Brendan O’Neill explains about identity politics at the Spectator. In other news, birds fly north for the summer and water is wet.
His occasion for the surprise-free explanation is the Twitter-mobbing of Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard for signing an open letter about free speech and no-platforming.
How do we explain this tirade of abuse against someone I would describe as the grandfather of gay rights if I
wasn’t[weren’t] worried that the use of such a gender-specific title might earn me a tsunami of online abuse? Why are people so incredibly thin-skinned? I think it’s down to the politics of identity. I think the more we’ve made the personal political, the more we define our social and political outlook with reference to what’s in our underpants or what colour our skin is, the more we experience every criticism of our beliefs as an attack on our very personhood, our souls, our right to exist. The problem here is the terrifying wrapping together of the biological and the political, the packaging up of the accident of your gender or race or sexuality with your political persona, to the extent that debate itself comes to be seen as a form of hatred, a ‘phobia’.
Fascinating, and yet – I can’t help noticing he’s not subject to any of the particular forms of hatred he is so magisterially looking down on.
I can’t help thinking that might hinder him from being able to grasp what it’s like to be chronically belittled and/or overlooked because you have the bad taste not to belong to the preferred “identity.” I can’t help thinking that should motivate him to be a little more cautious with the contempt.
But more substantively, what I think is really wrong with what he says there is that he’s overlooking all the other reasons there are for people who act like assholes on Twitter. I would say the chief reason is not “identity politics” at all but just the fact that lots of people are assholes. Second only to that as an explanation, I think, is that lots of people are stupid. Put those two demographics together (of course they overlap a good deal) and there’s your Twitter mobbing explained with very little need to rumble about identity politics or underpants.
As it happens, I think the feminists complaining about No Platform, and possibly even Tatchell himself, unwittingly helped to nurture this censorious tyranny of identity politics with their old slogan ‘the personal is political’. But no matter. For what Tatchell also had, back in the day, was a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview — which has nothing to do with the world — from any questioning. We need a new politics of liberation, one which liberates the personal from the political and reminds people that, no, political debate is not an act of violence against your poor, weeping little self — it’s just political debate.
But what do you liberate people from if “identity” is off the table? What are you talking about if there is nothing to liberate yourself and others from? Liberation from what?
Nope, I think he’s full of shit. I get that what he calls identity politics can get very annoying and grating in the hands (and on the keyboards) of stupid people, but that’s true of anything, isn’t it. You can’t even pick out a favorite movie without a bunch of other people who don’t have your fine, discriminating, subtle intellect joining in and ruining it. There are always stupid people around; often we’re the stupid people ourselves. We’re all stupid about some things. Twitter is a vast engine for magnifying the voices of people at their stupidest – and I think that’s a much better explanation for what O’Neill is complaining about than “identity politics.”