There is currently some criticism of the politics of identity – particularly the allegation that the urban/metropolitan political elite (and also aspects of the media) is obsessed with it – and this is contributing to a turning away from mainstream parties and politics by “ordinary” people. For some, the focus should instead be on commonality (eg of class / income) or on other issues (eg inequality) or on the uniqueness of the individual. This discourse (“identity politics is unhelpful”) risks undermining efforts to address the lack of diversity and equity in key aspects of society and ignores or dismisses the lived experience of individuals. And perhaps that is the intention of its critics.
‘Politics of identity’ is a label given to assertion of identity – or identities. It conflates and confuses the personally political with the party political – a purposeful confusion which seems to be in the interest of media seeking stories or sectional interests (political or Establishment) seeking to hold or gain power.
Part of this criticism of identity politics is that it risks pitting groups against each other in a zero sum competition for power and resources. In fact, identity politics is first and foremost about recognition of equal (human) rights between groups of people who have one or more identities. But it is also about the redistribution of power and resources – from the people and institutions who have and benefit from an unfairly large share due to historic and current privilege to the people and institutions who have an unfairly small share or no share at all.
“Fair” in this sense means ‘equitable’ not ‘equal’ – and ‘equitable’ should be defined using an historical perspective. The current inequity between groups of people in our society arises from privilege which is based on social and economic structures that have persisted for centuries. Although those structures have evolved, and extending power has occurred in some areas (eg women’s suffrage), enough of them remain to cause people’s lived experience to be very different (eg unequal pay, likelihood of being stopped by police, postcode lottery access to Special Educational Needs assessment/education). And little has been done to redistribute power in key institutions and elsewhere – whether that’s from men to women or from white to non-white.
Another criticism is that “identity” politics inevitably leads to or encourages the taking of sides. That the expression of identity(ies) leads to or increases fragmentation – perhaps strengthening bonds within communities but creating or deepening divisions between communities.
Such criticisms are reductive and simplistic because they ignore the multiplicity of identities held by any one individual and through which common ground (or grounds) can be found between individuals and groups.
We are not each of us circles separated from each other by empty space. We are circles which overlap with each other at many points. To create or strengthen bonds between groups and communities there have to be places of association, spaces to promote communication and understanding. We have to create the touch points where they don’t exist and extend them where they do. But that injustice is more likely to arise from behaviour than it is from identity (eg I respect someone’s right to call themselves a nationalist. I don’t respect their belief that they can discriminate against someone who doesn’t fit what they believe a fellow ‘patriot’ should look like).
The imposition or assumption of single stories associated with certain identities can be used to create “Otherness” – to create distance or erect barriers (consciously or unconsciously). It can be used to stereotype, to dismiss, to resist engagement, to prevent change.
One of the things that causes and perpetuates class divisions, unequal income and inequality (in many of its forms) is the discrimination experienced by specific groups of people because of specific attributes they possess and share – whether or not as individuals they identify with any specific community or group.
To understand why identity still matters – we should listen to people’s experience – things like this:
People’s lived experience is what creates movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
Ignoring differing identities – adopting a “colour blind” approach or “gender neutral” approach or any other approach which seeks to homogenise experience – just risks producing a default to whiteness, or maleness or the hetero-normative. The kind of cop out that is #AllLivesMatter. It simply maintains the status quo.
Progress is possible – the Irish equal marriage referendum of 2015 (with 62% of the population voting in favour of equal marriage) is an example.
Each of the different identities we hold is individually important – but collectively they demonstrate that a general recognition of inequality is needed and an overall approach to ending it based on values is overdue.
We can be different and still be subject to one another. We can hold and express different identities without expecting hostility or a pat on the back. Friction comes from intolerance – whether from those who are threatened by other identities or from those who seek to have their identity validated by others who choose not to give such validation.
Identity is political but identity is not the cause. Identity is not what we should be fighting for. The politics of identity is actually the politics of equality and social justice. But for many, identity is the motivating force – the spur that drives us – the experience that enables us to recognise inequality and injustice. And that’s a good thing.