Welcome to another ‘How it Works’ article – our series dedicated to explaining the confusing. Today we ask: is your identity indistinguishable from your political views? Join us for a philosophical quest to understand identity politics, and why they’re potentially dangerous. 

What Is Identity Politics? 

Broadly speaking, identity politics is the discussion and politicking of issues related to an individual’s or group’s identity. For some it’s not about what you believe, it’s about who you are, or as an Australian ABC News host mentioned in an interview with Salman Rushdie: “the idea that a person’s identity is central to the credibility of their argument”. Some of the more common areas susceptible to identity politics are race, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, but it could describe any discussion or debate that relates to a particular identity. 

As a less volatile example of identity politics, we could use Australian cricket fans and their hypothetical anger surrounding a recent ball-tampering scandal; the identity of being a fan of the Australian cricket team means that those fans take ownership of punishments regarding ball tampering, even though the same issue affects other teams. 

Although identity politics has been around for some time, in recent years it has become more pronounced. Questions of identity are being asked in terms of political affiliations – how can one, for example, be part of a social movement if they have not lived the experience that that social movement is challenging. This is in stark contrast to social movements in the past where messages were universalist or ‘group blind’; Martin Luther King Jr dreamed of equality and prayed for a future in which people were not judged by the colour of their skin, but the strength of their character. This message was, by definition, inclusive – unlike a protest in 2016 in which those who did not fit the movement’s identity were asked to “appropriately take [their] place in the back of this march.” 

Arguably, one’s beliefs are now being confused with cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is (again, broadly speaking) borrowing from a culture in a way that enforces negative ideologies, whereas beliefs are clearly something quite different. Being a member of a protest group because you want to show support for a movement should not require you to have lived through the injustices against which you protest, yet, as one commentator in the US wrote for the Guardian, “for much of the Left [wing] today, anyone who speaks in favor [sic] of group blindness is on the other side, indifferent to or even guilty of oppression.”     

Tribalism 

Group blind or inclusive ideologies appear to be on the wane as the politics of tribalism grows in strength. But as groups divide, uniting people for a cause becomes much more difficult.

“[W]hether because of growing strength or growing frustration with the lack of progress, the Left has upped the ante. A shift in tone, rhetoric, and logic has moved identity politics away from inclusion – which had always been the Left’s watchword – toward exclusion and division. As a result, many on the left have turned against universalist rhetoric (for example, All Lives Matter), viewing it as an attempt to erase the specificity of the experience and oppression of historically marginalized minorities.” 

Here in the UK, strategies employing identity politics were used during the EU referendum. Vote Leave leveraged on identity politics by targeting once proud but now marginalised towns of the UK with vaguely empowering rhetoric – the campaign’s tagline ‘taking back control’ implied a loss of power but promised that a vote to leave the EU will restore it.

In the EU referendum context, identity politics was used by the Vote Leave campaign to speak to disenfranchised voters and marginalised communities to encourage them to choose a particular path.

What do you think about modern identity politics? Is it a way to unite people under one common feeling, or simply another way to divide and conquer? Post your comments below. If you’ve enjoyed reading this ‘How it Works’ article, please consider sharing this content on social media.

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