The Seven Deadly Sins of Identity Politics

We should thank Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

We were uneasy about identity politics but we were reluctant to criticise it. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds we worried that perhaps our doubts were evidence of a suppressed racism we reluctantly still harboured.

But her notions of culture and identity are so misguided that we can now see them for what they are and more importantly, we are beginning to recognise that her ideas are dangerous and must be confronted.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Abdel-Magied, let’s look at some examples of what she has said.

When asked to speak about the relationship between terrorism and Islam she declared terrorists are just “a group of people that are fighting for identity in a world that doesn’t accept them”.[1]

When defending her notion of cultural appropriation she said fiction writers should not tell stories exploring the lives of people from other cultures. A white man should not write a story about a Nigerian woman. To do so would be to steal an identity.[2]

When describing Islam she declared “Islam to me … is the most feminist religion”.[3]

When we see an intelligent, well-meaning and educated person like Abdel-Magied promote such illogical and irrational ideas we know we have a problem in our society. When we see the massive support she receives from fellow Australians, we know we have a big problem.

The time has come for Australians to think long and hard about the rights she asserts due to identity and culture. Are they legitimate rights and if so, where do they rank on the totem pole of competing rights?

Abdel-Magied and her fellow advocates of Identity Politics, seem to have adopted an ideology which is a combination of Romanticism and Post-Modernism.

From Romanticism they have taken the idea that our identity derives from our culture and we must be true to it and this is of utmost importance in our lives. From Post-Modernism they have taken the idea that all cultures are equally valid, that truth is relative and consequently, personal perspective should be recognised and must be respected.

This hybrid form of Romanticism and Post-Modernism is now known as Identity Politics. It is an insidious and corrupting influence on social debate in Australia. We need to be able to recognise it and provide alternative arguments. To assist you in this task I present to you the seven deadly sins of Identity Politics:

  1. Culture is more important than reason.
  2. Subject to rule 3, cultures and morals are relative.
  3. The oppressed and disadvantaged are morally superior.
  4. Personalise the doctrine and generalise the members.
  5. Cultures should not evolve.
  6. Virtue signalling is shameless.
  7. Instead of equality despite difference seek special rights because of difference.

Set out below are explanations of these sins and their consequences:

Culture is more important than reason. Identity Politics overvalues culture and devalues rational thinking. To promote an argument, users of Identity Politics need merely say that the proposition being put forward is part of one’s culture and, as culture must be respected and protected, the proposition should be allowed regardless of rational arguments to the contrary. For example, Aboriginal people have a spiritual connection to their ancestral lands and this outweighs the rational argument that the chances of a more fulfilling life will increase if Aborigines move to less remote areas. This overvaluing of culture leads to the following undesirable consequences:

  • Having overvalued culture, Identity Politics encourages individuals to identify with a particular culture. If a person identifies with a culture then they are afforded the respect and protection that is due to the culture. If a person refuses to identify with their culture, Identity Politics sees such a person as somehow less authentic, an Uncle Tom, a traitor to their culture and not worthy of respect. Or, as Kenan Malik puts it, “Part of the problem here is a constant slippage in multiculturalism talk between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures and the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture”. To view humans as having to bear a specific culture is to deny them the capacity for transformation.[4]
  • Identity Politics is divisive. As social psychologist Clay Routledge points out, “Dividing people into groups and highlighting group differences leads to in-group bias. It is human nature to defend one’s in-group and to be suspicious of and hesitant to trust out-groups. Identity Politics makes relationships between groups worse because it constantly reminds people of their group identity and what distinguishes them from members of other groups… The key to helping members of disadvantaged groups and improving intergroup relations more generally is to focus on what unites people, not what divides them.”[5]
  • For Identity Politics to work, those relying on it purport to speak on behalf of a cultural group. In doing so, these self-nominated authorities imply that they know the attitudes of the group but as Lionel Shriver notes “membership of a group doesn’t make one an expert on that group”[6]. In addition, it is often asserted that members of a group feel or think a certain way about a particular matter without acknowledging that many members may have entirely different opinions and the group opinion which has been asserted may be far from unanimous. As an example, many of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s assertions about Islam have been heavily criticised by other Muslims including former multicultural adviser Tanveer Ahmed.[7] Making an assumption that all members of a racial group think the same way is racist. It is ironic that many Identity Politics advocates wrongfully accuse their opponents of a racism which they themselves are guilty of.
  • Through overvaluing and entitling cultures we have encouraged people of different cultures to live parallel lives rather than assimilate into the broader community.
  • The overvaluing of culture leads to preciousness over identity such that privileged white westerners who wear sombreros at tequila parties or dress up as American Indians at Halloween parties are accused of cultural appropriation. A white male fiction writer must not attempt to tell a story from the position of a fictional Nigerian woman. To do so would be to steal an identity
  • With moral arguments centred on identity rather than merit, it becomes increasingly difficult to criticise the ideology of the group without being seen to criticise every individual in the group. Hence a statement critical of Islam is misconstrued as criticism of every Muslim. Modern social justice warriors view everything through the prism of identity so words critical of an ideology are interpreted as words critical of a group and are thus seen as racist or xenophobic.
  • Identity politics places such high importance on identity that any criticism of an identity is viewed as a massive breach of social harmony. The right to enjoy an identity free of criticism is now viewed as more important than the right to free speech.
  • By encouraging people to identify with and be loyal to cultural groups which may bear no relationship to their geographic location it is possible for people to feel their current location is not their home. This is what makes it possible for residents to want to destroy the places they live in.
  • The ultimate proof of the overvaluing of culture can be seen when there is a clash between culture and gender equality. The concepts in this section come from Susan Okin[8]. Defenders of Identity Politics argue that equal rights for individuals will not necessarily protect minority cultures and these minority cultures are vital if members are to lead meaningful lives and therefore minority cultures must be protected from extinction by special rights. These special rights might be rights to govern themselves or to be exempt from general laws. Most advocates of special rights would agree that special rights are not desirable in cases where the minority culture is illiberal in that it denies individual rights and demands conformity to group beliefs. So, for example, Muslim communities in the UK have been given special rights to determine divorce proceedings according to Shariah law. Advocates argue that Muslim women consent to this but there are two objections to this notion of consent. The first is that it assumes group members all think the same way. The second is that it fails to acknowledge the pressures which are applied in the private sphere whereby strict control of women is enforced by men with the complicity of older women.

Subject to rule 3, cultures and morals are relative. Identity Politics encourages cultural relativism and moral relativism. Under this ideology, cultural groups have their own truths, norms and values and Western culture is in no position to criticise cultural practices as there are no universal moral rules. For example, female genital mutilation is considered acceptable in some African cultures but not in a modern Western democracy.

The oppressed and disadvantaged are morally superior. This is an exception to rule number 2. The exception provides that cultures which have a history of being oppressed or disadvantaged hold moral superiority over modern Western culture. The motivation for this attitude seems to stem from postcolonial guilt and is justified by the view that modern liberal democracies are cultureless. This leads to several consequences:

  • Identity Politics emphasises the disadvantage of cultural groups and consequent victimhood of the individuals. Members of disadvantaged groups are encouraged to cling to their victimhood, to embrace their prison and to use it as a weapon. Today, if you want to win a debate, don’t bother rationally outlining the pros and cons of an idea, but instead, paint yourself as a victim.
  • The value of an identity varies according to how oppressed the individual is with the result that a form of Oppression Olympics takes place as individuals list their features of disadvantage. The trump card in this game is to be a brown skinned person from a traditional culture that has suffered from Western Imperialism. So valuable is this card that Western feminists will don the anti-feminist hijab and will object to any criticisms of Islam over its anti-feminist doctrines.
  • If you are not a member of the minority group then you cannot comment on it. Privileged white Westerners who dare to question the rights asserted for disadvantaged cultural groups are told they cannot possibly understand what it is like to be a member of an oppressed minority and therefore have no standing to debate the issue. An interesting double standard applies. A white Westerner may argue in favour of special rights for minority groups but cannot argue against them. The nonsense of Identity Politics is clearly exposed when a member of a minority group speaks out against their own group. Someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali causes enormous grief to her opponents as they cannot rely on their normal arguments based on identity and are forced to address issues on merit.

Personalise the doctrine and generalise the members. If the traditions of the groups contain some unpalatable elements there is a post-modernist ability for members to personalise their membership by rejecting certain tenets. At the same time, there is a reluctance to divide the group into sub-groups labels. In this way, Identity Politics will often personalise the doctrine while generalising the group. For example, Yassmin Abdel-Magied when confronted with misogynistic elements of Islam will personalise the doctrine by declaring “That’s not my faith” yet on other occasions, advocates like her, will include all Muslims in their definition of Muslims when it suits them to have a large number. Much of the heated rhetoric around Islam could be cooled if the description of Muslims could be more descriptive. If instead “Muslim” we used more specific terms such as “Cultural Muslim”, “Liberal Muslim”, “Conservative Muslim” or “Radical Muslim” then commentators could more clearly indicate which Muslims they are talking about in any given context. The problem is that this would be seen as an unwelcome interference with a person’s identity when in fact it simply seeks to categorise people according to the ideas they hold. There is nothing insulting or strange in this as we do it all the time. For example, we might call people communists, socialists or capitalists depending on their ideology. We do the same already with religions in that Christians are divided into Catholic, Anglican and other denominations while Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia and other Muslim sects.

Cultures should not evolve. Having stated a position based on a cultural tradition, proponents of Identity Politics would be embarrassed to see the tradition change as that would mean their position must also change. There is pressure to preserve cultural authenticity. Members must do things a certain way because their ancestors did them that way. As Kenan Malik describes it, this is a new phenomenon “There was, in the premodern world, no sense of cultural integrity or authenticity. There were no alternatives to the ways of life that people followed. Cultures were traditional but in an unselfconscious fashion. Those who lived in such cultures were not aware that they should value their difference or claim it as a right. A French peasant attended church, an American Indian warrior painted his face not because they thought “this is my culture, I must preserve it” but for pragmatic reasons”[9]. Consequently, Identity Politics discourages cultural change and denies cultures the ability to evolve.

Virtue signalling is shameless. Privileged white Western people who are not members of a disadvantaged group will often promote Identity Politics arguments in favour of disadvantaged groups and their members. Often their support is merely verbal and requires no significant sacrifice on their part. It is not unusual for such people to campaign emotionally on their Facebook pages yet fail to contribute a single dollar to the cause they are supposedly so passionate about. This phenomenon is known as virtue signalling. It is a cheap way of seeking peer approval or alleviating feelings of guilt. Studies have shown that people with strong feelings of guilt are more likely to show high levels of outrage against third parties and after doing so, their feelings of guilt are lowered and their perception of their own moral authority is inflated[10]. Canadian Gad Saad describes a slightly alternative theory. He refers to the phenomenon as collective Munchausen syndrome in that Social Justice Warriors construct faux victimhood narratives in order to gain attention, empathy and sympathy from their peers.

Instead of equality despite difference, seek special rights because of difference. Now, instead of seeking to be treated equally despite their differences, people assert that they hold special rights because of their differences. People now emphasise ethnicity as a key to entitlement.

Clearly, the seven deadly sins of Identity Politics are harming our society. But to comprehensively argue against this ideology we need to offer an alternative. If identity and culture and not so important then what is? We need a post-identity ideology.

Footnotes
[1]ABC The Drum 15 June 2016 <https://www.facebook.com/abcthedrum/videos/1131556430251695>.
[2] Yassmin Abdel-Magied, As Lionel Shriver Made Light of Identity, I Had No Choice but to Walk out on Her | Yassmin Abdel-Magied (September 10, 2016) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her>.
[3]Blackouts, Childcare, and Migration | Q&amp;A | ABC TV (February 13, 2017) Q&A <http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4612398.htm>.
[4]Kenan Malik, Making a Difference: Culture, Race and Society Kenanmalik.com <http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html>.
[5]On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy €” An Interview with Clay Routledge (February 23, 2017) Quillette <http://quillette.com/2017/02/23/on-meaning-identity-politics-and-bias-in-the-academy-an-interview-with-clay-routledge/>.
[6]Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Sense and Sensitivity | Lionel Shriver (February 19, 2017) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/we-need-to-talk-about-sense-and-sensitivity-lionel-shriver>.
[7]Stephen Johnson, Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed Hits out at Yassmin Abdel-Magied on Islam (February 26, 2017) Mail Online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4260898/Muslim-Tanveer-Ahmed-hits-Yassmin-Abdel-Magied.html>.
[8]Susan Moller Okin: Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (October 31, 1997) Boston Review <http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR22.5/okin.html>.
[9]Malik, above n 3.
[10]Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving, Say Psychologists (March 1, 2017) Reason.com .

Works Cited

Abdel-Magied, Yassmin, As Lionel Shriver Made Light of Identity, I Had No Choice but to Walk out on Her | Yassmin Abdel-Magied (September 10, 2016) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her>
Blackouts, Childcare, and Migration | Q&A | ABC TV (February 13, 2017) Q&A <http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4612398.htm>
Johnson, Stephen, Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed Hits out at Yassmin Abdel-Magied on Islam (February 26, 2017) Mail Online <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4260898/Muslim-Tanveer-Ahmed-hits-Yassmin-Abdel-Magied.html>
Malik, Kenan, Making a Difference: Culture, Race and Society Kenanmalik.com <http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html>
Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving, Say Psychologists (March 1, 2017) Reason.com <http://reason.com/blog/2017/03/01/moral-outrage-is-self-serving>
On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy €” An Interview with Clay Routledge (February 23, 2017) Quillette <http://quillette.com/2017/02/23/on-meaning-identity-politics-and-bias-in-the-academy-an-interview-with-clay-routledge/>
Shriver, Lionel, We Need to Talk about Sense and Sensitivity | Lionel Shriver (February 19, 2017) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/we-need-to-talk-about-sense-and-sensitivity-lionel-shriver>
Susan Moller Okin: Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (October 31, 1997) Boston Review <http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR22.5/okin.html>
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