Who are we? Identity politics dissected

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

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Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

Over recent decades, identity politics has become ubiquitous. The content of what one says, the convictions one articulates, the universal principles one espouses are turned to dust by those dread phrases ‘As a black woman’, ‘As a gay man’ or ‘As a Muslim’. Western university campuses are just the most visible sites where left/right ideological political battles or material interests have been usurped by internecine warfare between competitive personalised identities, jostling for recognition, checking each other’s privilege. People increasingly categorise themselves by race, gender, sexuality, religion, and culture. In his book, Humanism Betrayed, Professor Graham Good calls it ‘The New Sectarianism’.

Of course, there is nothing new in seeing identity as important. But historically, progressive political movements have fought for people not to be defined by their race, religion, gender or sexuality. Modernity has been the story of forging one’s identity in defiance of birth or biology, through what you achieved by engaging with the world beyond yourself. Increasingly, though, radicals seem to be rediscovering the lure of essentialism. Privileged millennial activists claim historical injustices such as slavery continue to cause them pain and suffering because of their colour. Western-born wannabe jihadis claim they are motivated by assaults on the global ummah. After the massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, some LGBT activists fought for exclusive ‘ownership’ of any solidarity. Self-conscious identitarians retreat into segregated safe spaces at universities, with increasing demands for LGBT-only accommodation in the UK and ‘racially-themed dorms’ in the US. There are spasmodic backlashes: American columnist Michael Tomasky decried the ‘million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics’. The splintering of identities can be easy to lampoon - which of the 71 Facebook gender identities will you choose from? But identity politics seems remarkably resilient. Ironically, while support for Donald Trump is understood partly as a backlash against political correctness, Trumpian ‘new nationalism’ has recently been described as ‘a brand name for generic white identity politics’.  Meanwhile in France, clampdowns on the assertion of religious identity (fought over the summer through the state’s ban on the burkini) take the form of an assertion of French secular identity. 

What is it about our society that is so hospitable to new identities yet seems unable to affirm any more universal political ideals such as democracy and equality? Can the historical, more humanistic identities that once gave meaning to people’s lives – from institutions such as the family, class and nation to political movements for change – be reconstituted? Or were these too broad to represent everyone? Philosophically, how should we seek to construct a sense of ourselves today?