The Personal is Political: Identity Politics

Often, I find myself wondering why the phrase “I don’t know enough about this subject to make an informed comment” is not used in political discussions, especially online. Social media is certainly a tool to discuss topical issues in the news cycle and get informed. However, this begs the question of whether the majority of these discussions are useful and productive.

When observing practically any comment section, call out culture is imminent, with extreme words like racist, fascist, and sexist being thrown around quite liberally to shut down civil discussion. This idea was beautifully exemplified when an article about a rainbow-cake recipe inspired a comment apocalypse

All goofs aside – how did we get here? It seems that there is an underlying issue of comment sections lacking actual discussion. There is a growing issue with the blind attacking of ‘monsters’ who may not agree with a certain point of view.

Many would argue that it is the rise of political correctness, which was recently covered on The Isthmus – you can read this article here! Others would argue that the rise of identity politics has turned the quest for inclusion into political division. Is this the case? Let’s dive in.

What are Identity Politics?

Identity politics have become a widely discussed issue in modern political discourse, but what are they? In simple terms, Identity politics can be defined as political ideologies founded in shared experiences, or politics that speak to the image of ourselves Just for context, let’s unpack some of my own ‘identities’ in a political sense: some of my closest friends identify as LGBTQ+ and I would consider myself an ally, and as a young woman, I would define myself as a feminist.

This isn’t to say that individuals who aren’t personally impacted by a social issue cannot identify with certain political ideologies. However, research has shown that our upbringing and experiences contribute to the development of our political beliefs. Identity politics tend to stray away from rigid belief systems or party affiliations, and rather double-down on securing political freedom of specific marginalised groups within its larger context.

You may be asking, “well, what’s the issue here?”. In theory, identity politics are inherently positive. Certainly, as a society, we should advocate for the liberation of groups that have traditionally been marginalised and oppressed. However, political commentary in recent years has put the spotlight on identity politics, arguing that they have become polarizing and contribute to the growing divide between the left and the right, creating a toxic culture of political discourse

The Case For Identity Politics

To unpack the effect of Identity Politics on modern political discourse, it’s important to look back to its origins. The phrase ‘Identity Politics’ was coined by a group of African-American feminists called the Combahee River Collective in 1977. It provided a foundation for feminist politics that are actively committed to fighting against racial, sexual, and class based oppression. This is what we now know as intersectional feminism. This ideology began focused upon the self, but was not self-obsessed and it sought to benefit everyone.

Combahee River Collective

In the last century alone the world has come a long way, from women getting the right to vote across the globe, to the 1967 Australian referendum in recognition of Indigenous Australians. There is absolutely still a long way to go, however, it is imperative to understand that were it not for people mobilising on the basis of their identity, we may not have modern liberal democracy at all.

For instance, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 were the catalyst for global LGBTQ+ community organisations, activist groups and pride celebrations as we know them today. This fight for equality has been continued and replicated in many ways. For example, the very public debate and campaign during the Australian marriage equality plebiscite in 2017, which resulted in Australia (finally) legalising same-sex marriage. Certainly, these activist groups have positively impacted the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals by offering a sense of place, a community and support that these individuals may not receive elsewhere.

Additionally, the first and second waves of feminism arguably paved the way for the ongoing #MeToo movement. #MeToo escalated after actress Ashley Judd accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, causing a ripple effect. Over 50 women have now laid accusations against Weinstein. This irreversibly changed the power dynamics of Hollywood and has put a spotlight on the issues of sexual harassment in the everyday workplace. Women uniting over #MeToo is symbolic of sexual assault victims spinning their individual pain into solidarity. However, the critics of #MeToo, and more broadly identity politics, claim that this type of activism is divisive and inflicts more harm than good.

The Case Against Identity Politics

One of the biggest misconceptions about identity politics may be that they only exist within politically ‘left’ groups. Politicians and commentators on the right who attack identity politics are often the most passionate in defending their own versions of identity, cloaked in the language of patriotism. For example, Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016 consisted of a strong emotional appeal to white, working-class Americans.

The largest argument against identity politics is that they cause tribalist tendencies. Tribalism is evident in our everyday lives. Humans are loyal, social creatures who take great pride in fighting on behalf of their own groups who share common interests. However, it is argued that this segmentation of political goals may have activists operating within their own silos, reducing solidarity and diverting energy from addressing material concerns such as equal pay and working conditions. 

This division leaves us with a fairly simplistic system for determining the truth-value of a statement.  A related psychological term reactive devaluation’ describes where individuals will reject or withdraw support for an idea or statement if it’s coming from the “other” side of politics.

We tend to digest political arguments by analysing: who said it, what group the statement came from and what the members of this group are ‘entitled’ to say. We often do this instead of asking ourselves: what truth or idea does this statement bring?.  Is the limit of our insights and empathies really only in line within our own ‘categories’ of existence? Many political commentators reject the notion that certain life circumstances (wealth, being white, being male etc) prohibit sensitivity and sound judgment whilst others guarantee them.

Reducing politics to individual experiences and feelings can sometimes be valid, for example, as a white Australian person, I can’t completely understand and empathise with the experiences of an Indigenous Australian. The rhetoric used in a typical online political discussion such as ‘no uterus no opinion’ or ‘check your privilege’ may be warranted in some circumstances.  However, this rejection of opinion will not engage others in broader political issues. 

The Verdict: Identity Politics are Good (When Freedom of Opinion can Flourish)

Kimberly Foster, Writer and Columnist for the Guardian and BA in African American Studies at Harvard University writes:

Thoughtful conversations and meaningful activism require a measure of openness that the current paradigms for identity politics don’t always allow. We have to make sure that our exchanges do not reproduce oppressive power dynamics, but every challenge is not oppressive”

Foster makes a compelling point. Identity politics, at its core, encourage widespread activism by fighting for equality at an intersectional level. However, in some circumstances, it has created division. It is easy to become consumed by one particular cause, or by our own perspective and lose sight of the bigger picture. As Foster noted, every challenge is not oppressive and arguably the antidote to the widespread political division could simply be the willingness to listen. 

Opening ourselves to different perspectives is a very positive thing, and may even open you up to a new way of thinking. I don’t know about my readers, but … I certainly don’t know everything, far from it, and if I did, I would be making some serious coin! So I want to leave you with some advice. Next time you feel yourself getting heated during a political discussion, try not to shut down debate, instead be open to new ideas, particularly from those who may actually have more insight than you do.


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