Mark Lilla, Professor of humanities at Columbia University, New York, in his new book is “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” says that Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s, it had ” given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” Identity politics generally refers to the idea that we are all members of a particular distinctive group or groups with whom we identify sharing common interests and values and politics is about representing and protecting these groups perceived interests.
Professor Lilla refers to ‘identity liberalism’, in other words a focus on racial, gender and sexual identity, rather than on the politics of the common good.
He says that by undermining the universal democratic “we” on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end, this approach just strengthens all the atomising forces that dominate our age.’
The universities of our time, he claims , instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal or group identities that they have precious left to register any interest in, or engagement with , people and matters that don’t touch on their chosen identity
The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it – especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.
Clare Foges of the Times picked up on a similar theme in the paper this week . Again she sees it through the lens of left wing politics. She said there is now a tendency to put people in boxes, to see the minority status first then the individual second, rather than the other way round . There is now an obsession, she says with identity and difference which she claims is central to Labours strategy . Lost in all this though is a sense of the common good, what is good for the community and country.
It is not exclusively of the left though, it seems to me. . Pigeon holing people and defining them as part of a group is common practice across the political and social spectrums. Social media aids this process, at scale . If you define yourself as part of a group, you interact with other members of that group and this helps reinforce your identity, your views and values within that group. In this echo chamber there is a tendency not to look outwards and to engage with others but to look inwards for support and reinforcement. This in turn can breed intolerance and shut off interaction debate and discussion. In the worse cases people outside your group are seen as a threat which needs to be addressed –and attacked or ostracised. This in turn begets trigger warnings, safe spaces and no- platforming. . Wrapped around this is the myth that these groups are homogeneous , that they share distinctive , common views and values. So you end up with vapid bogus generalizations- People of Colour think that … transgender people think this .. Gay people think that.. Even men and women are pigeon holed in this way.
Identity politics though leads to an atomised society .It is the individual group that is more important than the broader community.Sensitivity to the feelings of that group and individuals who mirror the views of the group, become paramount. And if you are not part of that group and you have not lived their experience and were not born into it, then you cant know how they feel. So, your views are irrelevant and carry no weight. This is an exclusive rather than inclusive form of politics and engagement. More than that, outsiders are not entitled to express their views . In this way intolerance is fomented and debate shut down . And ,the rich irony, is that if you express sympathy for a group ,with which you are not identified, you can now be accused of ‘appropriation’. One strongly suspects that this is one of the reasons why freedom of speech and expression has become such a fraught issue. Identity politics can shut down openness and transparent engagement. Too often the apostles of tolerance ,who see themselves as liberals and champions of minorities rights are, it turns out, among the most intolerant.
The New Statesman wonders whether the left on the back of identity politics has become too diverse. It opined recently ‘ The left must be more than a rainbow coalition of disaffected groups or identity interests. An obsession with self-affirmation can weaken solidarity and fellow feeling. It can lead liberals to tolerate illiberal behaviour in the name of “multiculturalism”. It can lead to the weakening of historic bonds – of class, of institutional loyalties.’
This all seems true. Politics does seem to be more atomised, more exclusive and less focused now on shared values and action. Tolerance of others views is in short supply.If you really want diversity, you have to accept not just the views you like, but the ones you don’t. The quality of the public discourse is suffering . Knowing this is one thing. Knowing what to do about it another. But pushing back on attempts to curb freedom of expression and speech seems a good starting point . So too is teaching young people more about liberal values, of how to engage responsibly in informed debate ,to pursue truth, to fact check, to be tolerant of others views and more inclusive in their engagement with others on political issues ,these all seem to be good starting points.