Reset Part Two: Words and moans will break your bones

by | 31 Jan 2023

A politics based on individual identity needs a way to police and segregate those identities - and so language became a bitter and volatile battlefield, with few winners.

You can’t murder a woman just because she’s opinionated; it clearly wouldn’t be justifiable in any sane universe. But what if she’s a witch? If she’s a witch that’s different. Then she has achieved the twin requirements to enable a murder – she is a threat to the social order and she’s less than human. Fire up the pyre good villagers.

It is hard to overestimate the structural power of language and sign systems. Criminal justice is a sign system, a system we construct to delineate what we believe the just social order to be through codifying the punishment for breaking that order.

So when the US decides that possession of small amounts of the drug dominant in poor black communities gets you five years in jail but possession of small amounts of the drug predominant in affluent white communities only gets you probation (despite being pretty much the same drug) you have encoded a massive structural injustice.

On this ‘progressives’ or ‘the left’ or ‘reformers’ (whatever you want to call them) agree – but then we reach a crucial fork in the road. What is the solution to this? Class politics would argue that, as a social class, poor black communities should unite and organise and fight a political fight to abolish these discriminatory laws.

Identity politics takes a quite different position. For them the problem is the identity of the actors in each part of the system. This injustice stems not from misuse of power but from a failure inside the entity that wields the power. If only the entity that makes the laws was ‘diverse’ it would have taken a more informed, more balanced view. So the answer is for poor black communities to vote black politicians into the policy-making elite.

But here’s the thing; the two people by far the most responsible for this awful, racist system of criminal justice in the US were the ‘black’ candidates, Clinton and Obama (Clinton was clearly not black but was heavily supported by black community leaders). It was Clinton who created these racist laws to deflect from his own problems and it was Obama who was elected to repeal them but didn’t.

Because – what do you know? – Clinton and Obama were both rich. Their identities as a black ally and a black man respectively turn out to have much less impact on their decision-making than their identities as wealthy political insiders with strong links to the corporate and banking sectors.

That’s the problem with a universe defined with you at the centre of it – you are very quickly faced with the ‘everyone else’ problem

That’s the problem. The French poststructuralist sociologist Michel Foucault created this concept of ‘discourse’ to show how each of us has an identity which is built and reinforced by our own language and sign systems. But he also points out very clearly that none of us has only one identity, so none of us exists in only one linguistic or semiotic structure.

Or let me put that in less pointy-headed terms; identity is perpetually fragmenting into smaller parts and no single identity defines anyone’s actions. You know how this goes; “I’m a woman” – “you’re a rich woman” – “but I’m a rich black woman and you’re white” – “but I’m a disabled white woman on low income” – “but I’m a rich black woman for whom English isn’t my first language” – “but I’m a disabled white low income woman who has suffered abuse”.

Each of us has many identities and they are never, ever neat. If we try to define ourselves in purely identity terms we quickly find ourselves mired in confusion and contradiction. If we define society in terms of identities we create a kind of ever-shifting mirage. If we try to define morality in terms of identity we will inevitably reach a state of conflict.

Why? Because on the day that there are only two humans left on the planet, they will have different identities. If they then try to define the remaining morality on the planet based on those identities (remember, everything you feel is ‘valid’) there is no obvious way to reconcile conflicting interests.

That’s the problem with a universe defined with you at the centre of it – you are very quickly faced with the ‘everyone else’ problem. There are basically three possible responses to this; negotiated compromise, exclusion or transactional accommodation. And identity politics does not like negotiated compromise since that ‘invalidates’ your feelings.

So we get the other two routes. The first is to exclude people whose views, interests or interpretations are at odds with yours. Which you can do by dehumanising them (not witch obviously, fascist or traitor or something-phobe) or leading a boycott of them (cancelling). Why is political language so angry and nasty? Because it emanates from personal identity which inevitably excludes others who are not like you.

Of course it’s tricky to exclude everyone, so you need to find points of contact with other identities. This becomes known as ‘intersectionality’, the point at which the interests of different identity groups meet. But this is really a transactional relationship – you remain allies so long as your interests coincide, but as soon as they no longer coincide they dissolve.

I’ve kind of watched the rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall of Lena Durham (creator of TV series Girls) as a perfect emblem of this. She’s an empowered young woman! But wait, she and all her friends are terribly white. Ah, but look, she’s such a Me Too ally! Hold on, did she just say she doesn’t believe absolutely all accusations made by a woman? Ah, now you see, she’s being measured by different standards than a man! Yeah, but she is so rich and connected…

On it goes – “she’s a good person because our interests coincide, but now she’s a bad person because our interests conflict”. I would argue that a transactional ally isn’t really an ally at all but a temporarily useful other. There is no long-term basis for our society if relationships are purely transactional and the penalty for breaking the transaction is linguistically-violent exclusion.

Identity politics defines itself through individual perception, sustains itself through linguistic violence and exclusion, requires a transactional allyship which is shallow and ephemeral and only resolves itself through conflict

And to top off this volatile cocktail it is inherently unpredictable. Since every observer has their ‘own truth’ and the measure of identity is how it interacts with everyone else’s truth, it is hard to know in advance what that truth is. The ultimate arbiter of that truth is Twitter, a platform based on the duty for you always and immediately to share ‘your truth’ with the world.

That makes it difficult to know what is going to happen next. Is this sensible health advice or is it fat shaming? The only way to find out is to press the blue button and hope – and if it goes wrong then you’re screwed because it’s there forever.

This is made worse still because the identity politics theories of what is and isn’t OK are deeply complex. (Or to be honest they’re often gibberish wrapped up in confusing language to inhibit awkward questions – I’ve got a First Class Honours in sociology, specialising in poststructuralism, and really, lots of the theoretical underpinning for this is a stew of logical fallacy and obscurantism.)

But lets say that you can navigate all of this, learn what is safe to say and what isn’t, pull it off consistently without putting a foot wrong by successfully predicting where there will be a backlash and astutely avoiding it, the best outcome is still a hopelessly divided society because someone else will disagree. After all, they’ve been trained to believe the world revolves around them too.

This is why identity politics has no destination other than conflict. It defines itself through individual perception, sustains itself through linguistic violence and exclusion, requires a transactional (and often performative) allyship which is shallow and ephemeral and only resolves itself through conflict.

Or to put that another way, its all about you and what you think and it is therefore a duty to be horrible to people who think differently, even if they only think differently about one thing. What is never acceptable is compromise, because that is to betray your fundamental being.

I studied this subject because it really was important. When I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s words like ‘poof’ or ‘slut’ or ‘paki’ or ‘pape’ were thrown around like confetti. I spent so much of my youth arguing with people that they shouldn’t be using these words. Poststructuralism helped me to put that into a theoretical framework which helped to explain how language and power reinforce each other.

But I studied this because I wanted to learn how to challenge the structural impact of power and inequality by understanding its tools. It didn’t at the time occur to me that this would undermine the cause of the structural reform of society by being seen as a way for those with some economic power to get more of it.

It never occurred to me that the structural analysis of why women face economic discrimination would result mainly in a set of tools for wealthy women to become even more wealthy. I had thought it was going to help women in poverty. Silly me.

The price to be paid for the subversion of the pursuit of social change through understanding the power of language has been the use of language as a weapon to reinforce economic power structures. And yes, I know this has all be written by a cishet middle class white man. I’m probably a fascist. I should probably never be allowed to work again. In fact you should probably threaten me with violence because my identity is a violence to you.

After all, I’m not you. So I probably amn’t a real person. We need a way out of this hellscape or we’re all in trouble. I’ll offer my suggestion in the final article in this series.

The full series: Part One | Part Three

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