The right denigrates equal rights campaigns as grievances while cornering the market in victimhood, says Guardian columnist Gary Younge
Given the political volatility, economic precarity and environmental catastrophe that blight this current moment, there is every reason to be concerned about the durability of modern democracy. Donald Trump, Brexit, growing inequality, melting ice caps, stagnant wages, trade wars, actual wars, immigrants left to die in the sea, all while fascists and their sympathisers sit in government. The threats are everywhere. Some, however, are apparently more obvious than others.
The last two weeks have produced the following headlines: Is identity politics ruining democracy?, Divided we stand: identity politics and the threat to democracy, Can liberal democracies survive identity politics? and Identity politics is destroying us.
In Britain there are, on an average day, roughly 1,400 sexual assaults on women, 25 hate crimes committed against gay and transgender people, and three attacks against Muslims because of their religion: yet in the last month, the term identity politics has appeared in the British press more often than the words patriarchy, homophobia or Islamophobia. It must be serious: people with platforms keep saying it is.
Finding a working definition for this ostensible scourge is not easy. Depending on who is disparaging it, identity politics can mean: appealing to people on the basis of a shared identity, such as race, gender or sexual orientation; reducing politics to individual experience; leveraging identities for sectional gain; or, at times, just diversity, difference, feminism, anti-racist activism, or anything else not explicitly related to class. Everybody who uses the term thinks they understand what they mean by it. When people are asked to specify what they mean, it often turns out the answer could include the suffrage movement, Martin Luther King, Donald Trump or the Catalan independence movement.
It is because its definition is so flabby and its application so opportunistic that the term can be used in such a cavalier fashion, and with such apocalyptic overtones. Identity politics, like multiculturalism or political correctness, is one of those terms that has come to mean whatever you want it to mean, so long as you dont like it. The term itself should be retired. It is no longer worth claiming or critiquing, not because there is nothing to interrogate about the role of identity in politics, but because the term itself has become an obstacle to that interrogation.
There is always identity in politics. Nobody comes to the world from a vacuum. It would be absurd to believe that if I were born a girl in Bangladesh, or to a farming family in interwar Romania, I would have the worldview I actually have. Every human being at every stage of history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society, writes EH Carr in Society and the Individual. Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others the individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless.
The trouble is, not all identities count as equal. The more power they carry, the less likely the carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all. Nobody asks me: When did you come out as straight? or How did you balance travelling as a foreign correspondent with raising children? because straight men dont get asked that. What is often dismissed as identity politics might be more accurately just called politics originating from the concerns of less advantaged groups.