Sunday, 20 September 2015

Identity politics and its limits

First up, sorry it’s been so long between blog posts. What happens sometimes is I get a post past the planning stage and I think, OK, I’m nearly done, I’ll have it finished tomorrow. Only the next day it’s not done, but it’s so close to done that I know I’ll have it finished the day after that, no big drama, no need to find something else to post about while I’m working on it. Sometimes, and this was one of those times, this can go on for weeks. And then just as I was finishing I came down with an unusually virulent upper respiratory tract infection, which kept me at home, away from the internet, for nearly a week. Content note: I discuss racism, homophobia, and ableism below, including repeating some slurs.

If you ever need confirmation that there’s more to politics than Left versus Right, utter the word “transphobia” in a reasonably broad left-wing forum and stand back and watch. (I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in a right-wing space; libertarians and conservatives take different views on how many gender identities and sexual orientations are legitimate, but they seem to agree that oppression only counts if it’s the government doing it.) If you do try the experiment, you can probably then count down under your breath how long it takes until somebody starts muttering about “identity politics”.

I don’t know. Maybe this was more of a thing five or six years ago, at least in this country, when the Left was still busy looking for something to blame the Right’s then-recent victory on. One thing a lot of people fixed on was the prominence of queer and feminist interests in the broad Left portfolio, which many claimed was a fatal distraction from the real troubles of the poor and the working class. Because, apparently, only bourgeois women mind being hit on by creepy men, and only the bourgeoisie ever feel attracted to their own gender or identify as a gender that doesn’t match their genital anatomy at birth.

But I think that was one manifestation of a wider political trope that goes: “Social justice struggles A, B, and C were about equal rights for everybody, but social justice struggles X, Y, and Z are about special rights for a bunch of whiners.” Struggles A, B, and C aren’t always in the past tense, at least not among the Left, but that’s the usual pattern. The “special rights” part is where “identity politics” comes into it. The idea is that the social justice movement gives people special rights according to their identity as women, or as people of colour, or as queer people or as trans people or disabled people or whichever one it might be today. And that, say the critics, isn’t justice. Lady Justice wears a blindfold.

Yes, but Lady Justice also carries a pair of scales. If one person misses out on a benefit that others are enjoying, when they’ve made no less effort to deserve it than those others, then that’s unfair. If the benefit is a basic human right, then that’s injustice. And if lots of people are missing out on it because of some aspect of their identity – be it cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, whatever – then Lady Justice’s blindfold has slipped. Fixing it will be measured by whether people of that identity are still missing out, and if you didn’t realize they were missing out then fixing it will look like “identity politics” to you.