Yoga for disabled students in Ottawa, ethnic food served in western restaurants, or Caucasian writers who write books with non-Caucasian characters, have all recently garnered outraged accusations of cultural appropriation. University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson was informed he would face sanctions for refusing to use non-gender-specific pronouns, and in the United Kingdom, students at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) recently called for white philosophers to be removed from their curriculum.
Identity politics, long well entrenched in the liberal arts circles of academia, have seemingly broken out of the confines of campus debates and critical theory textbooks, and emerged into the mainstream, suddenly becoming a heated theme in the media. Some of the discussion, on the tails of Trump's election, has come from dissident leftists' reflections on what has gone wrong in the left, such that the American electorate could become so polarized.
While I'm not sure that even the worst excesses of left's currently in vogue tactics could push fence-sitters into the arms of Trump, certainly extreme political correctness has contributed to a politics of divisiveness. Yet ironically, elements of the right too - elements once on the outer fringes but now invited to the inner hearth with Trump's election - are also embracing identity politics to their own ends. Shuja Haider makes a compelling case in Jacobin that the tactics of the so-called "alt-right" and those of the far left are increasingly hard to distinguish. Haider points out: "It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible."
Both demand an appeal to difference, hard lines around separate distinct identities, and both say: you are allowed to speak on these matters only after you've shown your race card. As Haider refers to it: "Your right to political agency is determined by your description."
This tactic is also in use in how many self-described feminists are choosing to respond to questions of gender and rights in cultures outside their own. A disturbing case study of this can be found in the vitriolic response to a 2012 article by Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, who called the Islamic hijab "discriminatory and rooted in men's desire to control women's appearance and sexuality." Besides being kicked out of the editorial collective of the magazine she wrote the article for, a seething open letter by 77 (North American) "feminists," Wilde-Blavatsky was called a "racist," "white imperialist" and accused of obfuscating her whiteness, in her response to the attacks. In other words, being white, she was made aware she had no right to engage in a discussion on social justice that concerns non-white women (notwithstanding that there are in fact white Muslims too).
If we accept and expect certain things for ourselves, but not for others -- justifying this on the basis of identity -- we're advocating a double standard, and actually falling prey to what philosopher Pascal Bruckner called the racism of the anti-racists.
And while those advocating that a white person can never escape their whiteness, can only ever speak from a position of privilege, likely think of themselves as radically progressive, they're using the same tactic as the "alt-right": reducing people to the ethnically identifiable threads of their DNA.
And the truth is, we humans -- whether we come from from a historically repressed race or a historically privileged one -- are more complicated than that. At the most superficial level is Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality -- the many threads that compose our identity like sex, gender, religion, culture, class and others -- but deeper than that, and arguably more importantly, is the stuff of our inner selves, our thoughts, feelings, ideas, what we put out into the world -- is this not more who we really are than the labels one can assign us from what they see from the outside?
The identity politics espoused by a growing faction of the left is carving up what was once a "we" into fragmented fiefdoms. As Haider points out, racists are effectively using the currently prevailing discourse of antiracism, found in identity politics, to their own ends. What is it about this discourse that lends itself so well to both the far right and the far left? To me, it's the emphasis on difference rather than on equity, equality and on what unites us.
And I may be old fashioned, but my left -- the one I want some day to be "the" left again -- is the Left of George Orwell, of when people of one race or nation or ethnicity took up the causes of people of another's when their rights were threatened. This happened when droves of people from around the world, of all sorts of nationalities, showed up in Spain to fight in defence of the democracy under assault by a fascist military dictator. The left I want back is the one where trade union activists worked across borders, and in indifference to skin colour, because they had common cause in protecting the rights of workers. The left I dream of is one where feminists earn back the name by standing against egregious human rights violations to women where ever they occur, irrespective of cultural sanction, and in indisputable opposition to cultural relativism.
As Haider writes, if the alt-right "were confronted by a unified 'we' -- a subject that refused to recognize the borders, divisions, and hierarchies that are regulated by the logic of identity -- the alt-right would be left with nowhere to plant its flag."
For those who really want social justice for everyone, and a robust liberal left capable of confronting and dismantling the bigotry of the alt-right, the question of whether to harden the lines of identity politics, and make everyone stake their racial bona fides as a determinant of what they can say and do on the matter, is actually very important. It's about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race -- the position identity politics advocates -- or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.
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