**The following is an essay based on an updated transcript of my opening remarks at the Battle of Ideas 2019 where I spoke on a panel on the topic of, “Individuals Vs Identities: Can we Move Beyond Tribal Politics?” I feel the sentiment is more relevant now than ever.**
(Originally published on Medium.com)
Identity over Individuality & Suffering over Achievements
How has our cultural discourse come to the stage where, at a recent wedding, I found myself lampooned as a racist by a gay couple for quoting Martin Luther King?
“I have a dream that one day people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin”, I was told, is something that “known racists” say, during a conversation about whether white people could ever be the victims of racism.
I can’t quite remember how we got on to the topic as I was leaning quite heavily into my Irish identity at the time, but I was told that I could never understand as I am a cis-gendered, straight, white male.
I asked how they know if I’m straight…or cis-gendered for that matter?
THIS actually curried me some favour. As if to have minority status in my sexuality or gender would make me more moral and more deserving of an opinion on racial issues.
I could see the cogs turning in their brains in real time, “AH…he might be a victim after all? Let’s deduct some points in his oppression score…but he is still VERY visibly white so we can still hold that original sin against him.”
Douglas Murray is speaking in another room at the festival at this very moment and erudite as always he used a great turn of phrase during a recent interview. “People used to be celebrated for their achievements…now they’re celebrated for their suffering.”
Not only are people celebrated for suffering, but they are celebrated for their group’s suffering. Past or present, perceived or real, we cannot question the lived experience of “their truth”.
Martin Luther King sentiment and enlightenment values of universalism and individualism are no longer in fashion in a society that favours group identity over the sovereignty of the individual.
Identities Come & Go
The story goes that in the oppression Olympics if you’re part of a minority group you better have the decency to be oppressed and fit the narrative. You better fit the orthodoxy or you can have your identity card assigned and stripped away from you at a whim e.g. I’ve been told countless times I MUST be a feminist because I believe in equality of opportunity between the sexes.
Kanye West is no longer considered black because he now espouses conservative views and Joe Biden says you are not black if you don’t vote for him.
Douglas Murray is stripped of his “gay card” because he’s critical of some elements of the Trans movement.
Meanwhile, woke ideologues seem to be able to perform the necessary mental gymnastics to create otherwise contradictory intersectional identities. It’s impossible to be a black republican but entirely plausible to be a Queer Muslim.
It’s very stripping of agency to be defined through immutable characteristics like this and more troubling still to have what should be immutable characteristics stripped from you at the whim of a woke tribunal.
It’s this type of thinking that leads to my Peruvian-American girlfriend being told by her cousin that she wasn’t a real Latina because she wasn’t born in Peru and now lives in the UK.
Very ethno-purist from a so called progressive and I imagine my girlfriend living with me, a very Gringo Irish man, didn’t help matters in the slightest. Needless to say, my girlfriend responded with stereotypical Latin fire.
"Who’s Right" Rather than "What’s Right"
There’s a weird game being played and I’m trying to figure out the rules. The game appears not to be based on any fundamental, philosophical rules. If there are any rules, they change drastically depending on who is playing the game. On the one hand the regressive left want to get rid of many categories and binaries, but on the other hand it seems to matter more what category a person falls into than what they’re actually saying.
As author Don Watkins says, “It becomes more about who’s right rather than what’s right.”
e.g. is it wrong to verbally attack a 16 year old? Well it depends on whether you’re Gretta Thornburg or a MAGA hat wearing kid from a catholic high school.
Then we have the case of Sarah Jeong, hired on the editorial team at the New York Times who it surfaced had authored such unsavory tweets as:
1. Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men
2. Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins
The New York Times defence of her?:“We hired Sarah Jeong because of the exceptional work she has done … her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers…”
Identity politics is so stripping of agency that their players are not even deemed capable of being insulting of their own volition.
The Alt-Right Mirroring The Far Left
There are remarkable similarities between the Alt Right and The Far Left in terms of identity politics.
Richard Spencer, figurehead of the “Alt Right”, calls in earnest for safe spaces….for white people.
If you insist on playing tribal identity politics, the Alt Right will play right back…and harder. As my friend Nikos Sotirakopoulos describes, The Alt Right is Identity Politics On Steroids
White Supremacist groups essentialise ‘whiteness’ in a similar way to books like ‘White Fragility’ do.
Original sin for which collective guilt must be assigned. James Lindsay describes the doctrine of "White Fragility".
There are two types of white people:
Racists (who admit it) and racists (who are too fragile to admit it)
Racism manifests in every situation, and it’s the anti-racist’s duty to find it and call it out
Original sin from which there doesn’t seem to be any pathway to redemption beyond accepting the charge and indulging in some shameful, hollow, conformist acts of ritualistic atonement (more on this later)
However, there is a significant difference in how we perceive each of these attempts at essentialising race. One is a fringe group in the shadows, viewed as abhorrent by almost all of society…the other is a New York times best seller.
Insisting on identity as the primary lense through which to see people is also a great recruiting tool for nefarious groups like white supremacists, particularly if you subscribe to the essentialist, inherently racist view of whiteness that is popularised.
Beware the Kafka Trap
Essentialising of ‘whiteness’ is the playing out of a classic Kafka trap, which gets its name from the Franz Kafka novel The Trial.
It is a logical fallacy whereby one is accused of a thought crime such as racism, sexism or homophobia and providing an honest defense against such charge is seen as further proof of your guilt. Even if you are innocent, the only path to redemption is for you to plead guilty and accept punishment. Ideally, for the accuser, you even come to believe in your own guilt.
In a further mirroring of religion, the tactics of the identitarians is to move into the metaphysical ‘god of the gaps’ style arguments. Even if one is not guilty of any racist, sexist or homophobic act…you are guilty by virtue of your ‘unconscious bias’ which is based on a very flawed and unhelpful science.
In extremely tribal identity politics we see a reversal of the principle of innocent until proven guilty, which is the foundation of our rule of law.
It is now not enough to be against racism, you must be anti-racist.
This is not an earnest and galvanising rallying cry for support in tackling racism, it is a purity test by which your racism (not your lack thereof) will be judged.
I have seen sincere posts on social media from people saying that ‘notes are being taken’ and ‘white silence is violence’ has become a popularised slogan.
Homogenising Identities and Symbolism
UK based protesters, feeling faux affinity to their culture setting big brother in America and genuine outrage over the horrifically unjust instance of police brutality/murder towards George Floyd, needed a locus for righteous outrage. It came in the form of tearing down statues with slave trade legacy and even defacing the statue of Winston Churchill.
This has sparked what it appears is going to be a Mayor of London led long march through the country, purging problematic statues. Big tech entertainment companies like Netflix have followed suit, axing ‘racist’ TV shows like Little Britain and Oscar winning movies like Gone With The Wind. Is this a massive win for race relations? This has been described as a Maoist revision of History, aiming it seems, to reset the clock of history to a Year Zero from which Utopia will be built. This campaign has caused many commentators on social media to quote Orwell’s "1984":
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
I always found the phrase that “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it while those who do study history are doomed to watch as everyone else repeats it” to be trite. This episode of the culture wars has given me pause for thought however. Modern day progressives don’t seem to understand that progress and Utopia is to learn from historic mistakes, not to erase them and start again. They would do well to take heed of Oscar Wilde’s cartography of Utopia, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
The reality on the ground is that the UK and America have very different forms of racism and police brutality and to deal with.
The BBC has noted:
‘Over the past 10 years, 163 people have died in or following police custody in England and Wales’. Of the 163, 13 were black. In fact, over the past 10 years, ‘a white individual who has been arrested was about 25 per cent more likely to die in custody than a black individual who had been arrested’
Ralph Leonard contrasts the distinct racisms experienced by the UK and the US while Louise Perry explores further the idea of a deeper issue of UK based imitation of America that extends much further than race.
Homogenising any group as a monolith and nebulising the enemy they face too broadly means that you cannot look at issues more acutely.
You end up with protest groups chanting ‘hands up don’t shoot’ at a famously unarmed British police.
Identity politics tells a young black man in the UK that he ought to live his life in fear of UK police who are largely unarmed and police by consent.
“…concerted effort to construct an all-encompassing mythology about what it means to be black in the world today — one that essentialises the black experience to be one of (only) racism, oppression and victimisation.”
Whether it’s feminism against the ill-defined and overarching patriarchy and rape culture or anti racists against the ‘white supremacist society’ this homogenisation of a group takes from a movement’s coherence.
Performative Activism and the New Religion
There is a distinct religious flavour to much of the identity politics we see playing out and a new form of expression for many traditional religious tropes:
Chosen people = Oppressed minorities seen as inherently more moral
Ritual = Virtue signaling and acts of performative activism
Original sin = Whiteness/Patriarchy/Collective guilt
Excommunication = Cancel culture
Penance = Debasing acts of ritualistic self-flagellation
Priests = Those deemed more qualified than others to speak on a topic and whom we cannot question (academics, activists, lived experience)
Doctrine = Ideological beliefs that one must adhere to or face excommunication
The religiosity of the identity politics mindset has been noticed by many critics such as Jordan Peterson, Andrew Doyle, Douglas Murray, James Lindsay and even Nick Cave.
I want to focus on one element to highlight the problem with a conformist, virtue signaling and ritualistic performative activism.
One recent example of performative activism has been that people have been changing their social media profile pictures to a black tile out of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
One issue with the blacking out of social media photos and using the #BlackLivesMatter is that it blocked out information being shared about the protests because the hashtag itself became a sea of blacked out tiles.
I think the same thing happens when you dilute the metric for racism so much that it equates to someone who doesn’t change their profile photo. It glosses over real racists in amongst the black tiles.
To reject conformism or to even question elements of the Black Lives Matter movement does not a racist make. However, we are approaching a climate of discussion in which dissent on this matter could potentially lose someone their job and certainly lose them some friendships. I’m sure we’ve all seen a flurry of Facebook posts from puritanical ‘activists’ encouraging people to “unfriend me now if you don’t agree with Black Lives Matter, saves me the time of weeding out the racists on my page”.
Peter Hitchens refused to conform and ‘bend the knee’ at a recent Black Lives Matter Protest, despite being surrounded by hundreds who engaged in the ritual. Is Peter Hitchens now to be considered a racist?
It highlights the surface levels of people’s opinions in this arena in that they often don’t even look past the title of an issue.
You don’t support Black Lives Matter? You must think black lives…DON’T matter. You must be a racist. CANCELLED.
Comedian Konstantin Kisin has an excellent tongue in cheek joke on this matter (pictured left) likening Antifa to North Korea.
The problem is that performative activism is hollow and symbolic. It’s all fur coat and no knickers. Blacking out your Instagram photo is not difficult to do and doesn’t tell you much about who is actually racist or not.
All that is accomplished is that someone’s conscience is eased once they have proof of their ‘activism’ and can say “look at the social media pictures of me eating Ben & Jerry’s limited edition ‘Avocado SMASH…THE PATRIARCHY’ ice cream. One can imagine this hyperbolic example as the type of stunt being pulled by Ben & Jerry’s in the latest stunt in ‘Woke Capitalism’ given that they have already began to lecture consumers on White Supremacy
There are some who have claimed that these ornate demonstrations of penance are indicative of a genuine feeling of guilt. I don’t agree. I think it’s lazy and seductive because it doesn’t require thinking.
Discussing social issues is complex, cognitively taxing and often uncomfortable. When one is rudderless and lacking in capacity to engage with ideas critically, it becomes far easier to digest a ready-made, woke diet of nebulous ideas as white privilege, patriarchy and rape culture.
Performative activism, while debasing in cases such as public feet washing…is ultimately pretty easy.
I sincerely doubt that many partaking in these rituals feel any real guilt and rather just want a clap on their back without having to live their life differently in any meaningful way.
Fighting Identity Politics with Identity Politics and the Oracle of Youth
The answer to identity based oppression cannot be to ‘get even’ and play ever more identity politics.
This is the problem with seeking equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. One can have freedom or one can have equality of outcome…not both.
Almost every metric where there is a discrepancy between identity groups is now chalked up as discrimination. The spectre of racism or some form of discrimination gazes ever presently at us through the Overton window. This very week I decided to make a blood donation for the first time (shameless virtue signal) only to have my friend send me a link to this article about how the NHS Blood Unit is systemically racist. I was also informed that my nephew’s favourite cartoon, Paw Patrol, was also problematic. I can see why it is common to hear people discuss identity politics issues and say that they are exhausted.
Analysis of complex issues require multivariate analysis, for which one of the variables can often be discrimination. The best example of this is the gender pay gap which when analysed should take into account differences in job choice, gaps in career for child rearing, hours worked etc rather than just…the sexist patriarchy.
There is one identity that is often overlooked in the culture wars but is often seen as sacrosanct…the youth identity. In a bizzare fetishisation of youthful wisdom, we seem to defer to the youth as an oracle on almost every topic. We seem to believe them when they say that we will never understand their issues. This is a very stagnating and demoralising mindset to have. Author of ‘Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race’, Thomas Chaterton Williams, describes this malaise as,
…what it looks like when a people and a culture becomes exhausted with itself. It wishes to cease thinking through complicated questions for itself and yearns instead to be told what to think.
Positive Tribalism and Dunbar’s Number
We evolved in tribes and they can be immensely powerful to be a part of. Tribes ensured reciprocity and the importance of reputation which were fundamental in our moral development.
Even the much maligned virtue signaling has a positive side, as discussed by Evolutionary Psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, who wrote a book on the subject.
Galvanising people behind one banner can be meaningful and enriching e.g. the Islamic concept of the shared brotherhood of an Ummah and the New Zealand Haka are expressions of tribalism and a shared belief in a common cause or value that is greater than one’s self.
However, it might be worth thinking about a concept known as Dunbar’s number, which is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships — relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. The number is 150.
When we consider the amount of people we encounter in cities now and virtually through social media it’s a miracle we’re not more divided than we are. It might be a natural instinct to hunker down into these tribes in order to make sense of the world. However, this tendency needs harnessing and tempering rather than divisively stoking.
What Should our New Tribes Look Like?
So, tribes are natural and are going to exist, however what should those tribes look like and be based on?
Well as Groucho Marx famously says, “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member…”, but I’ll give it a go as to what a new tribe should look like.
- Shouldn’t judge people on immutable characteristics
- Value and promote free speech
- Aim for equality of opportunity not equality of outcome
- Argue in good faith
- Not use ad hominem attacks
- Should steel man opponents arguments rather than straw manning
- Offer people a pathway to redemption
I’ll finish with an Eleanor Roosevelt quote,
“…small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events and great minds talk about ideas.”
Conscious of the fact that I have talked anecdotally about several people today I would very much like to get back into the spirit of this festival and remind folks that it’s the Battle of IDEAS and not the Battle of IDENTITIES.