Prolier-than-thou: talking about identity

Who is right? Where should the left draw the line? Will the facts help us now?

Elliot Murphy
23 February 2017

Between two identitarian politics? 'Uncle Sam' poses with cardboard cut-outs of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, November 2016.Jane Barlow/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In a recent essay for AlterNet, Bill Fletcher defends the general concept of identity politics in the following terms: "What passes for identity politics should actually be understood as social justice struggles that aim for consistent democracy and become, as a result, component parts of the larger class struggle. ... This is not self-indulgent activity by people who, for whatever reason, do not recognize the importance of economics."

Many forms of identity politics amount to struggles for different types of social justice, and are not simply concerned with personal identity. Despite the intensely self-oriented conception of politics promulgated by these cultures, all politics is ultimately a form of identity politics. It's peculiar that only Hillary Clinton's campaign has been accused of indulging too much in identitarianism by stressing Clinton's gender, whilst Donald Trump's campaign is oddly not considered an example of identity politics, even though he ran explicitly as a tough, white alpha male.

This may be true enough, but it seems that we are nevertheless increasingly moving towards a political culture in which transgender bathroom and locker room access is viewed as a more urgent task than tackling growing inequality and the deterioration of workers' rights through the promotion of gig economies.

The growth of contemporary identity politics, with its expanding range of genders – take the concept of 'aero-gender', in which an individual changes their gender based on their current environment – may reflect less of a nuanced advance and more of an increasingly fragile sexual and racial identity, stretched to the point of collapse.

Telling the inhabitants of the American Rust Belt or inner city Glasgow that they benefit from 'white privilege' is not simply inaccurate, but deeply insulting, and seems almost designed to alienate certain voters sharply from those fellow members of the working-class who engage in virtue signalling (an Alt-Right term, but potentially appropriate nonetheless) and one-upmanship rather than compassion.

Of course, the extent to which any political action embodies virtue signalling is ultimately impossible to gauge due to the inherently performative nature of moral actions, but the fact that the concept is invoked so often surely indicates the prevalence of whatever cluster of psychological mechanisms lies behind it.

The intersections of gender and race also produce needless hypocrisies: such as promoting multiculturalism whilst railing against 'cultural appropriation'; promoting freedom of sexual relations and casual hook-ups as a form of political liberation whilst demonising those who engage in such behaviour.

A peculiar implication of cultural elitism surrounds many of these issues. Consider Black Lives Matter. The priorities of most American and British workers do not centre on the rates of black arrests and police shootings, but rather centre on employment along with mistreatment and exploitation by managers. BLM is a very important movement, but placing it at the centre of left progressivism in the US (and to some extent in the UK) surely serves to alienate many potential allies.

It is not simply the ideologies of identity politics which are corrosive, but also the language. In Britain, the phrase 'coloured people' is considered deeply racist, but the semantically identical term 'people of colour' is thought to be progressively tolerant, respectful to non-whites, and uttered only by those with the utmost respect for all living creatures.

Meanwhile, the archaic division of the world into 'men' and 'women' is thought by many to be extremely 'transphobic' and reactionary. The demand (in Canada, now a legal demand) for people to refer to trans people using particular personalised pronouns (beyond 'he' or 'she') not only violates free speech (although it may confer personal respect), it additionally forces a sharp reorientation in linguistic behaviour in a way that is not conducive to realistic lexical change.

Many of the causes of contemporary identity politics grew out of movements that were initially highly urgent and legitimate. But, having achieved most of their major demands (i.e. the major demands of the LGBT groups of the 1990s), a small sector of these groups were compelled to hang on to their movements and so needed to find new enemies, new injustices, new forms of previously invisible oppression. Hence the rise of acutely sensitive microaggressions targeting sexist air conditioning and similar obstacles to world peace. It should be possible to present and discuss genuine criticisms of trigger warning culture without the resort to personal insults. These forms of microaggressions against microaggressions only serve to bolster this culture.

It also doesn't help that many trans and race issues on the left are couched in academic 'theory', political science jargon which views politics as an intellectual puzzle to be solved, rather than an actual state of affairs to be tackled concretely. Suspicion of academic theory is known as 'anti-intellectualism', with the prominent British political theorist and 'broadcaster' Richard Seymour mocking it for being 'prolier-than-thou', as if using an ironic label removes any obligation to engage with the arguments presented.

It may indeed be prolier-than-thou, but it is also sensible to doubt the wisdom of the recent claim by the British Medical Association that using the phrase 'expectant mother' is transphobic, since it could offend some transgender and intersex people. Oddly, even though they are in an overwhelming minority, offence taken by trans people is somehow deemed more legitimate than offence taken by cisgender people. Many cisgender women are offended by not being able to call themselves, or be referred to as, expectant mothers.

It is not difficult to find further examples of self-defeating identitarianism. The recent trailer for the new Netflix show Dear White People has been met, predictably, with the claim that the show is racist and divisive. The trailer on YouTube currently has 50,000 likes and 460,000 dislikes. The show involves a young black woman calling out white people for, amongst other things, wearing offensive Halloween costumes. The show includes a scene in which a group of white frat boys don black face, but instead of educating them about its offensive history a group of black men physically attack the white students and trash their party. It's unclear exactly how this is a positive message to viewers – in fact, if anything the show reinforces the stereotype of young black men as unusually violent. Consider the response a non-black and non-white viewer would have to this show. A young Indian man, for instance, could hardly be blamed if he opted against moving in next to well-groomed white students or young edgy black activists. The show merely serves to cause further harmful divisions.

To conclude, these social justice struggles need to be accommodated by the left, but after a proper assessment. Race and trans issues should have their prominence modulated exclusively by the social context they find themselves in, rather than arbitrarily being assigned highest or lowest prominence.

Perhaps the greatest current problem with identity politics is that it encourages people to think that their personal identity is somehow relevant when discussing facts and statistics. Many conversations about crime and poverty begin with statements like "As a white man I believe that..." or "As a woman of colour it is clear to me that..." as if personal experience - however relevant this may be to other conversations - somehow influences these facts.

The philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that, "The heirs of the New Left of the Sixties have created, within the academy, a cultural Left. Many members of this Left specialize in what they call the 'politics of difference' or 'of identity' or 'of recognition.' This cultural Left thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed." As Rorty's comments suggest, preaching the gospel of identity and gender fluidity will only serve to increase the mood of anti-politics spreading through the minds of many Trump and UKIP supporters.

Laurie Penny said last year that the reason she didn't want to publicly debate Milo Yiannopoulos is because she knew she'd lose. Instead of debating their enemies like Milo, many leftists engage in no-platforming, refusing to 'normalise' reactionary views yet simultaneously failing to counter them directly. The socialist playwright Edward Bond said that "If you can't face Hiroshima in the theatre, you'll eventually end up in Hiroshima itself." Likewise, if the left is not prepared to face, debate and hold the alt-right to account, we shouldn't be surprised when conservatism – as already predicted – becomes the new radicalism.

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