘sacred victim’ as the ultimate moral and political authority. Even more seriously, critics of suggest that the victimisation or oppression experienced by many activists is exaggerated at best, but even invented.
O’Neill:What identity politics did is introduce a sense of self-obsession, about cultivating a sense of self in opposition to your surroundings, so in opposition to the mainstream, or in opposition to the white working class, or in opposition to some imaginary thing which is oppressing your life.
Even for Tatchell – very far from an alt-right firebrand - there is certainly an agenda within identity politics to establish a hierarchy of victimhood: “There seems to be a league table of oppression, where some people fight other people to claim the title of most oppressed. This disempowering holier-than-thou rivalry was never what identity politics was supposed to be about.”
I put this it to Craggs: I know for a fact I don’t want to be oppressed. I don’t know any trans people who like being murdered or shouted at in the street or being rejected by our families. I don’t go around saying I feel more oppressed than you. Some people have it way worse than me. Trans people will often be very active in Black Lives Matter, or people of colour who support LGBT rights. Once you know what it is to be truly oppressed it’s not about that.
If identity politics is here to stay – and it seems likely that it is – what does the future hold for politics? For O’Neill, there is a fundamental conservatism in Identity Politics, which suggests we live in an era where the freedom and radicalism of the late 20thCentury have been lost: It’s very needy. It craves recognition. To me that is completely different to the politics of the 60s and 70s, which were basically about saying we don’t care what you think about us. I think that suggests it is a less free era.
O’Neill: I think we need to think about how to reconstitute progressive politics in the 21stcentury. We need to be honest about what was lost as a result of the decline of that politics - a sense of social solidarity, the idea that people could have shared interests regardless of skin colour or gender. Plus the idea that ordinary people should have more control over their own lives and the society they live in.
For Charlie Craggs, such arguments are largely academic, compared to the threats faced by transgender people. Perhaps this sums up the difference. For Craggs, and other advocates of identity politics, the personal is political by nature:“The biggest change (I would like to achieve) is that trans women stop being murdered. Almost every day a trans woman is killed somewhere, and there are so few of us in the world. If people started to be bit more compassionate then the bigger picture would change as well.”
“I would love to be normal. That may be problematic, trans people will get angry with me for saying that, but I don’t know who doesn’t want to be normal. I don’t want to be oppressed, even if I can say I’m more oppressed than you I don’t win any medal for saying that. I still need to get the tube home after our conversation. I just want to be safe.”