Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The poverty of mainstream universalism and exclusive identity politics

Those criticizing exclusive leftist and liberal varieties of identity politics that endanger plurality of opinion nevertheless have lessons to learn

Kaveh Yazdani
23 March 2021, 4.28pm
Wolfgang Thierse, former president of the Bundestag, is among German public figures worried for the future of freedom of speech
Alamy Stock Photo

In the German feuilleton (newspapers’ arts sections), politics, university circles and social media platforms, the debate on ‘identity politics’ has reached new heights amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. The term was coined by the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization in Boston, in the late 1970s and had a positive connotation – at first. It gained traction in Germany from the 1990s and has become an increasingly polemical term in the country.

In the past few months, more and more public figures have spoken out against leftist and liberal versions of identity politics. They raised concerns about the dangers of ‘cancel culture’ and increasing attacks or virtual shitstorms, especially at the hands of people of color (POC), feminist and LGBTQ+ communities. They are worried about the increasingly hostile culture of debate and are alarmed by the threatening prospects of Germany’s freedom of speech and social cohesion. These public figures include political scientist Ulrike Ackermann; the writer and television presenter Thea Dorn; the philosopher Markus Gabriel; the chief editor of weekly paper Die Zeit, Giovanni di Lorenzo; and the politicians Oskar Lafontaine (Die Linke), Gesine Schwan (SPD), Wolfgang Thierse (SPD) and Sahra Wagenknecht (Die Linke), just to name a few protagonists of the recent debate. A network of 70 rather conservative German-speaking academics (Netzwerk Wissenschaftsfreiheit, the ‘Scientific Freedom Network’) had already joined forces in February 2021 to oppose peer pressure, cancel culture and political correctness. Meanwhile, the number of its members has more than trebled.

The limits of the response

Although many recent observers rightly criticize those exclusive leftist and liberal varieties of identity politics that endanger plurality of opinion, they frequently gloss over the main lessons of this approach, namely, the display, condemnation of and fight against marginalization, structural discrimination, underrepresentation and participation barriers for disadvantaged people, especially POC, women, LGBTQ+ persons and people with disabilities.

Many are afraid of having to share jobs, resources and power

As a result, most critics are hardly capable of identifying the major problems of identity politics: firstly, its widespread disregard for the importance of intersectionality, knowledge and expertise (that is independent of the respective identity) and secondly, the lack of a critique of capitalist structures and socio-economic inequalities (beyond specific identities), which, in turn, prevents a comprehensive understanding of discrimination, oppression, exploitation and emancipation.

It is no surprise that in the past several years, more and more white male public intellectuals, journalists, politicians, activists and ‘concerned citizens’ (besorgte Bürger) have come to the fore complaining about cancel culture, precisely because the critique of (old) white men has never been as vibrant in Germany (and in the world) as today. In fact, a large portion of men, white elites and the majority society are doing their best not to lose further ground when it comes to the prerogatives of definition, discourse, and interpretation. Moreover, many are afraid of having to share jobs, resources and power.

Missing the point

In recent months, several public persons have rightly pointed out that (self-)censorship jeopardizes productive discussion; that universal values and principles are more inclusive and emancipatory than cultural relativism and special interests and that the right to speak is, and should not be coupled with racial, gender, class, religious, political, etc. identities.

Nonetheless, a number of recent commentators often forget to contextualize and historicize their critique. Indeed, only a few critical observers have captured an important dimension of postmodern, postcolonial, anti-racist, and feminist critiques of the mainstream discourse; that is, questions of asymmetrical power relations, coercion, the importance of positionality, the lack of recognition, representation, and opportunities of participation for underprivileged people in society and politics.

Just to give a few examples, it is well known that in Germany, women earn about 20% less than men and it is widely accepted that gender-neutral language is intended to counter discrimination. The critique of sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and gender inequality is undoubtedly an integral part of the struggle for emancipation. In the realm of institutions, gender relations have been continuously improving as a result of the struggles of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists and progressive social movements. Although much more needs to be done, we now see an increasing number of women in leading positions and the advancement of women’s rights in the realm of jurisdiction. By comparison, institutional racism in the job and housing markets, for example, have scarcely improved at all, not to mention the global reserve army of non-citizens who probably represent the single most discriminated and disenfranchised group of humans within the ‘developed world’.

On a personal note, while a large percentage of the employees of my former university consisted of women, I was the only person of color among the faculty members of my department. And there are a lot of social and human science departments in Germany and other European countries where this is equally the case. Job advertisements often indicate that women and people with disabilities will be preferred when possessing appropriate professional aptitude. Needless to say, this is absolutely necessary, given the long-lasting discrimination and subjugation women and other disinherited people have faced in centuries past. But POC and socially disadvantaged persons are hardly ever mentioned in employment ads – at least in German history departments. And that is a great deficiency.

POC and socially disadvantaged persons are hardly ever mentioned in employment ads – at least in German history departments

Thus, when Wolfgang Thierse emphatically defends the practice of blackfacing while Markus Gabriel postulates that white actors should be allowed to play the role of a Black freedom fighter such as Martin Luther King, they do not recognize that non-white actors are socially disadvantaged and highly underrepresented in Germany’s leading theatres and other institutions in the first place. De-contextualizing and de-historicizing universalisms vis-à-vis Black and brown people and anti-racist movements have been common tropes in recent years. In response to the slogan Black Lives Matter, a number of self-proclaimed universalists asked: “But shouldn’t we really be saying all lives matter?” As scholar and political activist Angela Davis astutely responded in 2016 in her book ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle’: “If indeed all lives mattered we would not need to emphatically proclaim that Black Lives Matter.” Or as philosopher Hannah Arendt rightly pointed out in 1964, in an interview broadcast on the German public-service television ZDF, and specifically referring to the times and context of fascist Germany: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”

Whose freedom of expression?

Another interesting aspect of the recent critiques of identity politics is the opportunistic defense of humanistic values and principles that is replete with double standards. The hypocrisy of a considerable number of conservatives, liberals and moderate leftists in Germany becomes apparent when taking a closer look at whose freedom of speech and universal human rights is being ignored. Freedom of expression is generally only defended when it suits their interests and complies with their beliefs. Hardly any commentator who grumbled about cancel culture and the anklets of political correctness bristled at the permanent banning of the Twitter and Facebook accounts of former US president Donald Trump, YouTube’s deletion of the channel of Germany’s leading ‘conspiracy theorist’ Ken Jebsen or the stage ban and disinvitation of anti-Zionist activists, musicians, and intellectuals that has been taking place for years now.

The English novelist Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who, in her 1906 novel ‘The Friends of Voltaire’, paraphrased Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, would probably turn over in her grave right now. In the words of the revolutionary scholar and political economist Rosa Luxemburg, who, while already serving a sentence of more than three years for anti-war activities in Germany, in 1918, wrote an essay in prison titled ‘The Russian Revolution’ where she welcomed the revolution but criticized what she perceived to be the initial phases of a Bolshevik dictatorship: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.”

Excluding potential allies

That said, there are also serious flaws with the recent trend of leftist and liberal identity politics that I would briefly like to touch upon. In my opinion, the most important problem seems to be the anti-emancipatory ideology of a great portion of the adherents of identity politics. To give an example, a significant number of white feminists hardly defend the civil rights of non-white women, let alone marginalized groups such as immigrants, refugees and non-citizens. Moreover, even those who advocate intersectionality, often exclude the category of class and vice versa. Hence, it is not uncommon that feminists, LGBTQ+ and POC activists rarely include the white working class as potential allies whereas the labor movement and longtime leftists have often dismissed categories such as race, gender and religion.

Feminists, LGBTQ+ and POC activists rarely include the white working class as potential allies

Another difficulty concerns the rejection of those experts who do not belong to the group upon which they work. In other words, if a man writes about women, a white author translates something that was written by a Black person, a white university professor lectures on Senegalese history or a rich person plays a poor person in theatre, it should be permissible and legitimate provided that the respective individual has the proper experience, empathy and is qualified to do so. Concurrently, it is imperative that those who are concerned are adequately represented as well which, unfortunately, is frequently not the case.

Last but not least, the class-blindness of identity politics within segments of the new Left leads to an inappropriate analysis of socio-economic structures and power relations. Let me illustrate this through the infamous example of so-called cultural appropriation. A significant number of postcolonial and ‘critical whiteness’ activists and academics get het up when white people wear dreadlocks or ‘ethnic’ clothes, accessories and ornaments.

However, the concept of cultural appropriation somewhat misses the point. The problem isn’t that white people culturally appropriate other people’s things. The crux of the matter is that capitalism is based upon commodification, valorization and commercialization. Thus, anything that can be sold, including “exotic” products and styles are commodified, valorized and commercialized in order to satisfy certain consumer needs and make profits. This alienating and destructive tendency towards commodification and capitalization as well as environmentally disparaging consumerism is accompanied by imperialist and unequal global power relations which implies that the well-to-do – who are predominantly but not exclusively white – have a stronger purchasing power and can therefore afford to buy, commodify, valorize and commercialize ‘exotic’ goods and lifestyles, especially to the detriment of non-white super-exploited laborers and poor POC.

By and large, freedom of expression, including artistic freedom, should apply to every individual and group (from the radical right to the radical left political spectrum), irrespective of subject matter, race, gender, class, and religious beliefs. The right to blasphemy also needs to be protected. Nobody should be disinvited, banned from media platforms or denied the right to speak in public because of his or her opinions. Exceptions to the rule comprise those who advocate death threats, threats of violence as well as extremely inhumane, violent and systematic forms of racist, classist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableistic, agist and lookist defamation, hate speech, and the spreading of lies. As the case may be, the definition of what constitute these severe manifestations and articulations have to be examined on an individual basis and should be liable to legal and scholarly discussion and debate.

Furthermore, the issues of marginalization, structural discrimination against the subaltern and underprivileged strata of society, positionality, the lack of recognition, participation, and representation have to be taken seriously. Indeed, that is one of the main merits and take-aways of the heterogeneous movements that, for the sake of simplicity, have been subsumed under the label of leftist identity politics. On the other hand, followers of liberal and new left identity politics often fall short of inclusivity and do not sufficiently consider the political economy of exploitation, class relations, discrimination and oppression. Their exclusion of white (male) allies within the working-class and intelligentsia on equal terms and vice versa is to the detriment of the processes of emancipation. As Karl Marx already pointed out as early as 1844, in his ‘Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right’, it is imperative “to overthrow all conditions in which humans are humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, miserable beings”. (translation mine)

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