The I Word

Thought for the day. From Dave Hill at ‘Comment is Free’.

Why are some progressives turning against identity politics? After all, aren’t they the means for liberating the oppressed? In fact, they have always had their critics from the left. But Islamic terrorism has, I guess, provided a new and more public momentum. Awkward questions are being asked, not least on this site: how can liberals support assertions of Muslim identity when these include the subordination of women and hatred of gays? How can the anti-war left march hand-in-hand with hardline Islamists? Tricky issues. And I’m a bit conflicted about them. I’m wary of accidentally joining in with the dreary right-wing drone about “victim culture”, “multiculturalism” (whatever they think it means), “political correctness” and so on, which some “hard liberals” seem in danger of doing. Yet it has long been very clear that while identity politics can be a rational and affirming response to prejudice and oppression they can also be deeply reactionary: racial essentialism, inward-looking nationalism, cultural purism and a general suspicion of difference and change too often become integral to them.

Just so. One always is very wary of joining in dreary right-wing drones, and yet, there are times, in the deep of night, when all is asleep save for the occasional bat streaking past the window, when the little pool of light cast by the reading lamp is surrounded by darkness as far as the eye can see, when bits of those dreary drones can seem disconcertingly…not entirely wrong. When one suddenly knows what they mean about victim culture, and wonders how whiny one may be oneself. Then one decides to stop thinking and go to sleep instead.

But, he’s right: identity politics can be and in fact is both a rational response to oppression and indeed victimization but it can also (often at the very same time) be horribly reactionary and confining. That’s why Amartya Sen and Anthony Appiah both have new books out on the subject. It’s a difficult, tangled, and important one.

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