We don't need less identity politics—we need more - Macleans.ca
 

We don’t need less identity politics—we need more

Opinion: We need to tackle all our different challenges, and not pretend we all have the same ones—and identity politics help achieve that


 
Thousands of Canadians took part in a massive protest against President Trump's travel ban on Muslims during the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on February 04, 2017. Canadians joined countries around the world in protesting against American President Donald Trump's executive order, banning citizens of seven majority Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya) from entering the United States for the next three months and banning Syrian refugees from indefinitely entering America. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Thousands of Canadians took part in a massive protest against President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims during the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on February 04, 2017. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images)

It’s become one of the most ire-raising terms by what has become an outrage-driven society: identity politics. Often deemed incoherent and vicious, angry columnists and commenters decry it when, say, the Prime Minister of Canada acknowledges that the country has failed Indigenous people, when leaders praise immigrants, or when corporations endorse diversity in their workforce. It’s accused of being inflammatory, fostering censorship and conflict, race-baiting and man-hating—a “poison” infecting the body politic, according to the Wall Street Journal. The rising alt-right, and even violent white nationalism, has been excused or diminished as an understandable reaction to it. Identity politics, opponents say, is itself the problem.

It’s become a punching bag for some progressives, too. Bernie Sanders has asked post-election Democrats to “move beyond identity politics.” The socialist magazine Jacobin has argued that “the frameworks of liberal identity politics and ‘alt-right’ white nationalism are proving curiously compatible.” Mark Lilla’s new book The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics urges the left to reject “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.” Bill Maher attacked the “cult of diversity” on his HBO show on the same night tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis were chanting “you will not replace us.”

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum claim such talk is divisive, but ignoring inequality only maintains the status quo—it doesn’t make inequalities go away. Identity politics alerts us to the distance we have to go to equality. And in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, the “free speech” debate over former Google employee James Damore’s memo questioning women in tech, and increasing anti-Islamism across Canada, it’s clear that we actually need more identity politics—not less.

But what is it exactly? Well, consider this joke from the sitcom Friends. After Joey encourages a lovesick Ross to “go to China, eat Chinese food,” Chandler deadpans back: “Of course there, it’s just called food.” Along those lines, identity politics for straight, white (mostly) men is just called politics. That’s the bonus of being dominant—you don’t have to “identify” what you are when you are the default.

For everyone else, identity politics merely addresses political issues particular to their subgroups. So it’s just politics for people who are also Indigenous, female, black, brown, Muslim, LGBTQ, Jewish, disabled or members of other marginalized communities facing unique challenges. It is a request to allow other lenses on political life to be seen as holding equal value. It is, as Samantha Bee once put it, “what we used to call civil rights.”

But civil rights has positive connotations, so identity politics has been weaponized as a term—like political correctness before it—to make it easy to ignore these identity-specific concerns. Semantics have long been one of the right’s preferred tactics, after all, having turned socialism into a slur so effective that when Sanders became the first major-party U.S. candidate to describe himself as such, he was seen as “reclaiming a term that was used to discredit his political ancestors,” according to political historian Samuel Goldman. Ronald Reagan turned liberal into “the dreaded L- word” so effectively Obama was still avoiding it in 2014. “Social justice warrior” or “SJW” has become a mainstream insult online.

Before identity politics also became a pejorative, it was used innocuously in academic circles for decades regarding civil rights movements. American anthropologist Vasiliki Neofotistos defined it as a tool to “stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice.” British political philosopher Sonia Kruks further explained that it does not seek “respect ‘in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.” In other words, equality—not assimilation.

Inequality and assimilation, however, was Canada’s initial modus operandi, a nation founded by white men who considered minorities and women inferior. During my parents’ lifetime, Indigenous and Asian citizens couldn’t vote and women had only recently gained the franchise. It was legal to ban blacks and Jews from beaches and businesses, but illegal for gays and lesbians to have sex. The last segregated black school in Canada closed in 1983, the same year that raping your wife became illegal. The last residential school closed in 1996. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until 2005. Transgender rights became enshrined just this summer.

MORE: For trans Canadians, Bill C-16 is symbolic—yet meaningful

Democracy has a systemic vulnerability: tyranny of the comfortable majority. People vote in their own self-interest, but many do so without even being aware of what others deal with. Stephen Harper echoed many Canadians’ own thought processes when he admitted in 2015 that an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”

Progress has obviously been made since my parents were born, thanks to the identity politics putting these issues on that majority’s radar. But inequality remains, and that’s why identity politics still matters. It is not about ensuring, as the National Review claimed in their article about Damore’s Google memo, that “the white male must lose.” It’s about ending the funding discrepancy for Indigenous children because there’s a suicide crisis and because way too many kids wind up in foster care. It’s about police reform because more than half of Greater Toronto’s black population has been stopped in public, and both black and Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in prison. It’s about protecting Muslim and transgender Canadians from hate. It’s about reducing the gender pay gap and increasing diversity across society. It’s about making sure the playing field gets levelled, and that power gets shared.

Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Trump has shown us what happens when anti-identity politicians take over. They play their own kind of identity politics—but, for them, it’s just called politics. After all, he’s called for a ban on transgender people in the military, a travel ban from some Muslim-majority countries, and a dismantling of affirmative action policies because he claims white people are the ones being marginalized despite the data to the contrary.

That’s why some progressives want to focus on class and stop talking about identity issues, in the hopes that the left can attract more straight white working-class voters who believe they’re threatened by social change. Former White House advisor Steve Bannon’s recent boasts about his advantage over the Democrats captured this dilemma: “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.”

The Republicans’ grand trick—making white Americans feel like an oppressed minority—isn’t new. The white-race card has been a Republican ploy from their Civil Rights-era southern strategy through the Obama-era Tea Party; Canada, meanwhile, has seen less successful efforts with the Conservatives’ barbaric cultural practices hotline and the Parti Quebecois’ Charter of Values.

As counter-protesters in Vancouver, Boston and most recently London, Ont., stand up together to marginalize white supremacist demonstrations, it seems clearer that identity politics, bringing issues of marginalization to the fore, are as important as ever, semantics be damned. We need to tackle all our different challenges, and not pretend we all have the same ones. Class matters, of course, but if you try to address, say, poverty without dealing with racism, the primary beneficiary is the majority group. That’s how “working class” became synonymous with “white working class.” Trickle-down theory doesn’t work any better on the left than it did on the right.

Despite conservative claims of pandering, every subgroup deserves a government and society that intervenes on its behalf as much as for the dominant group—one that reclaims, rather than rejects, this movement.

And if the point of identity politics is to decrease oppression by increasing equality—a slow but steady process that has been ongoing for a century and must continue, despite the current pushback—it is the way forward to genuinely uniting a nation.

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We don’t need less identity politics—we need more

  1. I’m a global citizen. We all will be one day.

  2. I think what you’ve taken here is taken the concept of “identity politics” in a very narrow sense and then used that narrow conception of the phrase to spin it in an exclusively positive sense. You’ve ignored much of the excesses that off otherwise otherwise liberal and/or progressive people from “identity politics” and hardens soft conservatives against it..

    I don’t think that most people who want to “stop talking about identity politics” literally want to “stop talking about identity politics” nor to they want to stop the progress we are making in correcting the inequalities that exist in our society. Its about not making it the sole focus of public discourse as some people make it. Its about being allowed think and discuss more critically what is being argued under labels such as anti-racism or feminism — and the ability to challenge certain truisms. Its about the challenges faced by people who are in otherwise “privileged groups” — and despite their privilege they face challenges — not being minimized or dismissed. It is about rejecting a growing acceptance in so-called “SJW” circles of mean even hateful discourse being directed towards “dominant groups” because you “can’t be racist against white people” or “male tears are delicious”. Its about rejecting the demands for self flagellation or — to use a high profile example from a US college — asking “whites” to take a day of absence.

    There is a lot not to like about contemporary “identity politics” (or whatever words you choose to call it) both in style and in substance. Are fixing those undesirable features as important as ending racial profiling of black men by police or improving the quality of life of aboriginal Canadians? No, I certainly don’t think so. But “identity politics” has a serious image problem and I don’t think it can all be attributed to people wanting to maintain their privileges. It could use a reboot. Or I suspect the backlash we are seeing will only worsen.

    • Well said, people advocating for equality should try to use rhetoric thats more appealing to the general (white public). Also, maybe find a way to explain why white men should want a more equitable society. The way diversity is promoted right now, i see no self interested reason i should want it, even though in principle i’m against racism and misogyny and have no desire to push the clock back to the 1950’s.

  3. Why not try to find a way to talk to each other, but keep ideology and religion out of it(like that’s going to happen)..Our politicians on both sides of the Isle from all corners of our country need to give their full throated support to help stamp out racism, and stop this ‘stupid identity wedge politics of division’ in order to try and get elected. Politicians should be creating and environment in this country for everyone to live in, not creating a cesspool to live in, and it starts with our politicians, they are the ones with the biggest megaphone in this country. I don’t hold out much hope for a change in our society, as long as politicians are desperate to get elected, we in this country, have already seen how far down the bottom of the barrel a politician can swim to reach the bottom. I don’t care how people think or what their choice of religion, or even ideology is, but lets just keep it out of our politics and live and let live, please. We need progressive ideas to help move our world forward, and get out of the caves. We need a world for everyone to live in.

    • If you think the change that your speaking of will come via JT at the helm — well I’ve got a condo in Corpus Christi for an excellent price.

      Have you forgotten JT’s eulogy of Castro? It’s pure political romanticism. JT needs to grow a spine and call a spade a spade. If JT cannot call our a public figure that was a racist killing machine — then how can you expect the average Canadian to rise above their leader?

  4. “It’s become one of the most ire-raising terms by what has become an outrage-driven society: identity politics…”

    Are we all supposed to pretend that identity politics is not itself plainly responsible for the “outrage driven society” we witness today? The irony hangs like a fart in the air, unacknowledged and unwelcome.

    The unscrupulously bad-faith straw-man arguments that follow expose the writer as an errant fool, and do damage to the editorial credibility of this publication.

  5. We don’t need politics period.

    Politics offers us only closed ended questions like “which party do you trust with all your democratic opportunity?”.

    The Swiss referendum model is far more democratic.

    With the Internet and some creativity, the stars are the limit.