The poverty of identity politics

Patrick Curry:

‘Identity politics’ sees injustice as rooted primarily in people’s possession of certain identities, especially racial, sex and/or gender, and sexual orientation. The resulting orthodoxy often goes by the name of ‘political correctness’. It is now virtually unassailable among many university students, political activists, the Twitterati and the relatively young, well-educated and middle-class.

This is not to say it hasn’t been criticised.[i][ii] But its adherents can make critics pay dearly, and there is no doubt that many doubters decide to keep quiet.

It seems odd to seize on those aspects of life and valorise them exclusively. It may be true that as Nietzsche said, ‘The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality’ – and a woman’s, no less – ‘reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.’ (Not bad for a dead white male heterosexual ‘cis’ European.) But class, for example, seems to have entirely dropped out of the picture without mattering a whit less in our lives. As Adolphe Reed has pointed out, current identity politics could have no problem with 1% of the populations controlling 90% of wealth, as long as it was correctly apportioned to BAME and LGBT people and women.

Beyond that, can one’s identity really be determined entirely by an act of will? Rather than deciding and foreclosing, isn’t it better approached as an ongoing and open-ended discovery? And although one may sometimes need to affirm it, in passing from personal choice to a demand for social confirmation by a group there lurks an obvious potential authoritarianism. Others have pointed out the narrowing and hardening effects of identity politics on intellectual enquiry and moral development, but I’m not going to rehearse those problems here. Instead, I want to point out something else, together with one of its consequences.