Identity politics and free speech: Who gets a say, and when?

Saturday 19 November, 12.30 - 13.45 , Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm Battle of Ideas Europe


This session is one of five debates at a special one-day Battle of Ideas event at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern.

Identity politics is on the rise.Increasingly, it seems what one says and the convictions one articulates in public debate, is attached to phrases like ‘As a black woman’, ‘As a gay man’ or ‘As a Muslim’. It seems that society has not satisfactorily resolved issues of diversity, representation and equality. The assumption that everyone has free and equal right ‘to speak‘ is, in fact, in question. According to a recent study from The University of Gothenburg, for instance, only about a third of the voices heard in Swedish media are female.

Seen in this light identity politics can simply be understood as a way of challenging the oppression of particular groups. But is respecting people’s identity more important than allowing free and robust debate and freedom of expression? Those who claim this often describe themselves as ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’. Yet traditionally, progressive political movements fought to have race, religion, sexuality and gender treated as trivial details, unimportant to how society should treat individuals. On the contrary, however, some feel it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to express opinions on an issue unless they belong to the oppressed group that ’owns’ that issue. University campuses across the Western world are the most visible sites where identity politics has come to the fore, but the phenomenon goes far beyond college students. After this year’s murderous rampage at a gay club in Florida, many gay rights activists were appalled that commentators tried to frame the massacre as an attack on Western values as a whole, when it seems the attacker targeted homosexuals in particular. People’s right to speak freely is also put in question by the fight against so-called ‘cultural appropriation’. Everyone from popstars to yoga instructors and Mexican-themed restaurants have been lambasted for using aspects of other people’s cultural identities without ‘permission’.

Can all of this be justified as a way of addressing centuries of oppression on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality? Or is it patronising to try to protect people from upsetting opinions or to avoid arguing with someone because you see them as less privileged than you? Is it time to reassert the universalist principle that what matters are the ideas espoused rather than who is espousing them?