Identity politics is megaphone tribalism for a dummy-spitting kindergarten culture
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Race, gender, sexuality? Yeah, so what. None of that’s who I am – and none of it’s who you are either – because these much-touted identity flagpoles are convenient reductions. Easily available markers that border either on banality or abstraction and, in some cases, are effectively meaningless. However, if you feel safer in your little box and don’t mind being pinned and tagged, go ahead and cling to your so-called identity. Just don’t assume that the ‘brand promise’ of identity will be delivered.
While true that humans, like other social hierarchical animals, have always identified the basic distinction between self and other, us and them, our penchant for tribal affiliation has often lured us into dangerous and deadly territory. Today we convince ourselves that civil society has blunted the cutting edge of this ancient proclivity – and indeed, despite constant media hysteria and the garish spectacle of orange-haired demagogues, we are living in the most peaceable, non-violent era in human history.1 Yet our tendency to self-organise into groups remains strong. Whether it’s niche sub-cultural communities (goths, skaters, etc) or the broader amalgams of sexuality and nationality, we instinctively seek out similar others and, by extension, delineate ‘different’ others. Though this is not automatically harmful or hateful, our species’ track record of dealing with nominated ‘out-groups’ is caked in blood and suffering.
- I’ll spare you the exhaustive list of manipulative tribal leaders and the atrocities they are still fostering in the name of identity-driven, supposedly moral agendas, but…war, genocide, slavery and so on.
Lately, in the grand tradition of us/them dichotomy, we have spawned the frequently vitriolic vent-a-thon of identity politics. Essentialist tropes of ethnicity, gender, class, culture, ideological disposition and religion are being rehashed. Sometimes violently, frequently with rancour and/or paranoia, but rarely with subtlety, nuance and intellectual honesty. Though some have tried to inject rational rigour into the fracas, their voices are largely drowned out. Consequently, what we are witnessing is not so much a discourse as a battle of the brands.
Therefore, just as identity politics seeks to reduce everything to lurid, emotionally appealing simplicities, we could perhaps invent an appropriately shorthand ‘retail’ tag for it. How about iPol?
- Hey kids, the new iPol is a wifi enabled megaphone (with bonus echo chamber) that lets you easily identify friends and foes and, with a swipe, endlessly regurgitate easy to digest slogans and shift the blame for everything onto those nasty out-groups you hate so much.
Jokes aside, once we drill through the specific details (who’s the righteous victim, who’s the oppressor, etc) we arrive at a set of basic psycho-emotional impulses: belonging, control, acquiring and defending territory, individual and group purpose. Thus, iPol is a tribal turf war for the digitally (dis)connected era. Sure, it speaks the lingua franca of social justice – but so did a whole bunch of murderous, enslaving tyrants. Amplifying our various grievances and conflating them with simple identity markers is textbook divide and conquer; and herein lies one of the great ironies of iPol. It purports to voice the liberation struggle of whoever happens to be hoisting the banner but, boiled down, it is akin to Stalin’s so-called emancipation of Nazi occupied Eastern Europe. One bully trumping another.
Whereas some might regard this as a rather blunt assertion, what I’m suggesting is not that the folk who cleave to identity are wannabe dictators, but rather that the very memes of identity that drive their politics are empty and virtually meaningless, and that by framing the discourse in this way they are effectively legitimising the same dehumanising us/them manipulations they supposedly reject.
To illustrate the vacuity of identity I’ll use myself as an example. In the parlance of iPol I am:
- Western (born in England, living in Australia)
- Disabled (I am ‘legally‘ blind)
- Structurally disadvantaged (working class background, low income, low wealth, low status)2
To some, my delineation as a straight, pale skinned, Caucasian male identifies me as a patriarchal menace, whereas others would say that as a white man I am the pariah/victim of rampant PC. I reject both as crude and, frankly, childish encapsulations. Likewise, my eyesight infers neither virtue nor vice, and my preference for the opposite sex implies nothing about the attitudes or beliefs I may have about gay or trans people.
It should be obvious but I’ll say it anyway: my iPol tags are rooted in stereotypes rusted onto largely mundane facts and circumstances. For instance, let’s unpack the gender/ethnic aspects of my supposed identity.
- World population in 2019 approx. 7.7bn (meaning approx. 3.85bn men)
- Putatively ‘white’ people number approx. 1.4bn globally (that’s 700m white guys)
- Population of my birth country approx. 54m (making me one of 27m Englishmen)
- Population of country of residence approx. 25m (I’m one of 12.5m Aussie blokes)
You don’t have to be a demographer or social scientist (nor any kind of serious intellect) to immediately grasp the point here. In sheer scale the gender/ethnic cohorts I can be counted in render any ascribing of essentialist norms nigh absurd, in addition to making them practically useless as tools of genuine socio-political analysis. Even the smallest of them (Australian man) is large enough to contain everything from rapist paedophile priests to Buddha-esque universal harmony dudes. Of course, some (maybe many) Aussie males continue to act in a sexist, racist and homophobic fashion – just as some women are gay-hating racists, some lesbians are virulently sexist and some Asian people think Europeans are filthy, malodorous barbarians. Likewise, it would wrong to entirely dismiss hard-wired evolutionary factors and the role they play in our species’ tendency to coalesce around clan orthodoxies; or indeed to airbrush out the effect of entrenched privilege and disadvantage. Yet, even taking these things into account, the tropes of identity politics are wedded to fundamentally overstated and simplistic characterisations.
If I’m a chauvinist colonial oppressor it’s not because my skin is pinkish or I emerged from the womb in a country called England – and if I’m a paragon of saintly virtue it’s got nothing to do with my genitals, eyesight or bank account. Indeed, rather than transfer blame or acclaim to an externally mandated tribal identity complex, I choose to accept personal responsibility and acknowledge the more subtle and topical drivers of my beliefs and behaviours. In fact, so utterly irrelevant are my iPol markers that I do not ‘identify’ as anything other than human. (Okay, maybe I also regard myself as mammalian, simian and sentient but, clearly, these descriptors convey no politically significant information.)
Some will doubtless counter by saying that groups and group behaviours do exist in human societies and that, when we catalogue the history of cruelty and oppression, it shows this, that and the other. As a social animal, we humans have indeed engaged in group sanctioned violence and, what’s more, we continue to behave in prejudicial ways towards out-groups. I think it’s also fair to acknowledge that human civilisation is replete with examples of injustice that have flowed from commonplace us/them ideologies (religion, nationalism, caste/class systems, etc).
However, the question is: how useful is identity as a mode of analysis? How do the statistics of a retro-fitted, group based view of the polity help us to address the continuing effects of cruelty and prejudice? Perhaps if the current iPol discourse wasn’t so polemic and paranoid, it might provide sustainable solutions but, as we curse and wail our way through the crèche politics of the Trump Era, the identity distemper is serving to further divide us along tribal lines. Or at least, lines that suit the people who draw them – who have something to gain from amplifying differences. For it is one thing to recognise the banal fact of difference, it is another to impose value judgement, to lionise the self while demonising the other (or vice versa).
At its core, iPol misses a crucial point by fixating on nominated groups, rather than directly addressing behaviour. After all, sexism/racism/etc results in harmful behaviours, and it is these actions that do the damage. Ditto for despotism, colonialism and so on. And these behaviours are enacted by individual human beings, not by systems. Sure, behaviours are underpinned by attitudes, and attitudes are frequently engendered and reinforced by herd norms, but if we continue to reduce the individual to a number or a classification then we have taken the first step on the path to victimisation and violence. To stereotype is to dehumanise – and I surely don’t need to remind you where that can lead. Sad to say, but identity politics is already well down the road in this regard.
Therefore, I reject my identity as a cop out, a neat and easy evasion that coaxes me to avoid personal accountability (or conversely, indulge in the self-serving spectacle of faux-guilt). Furthermore, I encourage you to do the same, because as long as we remain distracted by the lurid blame/shame optics of tribal politics we will endlessly repeat the same cruelties. The bullies and victims will change names but the bleeding will continue unstemmed. Until we truly humanise our approach to social justice we will, more often than not, simply be re-enacting the counter-productive cacophony of ideological abuse that has created so much human misery. Until then our public conversation will resemble a sandpit slanging match, where everybody shouts but nobody can hear a thing.
1: Although this is still conjectural, folks like Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker and social researcher Bobby Duffy have made this point in order to counteract the widespread and statistically unsupported perception that we are living in the midst of a crime wave or about to be overwhelmed by terrorist atrocity.
2: Critical as I am of identity as a political meme, it is clear that structural inequities prevail. Indeed, as the work of folks like Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty show, both the economy and the actions of governments worldwide have helped to increase levels of wealth inequality and to entrench both disadvantage and privilege. Although neither economist resorts to the easy stereotyping of iPol it is fair to suggest that both the reality and perception of increasingly systemic unfairness has fed into the narratives of contemporary identity politics.