The Personal is Political: is identity politics eating itself?

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.15, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Feminism and Its Discontents

In her 1969 essay, ‘The personal is political’, feminist Carol Hanisch defended consciousness-raising groups against the charge they brought ‘personal problems’ into the public arena. She argued that most difficulties women experienced in private were rooted in political inequality, so personal problems could spur women to political action in public life.

Today, consciousness-raising groups are less common. Yet the idea that ‘the personal is political’ has survived, albeit giving way to an increasing fractious identity politics. The bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman presenting herself as a mixed-race leader in the NAACP, has raised sharp questions about how we think about who a person is. 

More broadly, there has been an explosion of different groups vying with one another for social recognition and respect. US writer Cathy Young argues this has led to a ‘reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage’. Burgeoning feminist clubs in universities and a diversity of gender, ethnicity, religious and cultural identity groups on college campuses and in the world of activism, reflects a substantial shift in how politics is understood and practiced in modern society. In particular, such groups are often divisively set up in competition with others’ claims to be the victim.

Feuds over ‘intersectionality’ and ‘hierarchies of oppression’ have created internecine warfare between ‘terfs’ and the ‘trans’ community, between black women and white feminists, middle-class lesbians and working-class men: checking ‘privilege’ has become a routine pastime. As some critics of contemporary feminism note, identity politics inevitably turns each individual into her own group: demanding the right to assert ‘who I am’ becomes the primary goal of political action. So when Rachel Dolezal claims to be black, who are we to argue against her self-identification?

Is this any different from the demand for public applause for Caitlyn Jenner – once known as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner – who now self-defines as a woman? Is there a point past which we can’t choose our personal identity, as suggested by those who reject comparison between Dolezal’s ‘cultural appropriation’ (‘a glaring example of white privilege in action’) and Jenner realising who she/he always really was? Do today’s identity wars preclude possibilities for transcending gender, race, disability? Does the feminist war cry of ‘personal is political’ inevitably lead to such a narcissistic focus on self?

Watch the debate

Julie Bindel
journalist, author, broadcaster and feminist activist; research fellow, Lincoln University

Andrew Doyle
stand-up comedian; playwright

Sabrina Harris
technical author; longtime gamer; regular commentator on issues relating to freedom of speech and internet subcultures

Jake Unsworth
trainee solicitor, Bond Dickinson; convenor, Debating Matters Ambassadors

Dr Joanna Williams
academic; author, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity; education editor, spiked

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
The dangerous allure of victim politics

In our eagerness to tackle inequality, we run the risk of fetishing its victims

Jamie Bartlett, Little Atoms, 21 August 2015

The deadlock of identity essentialism

There is a problem with an Americanised kind of identity politics which essentialises identity. And it seems as if the student movement is going to face this dilemma in its future organising.

Richard Seymour, Lenin's Tomb, 26 March 2015

Identity politics has created an army of vicious, narcissistic cowards

The more we've made the personal political, the more we define our social and political outlook with reference to what’s in our underpants or what colour our skin is, the more we experience every criticism of our beliefs as an attack on our very personhood, our souls, our right to exist.

Brendan O'Neill, Spectator, 19 February 2015

Feminism is in danger of becoming toxic

Instead of worrying about the Rosetta scientist wearing an ‘offensive’ shirt, or Dapper Laughs, or Julien Blanc, we should be tackling the root causes of inequality

Julie Bindel, Guardian, 18 November 2014

The Personal Is Not the Political

Politics is the space we create in common by virtue of what we can share with each other in the public sphere.

Seyla Benhabib, Boston Review, 1 October 1999

Five Theses on Identity Politics

What should we make of identity politics as an exercise of democratic political freedom?

Richard D Parker, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

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