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Identity politics and the Enlightenment

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 28 September 2016


Peter Baldwin, who was a minister in both the Hawke and Keating government, has written a piece in the Weekend Australian decrying the influence of identity politics. He explains that identity politics relies on the assertion of the identity of members of a particular identity group rather than as members of a common humanity.

He quotes an article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy that defines identity politics:

As Sonia Kruks puts it:

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What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of "universal humankind" on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect "in spite of" one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (2001: 85).

The alarming aspect of identity politics is that as a response to discrimination it becomes discrimination's other side. As racism relies on defining a person in terms of racial identity, identity politics takes gender, nationality, sexual orientation etc. as defining. The two sides of this coin are that in racism individuals are victimized, whereas in identity politics individuals are given special and exclusive status.

Baldwin explains that such groups, who usually claim victimhood, assert an exclusive ownership of their identity and protest that any person not belonging to the group must refrain from "cultural appropriation". As Lionel Shriver pointed out at the Brisbane Writer's Festival, this means that writers must remain within their own identity group. White males cannot create characters that are not also white males. The result of this segregation is that fiction is confined to autobiography.

The charge of cultural appropriation has a history. For example it is obvious that white singers blacking up and performing in the Black and White Minstrel Show aired on the BBC from 1958-1978 supported stereotypes of African Americans. However, Al Jolson, who sung blacked up in The Jazz Singer was a life long promoter and supporter of African American singers and actors and was much praised by them.

A more contemporary example is the TV show The Kumars in which Indian personal traits are satirized. Should those of Indian descent be up in arms or is it expected that they smile in self-recognition. Clearly, an adherence to a ban on cultural appropriation will severely curtail comedy and satire.

But it is not only artistic expression that is restricted. Baldwin gives examples of the censure of those who cross the boundaries of identity politics. Anyone who offers critiques, even from the inside of these groups, is subject to censure. Thus a critic of Islam from within Islam is seen as not playing the game. Identity is sacrosanct.

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I find myself largely agreeing with Baldwin that such barriers to speech are unnecessary and damaging to public debate. What happens is that we all become isolated within our own identity group and discussion is stifled. I, as a white male Christian, am not entitled to say anything about other identity groups. This is a form of tyranny of the different. Those groups who have been victimized in the past respond by setting the rules of public discourse so as to maintain rigid separation between identities. This amounts to a reversal of St Paul telling us that: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) It amounts to a ghettoization of society, surely a huge step back.

This does not mean that we should erase all difference. It is quite right to protest at anyone saying, upon speaking to a person of colour: "When I look at you I don't see colour." Likewise I have been amused at hearing a group of women discussing curry recipes in the presence of an Indian woman while ignoring her identity and her superior knowledge. Liberalism tells us that it is not polite to recognize difference. The papering over of difference is not polite, it is an insult that leaves a vacuum into which prejudice can easily find a place.

While I am mostly in sympathy with Baldwin's article, there is one point I would like to make about his conscription of the Enlightenment. He sees the restriction of public speech by identity politics as a turn away from the Enlightenment's championship of free speech. There is much truth in this, one has only to quote Voltaire:"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

However, the Enlightenment produced more than support for freedom of speech, it changed the way we understand the foundations of knowledge and the self. We owe this shift largely to Descartes, who told us that truth was not something we received but something we built within the self from the exercise of reason. This turn recommended an attitude of skepticism towards received knowledge. It was the "cogito" the autonomous reasoning of individual selves that decided, from the ground up, what was the truth. Thus truth is not found outside of the self, as a given, but established within the self.

Of course, natural science was the beneficiary of this skepticism but the downside was that it generated an enclosed understanding of the self who was not raised within the mores of community but searched for detachment and hence objectivity. Thus the modern self was cut off from the tradition and wisdom of the ages (read here "Church") and instructed to find identity within the self. This was ruinous to community and to the self, to the community because the common good was replaced by the individual good and to the self because any search for identity within the immanent will result in idolatrous superficiality.

We can respect difference without seeking to isolate difference within cells that are inviolable. Here, humour, lightheartedness and honesty go a long way towards the creation of a permeable society that is not intersected by boundaries that suffocate honest discussion.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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