Friday, 25 January 2019

Just Another Cheap Blame-Shift

Identity Politics Lead to Repression and Division

Martin van Beynen

OPINION: Over the holidays I became a bit of an expert on Marxism.

This was thanks to a couple of hours of intense research on the internet. I made a number of startling discoveries, one of which was that last year was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birth.

Marx, as you will recall, believed that the exploited working class needed to take power from their rulers, by force if necessary, and form a state in which factories, land and other means of production were owned collectively.

The German philosopher continues to be influential but, as a rule, we don't talk much about class struggle any more.  Politicians might be dubious about capitalism but Marx is not a name they want to mention in polite society.

Any discussion about Marx inevitably leads to the disastrous Marxist experiments in Russia and China where totalitarian regimes killed millions.   But we are now seeing the rise of another form of repressive politics called identity politics.

This is a creed which holds that society is structured to disadvantage certain groups defined by ethnicity, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. Identity has always been part of the political landscape but it has taken a more pernicious form.

Now your identification with a certain group has little positive about it. For instance, you rarely hear about the advantages of being a woman or Māori. You tend to hear only about the wrongs, grievances and slights. In this way we have all become victims, including white males. You are defined not by the opportunities society has given you but by how much the unfairness of life exerts its pull on you.

If you are not disadvantaged by the system, you are privileged. And those privileges are generally unearned and therefore can, in good conscience, be removed. Privileged people can have no understanding of what it's like to be part of groups of which they are not a member and therefore have no right to talk about their plight.

Why should we worry about identity politics which, after all, is about finding common interests in the same way that Marx tried to empower the working class?  One of my main beefs with identity politics is that it encourages the formation of artificial and pretentious alliances.

So you get professional, middle class women communing with women from poor and abusive backgrounds on the basis they have all been victims of male oppression. In this environment a sexist remark at the water-cooler is placed on the same plane as gross childhood sexual abuse. Their solidarity is founded on an emotional empathy that tends to overlook all of their economic and social differences.

In truth, a middle class professional women has much more in common with a middle class professional male than she does with women who have survived or are still living an underclass lifestyle.  In the same way, a middle class Māori man has a great deal more in common with a similarly-placed Pākehā person than he does with a single Māori mother living in a state house with four children and a violent boyfriend.

This alignment with identity rather than with more genuine common interests means people choose the wrong enemy. So the patriarchy is the enemy rather than the education system. Institutional racism is the adversary rather than entrenched welfare dependency and drug and alcohol addictions.

Another danger with identity politics is that special interest groups are easier to pick off. It oils the machinery of divide and rule. Donald Trump's success lies partly in his ability to harness the grievances of the white working class and to get them to vote against their economic interests.

Identity politics calls for nebulous changes in attitude and culture to protect dignity, rather than more practical and pragmatic policies to improve things like health or education. It therefore risks losing touch with the general public whose sympathies and anxieties are far less rarefied, sensitive and academic than the practitioners of identity politics like to believe.

In the same vein, the politics of identity distract from more important issues. Pay parity in a comfy office occupation or sexual harassment at an elite law firm will hardly register with a couple doing double cleaning shifts so they can pay the rent. Nor will a couple working 12 hours a day in a small business feel terribly moved by an offensive calendar in an office.

One of the most troubling aspects of identity politics is its tendency to repression. The intolerance and vitriol that greets any dissent from the orthodoxies of a particular identity allegiance stifles discussion and free speech.  The wrath and scorn of those whom commentator Bill Ralston calls "angry women and liberal men" has echoes of the murderous contempt of dissent shown by Marxists and Fascists.

As is often said, the fracture lines in society are widening. We might have thought that, apart from an intractable and expanding underclass, we had sort of overcome the worst of class divisions.

Now society risks being sliced and diced according to a new theory. We actually have far more in common than we like to believe but identity politics is working hard to create more divisions.

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