Monday, 9 October 2017

Identity Politics: Whose Identity?

By Sifiso Mkhonto
Identity is concerned with the facts of ‘who I am’, or ‘what it is’. Identity politics reveals itself in the tend-ency of a people of a particular religion, race, social background, and so on, to form exclusive political alliances. Yet which ‘people’ are these? Are they ordinary citizens, or active citizens in politics? It is both—and identity politics is at its most dangerous when it does not favour ordinary citizens.
When we bring our identity into politics, we awaken the dragon within: the excessive admiration of oneself. It is bad enough when this happens to the citizen. It is worse when it reaches the top, and infiltrates the state itself—and the acceptance of identity politics at one level may cause it to blur into the next. Another way of putting it is that identity politics is too often the doctrine of prejudices, and in politics, such prejudices control discrimination.

Our identity is what belongs to us. My identity is who I am. This is revealed by what I believe, how I act, and how I think the future should be. This provides the evidence of my identity. In other words, people identify me (largely) on the basis of what they see. Of course, identity changes. In different stages of our lives, both our conscious and sub-conscious being changes. This leads to changes in our identity.

Paradoxically, our obsession with our identity has hijacked our moral strength. One may call it our‘moral consciousness’. Race, religion, gender, and other factors which many people identify with, are the pride of their obsession. Too often, exclusive political alliances too are a form of narcissism, and seem to be its driver. In modern psychoanalytic theory, narcissistic pathologies are related to the fragility of selfhood and impoverished object relations. With this in mind, identity politics is frequently biased, limiting, and based on who is victimised extremely. This, then, is defined and introduced as a new concept.

Many heads-of-states’ (ostensible) power is their identity. Why do powerful leaders suppress the truth of reality in order to remain in power? Because they are not really powerful. Are they fearing the real power, which is the will of the people? Why are they insecure about security? Why do they impart fear into their organisations, comrades, and colleagues? Because they abuse the artificial power—which is the identity—granted to them.

In Europe, identity politics is threatening to tear apart the United Kingdom through its ‘Brexit’ from the cosmopolitan, post-national structures of the European Union, and to rekindle civil war in Spain, where Catalan nationalism splinters not only Spain but Catalonia itself.  North Korea serves as another example—not being a monarchy, but a dictatorship, as a result of its lack of a formalised law of succession and its  militarisation (missile tests included), through its current leader Kim Jong-un.  It has proven that fear is a great servant but a terrible master.  It suffocates a leader’s integrity, confirms the obsession of power, and is the pathway to a narcissistic state.

In my own nation of South Africa, a clear and present danger is that one fights identity politics with identity politics in a racially polarised society, so that the values of a non-racial, non-sexist society (and more) remain lost in the ‘rainbow nation’.

A critical ‘truth’ for a post-truth society is reasoning honestly about identity politics: reason which in itself makes one’s identity irrelevant. The validity of the dialogue will not depend on our identity.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for your essay, Sifiso, which nicely explores the controversial, thorny subject of identity politics and its place in society.

    One philosophical pillar of identity politics is what John Adams and James Madison, from among America’s Founding Fathers, warned against: the ‘tyranny of the majority’. It’s what John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville also warned against. Yet the term ‘identity politics’, especially in this context of the risk of tyranny, can tend to the abstract. The concept is sometimes vilified, often unfairly made a boogeyman to explain some of what goes wrong in a nation, where perhaps social disruption is looked at warily by political and social leaders who crave balance and equanimity. But identity politics, in its simplistic sense, is binary, with Manichean good and bad variants. That is, if identity politics is used as a form of wedge to pit one group against another — where there’s the risk (on the flip side) of ‘tyranny of the minority’ in place of tyranny of the majority — it’ll prove unhelpful, even counterproductive. The consequence of unintentionally falling into the snare of wedge politics is an irreconcilable them-versus-us power struggle over what might (rightly) be seen as shares of finite resources — the very opposite of the clichéd ‘zero-sum’.

    But also much good has historically been derived from identity politics, to right wrongs. Social identifiers and causes — race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, social background, disability, religion, economic class, generational cohorts, educational level, indigenous provenance, language, and others — can be ignored only at society’s peril. Historically, these subgroups have made substantive, if not uninterrupted gains by resorting to strategic petitions for change. Activism at its best, as a tenet of progressivism — where the act of forming compacts raises a subgroup’s profile (visibility), voice (megaphone), and odds of achieving desired outcomes (shared policymaking). Yet, it’s important for those whose hands already hold power's reins to take measures to avoid ‘ghettoizing’ groups — that is, setting them off from one another, counterproductively balkanizing society in the process. On the up side, the brass ring for such subgroups, which can make their struggle worthwhile, is what I refer to as the three R’s — recognition, representation, and rights. From which much can be derived.

    If, perhaps, you’re interested in reading another take on the subject of identity politics, I posted an essay on Philosophical Investigations earlier this year, titled ‘How Does Identity Politics Infuse Political Discourse?’ Here’s its link:
    http://www.philosophical-investigations.org/2017/02/how-does-identity-politics-infuse.html

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    1. Hi Keith, thank you for the link.

      I am reminded of C.S Lewis, he said 'Terrific energy is expended - civilisations are built up - excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.'This is the risk of tyranny, it results into despondency.

      I agree with you on the positive role identity politics has played as a social identifier and causes for the three R's role to be worthwhile. I will read more on it.

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    2. As you say, Sifiso, ‘the positive role of identity politics . . . causes the three R’s [recognition, representation, rights] to be worthwhile’. This notion, I would suggest, is at the very core of humanity — where, to borrow Tessa’s word below, people in their richness of diversity aspire to ‘relevance’ (that is, realization of the three R’s), aiming for a more equitable and just society.

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  2. How can we reason without making one's identity relevant?

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    1. Hi Tessa, In my view, Logic and truth. When both are present we are able to not focus on identity but the matter at hand. An example, apartheid South Africa. Legislation passed was based on race. If logic and truth were in that space, identity would have been irrelevant and we would have a non-racial society then and a non-racially polarized society now.

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    2. Dear Sifiso,
      Personally I cannot believe that logic for that matter can do without identity, they spring from identity building ideas. For example, when we speak about non- racial that properly is an identification. We might prefer to focus on that, still identity it is. When we talk about rights, we are talking about identities, for we point out who that somebody is. Maybe we cannot even think without a process where identity does not appear, and for that matter will be involved in how we see the world. Even if ‘I' would try to disengage, that disengagement strengthens ‘my’ identity and will identify others from that point of view, not knowing to be any closer to truth really.
      We have preferences and behave in their defence, even when we try to be not partial. All this, is identity. In this sense, the word identity in front of the word politics does not make a lot of sense. This whole comment does not make sense in regard to your article really, but I am posting it for after all one never knows how things might combine!

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    3. Posted on behalf of Martin Cohen.

      It's an interesting angle, and an interesting debate thank you Sifiso. Philosophers and rights debates in general always seem to return to definitions, don't they? The right to life depends on what counts as being alive, or being human, or having consciousness... the nationalist debates raging in the UK depend on ideas of being 'British' - which segue into the worst kinds of divisions and discrimination.

      But what i suppose Sifiso is arguing for is for an objectivity that applies the finest ethical principles - not one that applies the worst. Principles that need, I think to be broad and universal. An identity that includes, not excludes?

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  3. Thank you Sifiso. You state that where identity politics take the stage, ‘values ... remain lost’. This would be one of my core concerns. Not only that, but identity politics may be used to subvert the very values which on the surface of it are entertained. Perhaps we live in a different world, in the African subcontinent? Starry-eyed First-Worlders might be less cynical.

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  4. Thank you Sifiso,
    It indeed one of the threats that we face and worst of it is that people justify it or try to justify it by convincing a group of people that everything they are doing is a service for them. To achieve this they surround themselves other people who share the same psychological mania. Yes, I just called it "mania" because at its worst level, it can be as devastating as any other form mania.
    Defeating this growing threat of identity politics is a must, and I believe that has to start with informing people that is exists, it is a threat to all of us, and that we the obligation to limit or at least reduce its expension.

    This article and others like this are a very important means to defeat that ill.

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    1. There is, I think, often a deeper danger Samuel. The politically astute may welcome identity politics because it satisfies political alliances (the generation of self-esteem, victory for a cause, and so on) and it satisfies political power (the opportunity for beneficence, the confirmation of their authority, and so on) and ... deliberately leaves everything in principle the same for the future. The structures do not change, the status quo does not change. There was noise, there seemed to be progress, but nobody noticed that it was a flash in the pan.

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  5. My internet connecton went awry this week, but I really hoped to add a comment to Sifiso's post - following on really from Tessa's point about logic...

    It's an interesting angle, and an interesting debate thank you Sifiso. Philosophers and rights debates in general always seem to return to definitions, don't they? The right to life depends on what counts as being alive, or being human, or having consciousness... the nationalist debates raging in the UK depend on ideas of being 'British' - which segue into the worst kinds of divisions and discrimination.

    But what i suppose Sifiso is arguing for is for an objectivity that applies the finest ethical principles - not one that applies the worst. Principles that need, I think to be broad and universal. An identity that includes, not excludes?

    ReplyDelete