So far in this series I’ve tried to show how an important intellectual challenge to the use of language to reinforce economic and social inequality was distorted to become a tool of the liberal elite in reinforcing economic and social injustice – but with added diversity to make you think progress is being made.
This is progess-ish in that it is probably slightly better if you’re being made redundant by a corporate management board that includes female, black and gay board members than one made up purely of white men. Not much better, but a little bit. So take progress-ish, alter a couple of letters and you’re progress-ive.
Now your job is to police language through conflict and aggression until your new power hierarchies are in place and untouchable. This is going to necessitate quite a bit of nastiness given that your tools for doing this are dehumanising language and exclusion. But so long as the nastiness is mainly low-income white men and young low-income graduates knocking lumps out of each other on Facebook, that’s fine.
Except like a virus this methodology is constantly replicable, slightly mutated each time. Very simply put, if dehumanising language is legitimate, everyone can play. All you need is enough social media followers to cheer you on and your unpleasantness is not only valid, it is constantly validated.
That’s the thing about identity – it is very, very hard to live without. You are you, and that someone would challenge that identity and demand that you should be not-you is difficult to accommodate. It is much better for you to create and inhabit your own bubble and defend it by using the same techniques that challenged you.
And as I’ve shown, there is no way out of this on its own terms. In a world defined by relativism, nothing isn’t true, no bubble is too small, no rabbit hole too deep, no non-you can ever be worth the same as you.
Either we fragment further and further into smaller and smaller factions getting angrier and angrier and more isolated from each other, or we need to find a different direction. I suggest that there are three fundamental ways that we can escape the toxic trap of identity politics without losing the important kernel of truth which prompted them in the first place.
Society is not a list of demands, society is a negotiation
The first is to accept the imperfect nature of humanity and the inevitable imperfection of a society made up of humanity. We have to recall the virtues of patience and forgiveness and to relearn that not everything we disagree with is invalid.
Or, to be very specific about this, we need to get our heads round the fact that society is not a list of demands, society is a negotiation. Followed to its conclusion, being led by our identity means that unless we are getting everything we want, something is wrong. Defining morality from our own perspective obscures how that perspective crunches against different perspectives held by others.
It is remarkable that this needs to be stated but, if society falls short of shaping itself exactly as we would wish it, that may not be a failure but rather a successful compromise. Unless we are willing to accept that we don’t share a planet only with other people who feel like us then we will struggle to live together.
Compromise isn’t a bad thing, it is the fundamental glue that holds humanity together. Not only do we need to stop trying to prevent our opponents being heard by anyone by cancelling them, we need to realise that the people who most need to try and listen to and learn from them is us ourselves. Unless we actively want society to fall apart.
The second way we can begin to back gently out of this toxic social dead end is to reorientate our perception of society away from ‘me’ and back to ‘us’. It is not only people like you who need to get through the day intact, it is people who are not like you too.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was during a training course on negotiating. Very simply, the one thing that is better than you getting what you want out of a negotiation is if both sides do. Why? Because if neither side walks away feeling bitter and resentful, the next negotiation is going to be much, much easier.
I try to do this all the time. I try to think ‘OK, I know what I want out of this but is there a way I can get that and the other side can get what they want too?’. Identity politics is a zero-sum game, a matter of winner-takes-all. Society doesn’t have to be like that. Compassion and empathy can be built into our worldview. It can be a guiding light for how we solve problems.
Simply stepping back from asking yourself ‘how do I get what I want?’ and think instead in terms of ‘how can we create a solution that works for all of us?’ we cross the biggest bridge in returning to a social contract that connects rather than divides us.
Accept the need to have a negotiated society in which we think in terms of us rather than me and where we solve problems by tackling their structural causes negates the need for aggressive language, exclusion, dehumanising behaviour and perpetual solipsism
But most importantly of all, the third principle for repairing the damage of the era of identity is to return to an understanding of the world which is structural and not personal. Its not your fault your shampoo bottle is plastic and is destroying the planet, its the corporation that made it. It’s not a privileged person’s fault that they’re privileged, its a structural injustice in our economic or social order which creates it.
Identity is a tiny vessel, a pod which fits only one of us at a time. Structural solutions are voluminous and provide plenty space for us all to fit in. Identity lifts some of us at the expense of others, structural solutions lifts up many of us at the same time.
Hate crime legislation becomes a compressed little vortex of what you think hate is. Housing reform is broad, encompassing young professionals excluded from the housing ladder, low-income pensioners, people living in deprived communities, over-mortgaged middle class families. Get hate crime right and it targets a few; get housing policy right and it embraces the many.
In any case, so much of the hate is related to the feelings of anger that comes from exclusion. We can penalise hate or we can take head-on the structural failures that create hate. The structural solution is the enduring solution.
Accept the need to have a negotiated society in which we think in terms of us rather than me and where we solve problems by tackling their structural causes negates the need for aggressive language, exclusion, dehumanising behaviour and perpetual solipsism.
Of course identity politics is nothing if not resilient in its nastiness. There is a whole exclusionary, dehumanising language for people like me. We are ‘class reductionists’ (despite the fact that, over three lengthy articles, I’ve tried to show that class is only one of the factors which create social justice). We are ‘privileged’ so it is easy and selfish for us to talk about compromise (shouts someone on five times my salary at me, very loudly).
If anyone is to criticise identity politics they will face overwhelming rage. If they come from the right they will be called ‘fascists’. If they come from the left the attacks will be highly personal. But at its heart, identity politics don’t really derive from a left-wing tradition; it is really a highly-individualist libertarian ideology which revolves around the need for you to get what you want.
This bargain between narcissism and power is doing nothing at all to tackle poverty or the climate crisis or our real crisis in democracy. What it is doing is creating pretty-well unprecedented social discord and conflict. If there is any way this can lead to a positive outcome, I can’t see it.
Until someone has the courage to stand up to aggressive identity politics and assert a uniting alternative we will continue to get sucked down its toxic sinkhole (there is no need to leave behind the valuable lessons learned during the process). And so long as we are constantly being sucked towards that hole, we will fail to make the massive structural changes the 21st century demands.