Identity Politics: Commonality or Common Enemy?

(Image: Patrick Record)

From the Trans Rights Movement to the rise of the ‘White Right’, identity has become a powerful force in modern politics.

The shift away from broad based party politics to a more tribal system divided along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation is generally described as the rise of Identity Politics.

Peter Franklin has also labeled the phenomenon as “Cultural Marxism” – a merger of Marxist economic theory with postmodernist philosophy. The former contests control over the means of production (i.e. industry, agriculture, etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of class;  while the latter contests control over the means of social construction (language, identity etc) in order to overturn hierarchies of privilege and power.

Cultural Marxists are those who believe that from the beginning of time, everything from language to morality has been constructed by and for, a tiny elite (white men). Society has internalised the structural misogyny and racism embedded in these historical institutions to the point that they see it as ‘normal.’

Given this inequality, many members of marginalised groups say that identity politics is not a choice. History has shoehorned women and minorities into an oppressive and violent social system which was designed to exclude and oppress them. The expansion of gender pronouns, fight for equal pay and emergence of identity based politics is about reclaiming and redistributing social power in a more equitable way.

Most people would accept that it is perfectly legitimate for groups to organise under one banner to fight imbalances of power. However Jonathan Haidt argues that it depends what type of identity politics is adopted. There are two main strands, the first is commonality identity politics. During the 1960’s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King fought racial injustice by appealing to the common humanity of all people. ‘I have a dream’ was underpinned by the idea that humanity is one family and that Blacks were being excluded and denied equal dignity.

The second version is common enemy identity politics. This is the idea of uniting groups based on a belief that there is one group that is the root of all evil. Haidt suggests this is a dangerous strain of identity politics which has become more potent in recent years, as rather than using group identity to absorb marginalised groups into a common whole, it uses group identity to pit society’s groups against each other.

Opinions are divided as to whether identity politics today is causing more harm than good. What’s certain is that identity is not going away. And it would be a mistake to think the solution to easing social tensions lies in surgically removing identity from the heart of politics. Instead we should work to ensure groups can communicate with one another and air disagreements within a framework that cultivates a commitment to the common whole rather than a hostility to a common enemy. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Empowered Woman? Who is She?

Author: Khadija Begum

I was at a local film fest earlier this week that was screening movies by amateur film makers on gender based violence. During one of the audience discussions, a girl who must not have been older than 13 and an actor in the movie, in a very well-meaning manner asked a question: How do we teach boys/men to deal with the new generation of empowered/progressive women?

A lot of answers flew around the room but the question bothered me for some reason and I couldn’t put my finger on it for a long time. Then I realised it was the very phrasing of the question “How do we teach boys/men to deal with the new generation of empowered/progressive women?

It gives us an insight to the problem of power imbalance. That female empowerment is a problem that men must “deal with.” Instead of teaching men to “deal with the new generation of empowered women” we should be teaching them to “understand the new generation of empowered women.”

Perhaps the best way one can begin to understand an empowered woman is by defining her. Is she someone who wears a red lipstick? Is she ambitious and career minded? Can she be called empowered if she wears a hijab? Does she have to be well-versed with theories of feminism? Can she really be defined by her choice of lifestyle and clothing? It isn’t that hard to say.

We must begin to change the question from “deal with the new generation of empowered women” to “understand the new generation of empowered women.”

While an empowered woman is definitely not a single construct, at the heart of it all lies one idea – an empowered woman is the one who is able to devote herself to that which she finds meaning in; who can exercise her rights and her choices.

If this idea can be grasped by everyone, the Indian society which has been opening up slowly for a while now, through the efforts and initiatives of many, will reform at a quicker pace. Our business is and always will be to ensure that this awakening is uniform in all cultures and classes of society.

How to ensure? By addressing the issue on all levels that it exists, i.e., societal, professional, household and the individual. There must be gender sensitization sessions in schools, colleges, offices etc. That media and literature is needed which challenges the mainstream notions and stereotypes. The gender roles in office spaces and homes have to be redefined or rather undefined so that they loosen any paradigm of unwarranted limitations. As an individual, one can understand an empowered women by being conscious and critical.

However to truly check the problem of power imbalance, we need to take the next step of awakening, which is, evolving. We evolve when we leave behind our distrust in change; when women empowerment is not a topic of discussions, dialogues or debates but a way of life; when the idea of empowered woman becomes a norm. All of which could take a little more time. Until then, one can strive to be more empowered each day because the best way to make someone understand an empowered woman is to project one.

Khadija Begum writes at ‘Unduly Unruly’ and is a contributing writer at the Conversation Room. You can follow her blog here: