Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Hazards Of Identity Politics

I was going to write something non-contentious for this blog but then I read about Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long Bailey’s aim to “stamp out” transphobia.

Soon afterwards came the judge’s ruling on “hate speech” in which Mr Justice Julian Knowles warned Britain is heading towards an Orwellian society if it isn’t careful.

His warning came after a police officer told  a man who tweeted on the transgender issue that his tweets would be recorded as a “non-crime hate incident”.

What exactly is that - and who decides what a “non-crime hate incident” actually is? That really is a strange phrase and yet it is said with a straight face.

The phrase Identity Politics comes to mind.

According to one definition, identity politics is “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics”.

I thought the idea was new but I read it has been around since the 1960s. And yet it's only just caught on in a big way.

I suppose we were in the middle of a Cold War between East and West in the 1960s and united in our disdain for “the other” so perhaps it was not its time to shine.

Why has this happened now? Perhaps, since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall - and the worldwide web of course -  we have had the chance to explore other political ideas. So, what was once a teeny pebble in a pond is now threatening to engulf empty the pond via a tidal wave. Excuse the mixed metaphor but I think that pretty much mirrors my astonishment at how a society that once seemed reasonably cohesive now appears so fragmented.

Identity makes it personal
In psychoanalytical terms, the belief is we all have a need for “the other” - the person or thing on which to project all the feelings inside us which we cannot bear to acknowledge within ourselves - so perhaps identity politics has arrived to take the place of “the other” within our lives.

 Identity is at the core of all of us. Look at small children and they’ll tell you their names, their ages, their gender ("I’m a boy, she’s a girl), who their friends are, where they live, what they like, etc. etc.

Move on a few years and we’re just the same, only we’ve added status to it: “I’m a (job title) with the implication of what my salary is (or isn’t - queue shameful feelings); I’m married, not married, gay/straight, children, no children, hobbies” again, etc. etc.

That’s how we build up a picture of ourselves and others. We communicate, we learn our own likes and dislikes at the same time as we learn about those to whom we’re drawn. Clearly that’s a positive thing to do.

I remember being told as a child that people in polite society did not talk about politics, religion and money. Conversation was surface level only. Polite, I suppose. Wow! Nowadays, if we stuck to those rules we’d be having no communication at all.

I find myself thinking how ironic it is that, when considering identity politics, I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s much-derided statement on society: “There is no such thing as society”.*  

If society  - polite or otherwise - no longer represents the people, maybe that is why so-called lobby groups seem to have stepped in to fill the void.

Lobby groups have a problem of their own because they tend to represent a minority and decision makers often find it easy to ignore small groups. However, that problem can be assuaged by getting together a group of like-minded people/ideologies. Combining a fundamental belief allows the initially small group to become noisier and the voices of its members to seem louder. Therefore, in a political arena, it becomes harder to ignore them.

Exercising the right to be heard
But what happens when the conversation becomes hyper-personal? And when there is no allowance made for different views.  It’s sex - gender? - money and politics most of the time. And absolute intolerance if someone disagrees.

For somebody who is new to the world of identity politics it seems to me there is no room for discussion any more - you’re either with me or against me and I’ll either block you or abuse you, and all in public sight/site (pun intended).  

What this effectively means is, although it could be argued we’re communicating so much more than we used to, we are also communicating so much less. Original statements such as: “I’m a woman" or "I'm a man” now have to be thoughtfully worded so as not to offend, even if there’s no intention of doing so. Our communication skills seem to be decreasing at the same rate as the identity politics argument opens up and we seem to be in danger of segregating ourselves.

Wasn’t there a time when segregation was actively campaigned against - when did it come back into fashion?

Surely, if we’re being urged to embrace diversity at one level, we should be allowed to embrace it in our thought process too.

Identity politics seems counterproductive. The more we identify with one group, the more we separate ourselves from another, and another, and another. And so it goes on until we’re all in danger of experiencing some kind of identity crisis of our own, whether we like it or not.

I feel that would become unhealthy, both for us as individuals and for us as a society. 

I wonder if it’s time to diversify off this path too.

By Lulu Sinclair

*Margaret Thatcher full quote continues  "… only individuals and their families”

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash
Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash
Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Monday, 3 February 2020

Outing The Online Outrage

A much-admired journalist has become the latest to be scalped via the Twitter vocalites. 

He said “ABC”, his follower interpreted this as “XYZ”, retweeted the post - with his own interpretation - and the flash mob formed. Within a very short time, the newscaster fell on his own sword (forgive the excessive metaphors, I seem to be writing this in the style of hysterical tweeters) and he was gone.

Trolls, eh. What are they like? As it happens, I have recent personal experience of them. 

My last blog on this site was about Meghan and Harry in which I said I did not believe she had been the subject of racial abuse. I’d say 95% of the comments on the blog as a whole were positive, while some 5% disagreed.

Those who disagreed appeared charmingly reasonable and rational in their enjoyment of a robust and open discussion (I paraphrase) while the subtext seemed to me to be pretty vitriolic and with no desire at all to engage in real debate and discussion. My professional qualifications and skills - or lack of them, they suggested - seemed to be of particular interest.

Admittedly, I may be biased but I saw their aim as to close down any discussion and just reinforce their own views through replies to conversation they “liked” with other like-minded communicators. 

Debate, surely, is about discussion, exchange of ideas and the possibility of changing one’s mind. 

So when did debate suddenly involve silencing your opponent? My colleague (96 Harley Psychotherapy founder psychiatrist Dr Robin Lawrence) believes it started off when David Cameron was the new boy in town and multiculturalism was very much at the forefront of politics. 

I bow to his knowledge and wisdom but think it may have started even before that, perhaps with "new" Labour in 1997 and the advent of pagers, given out to the influx of MPs to ensure they were “on message” about a particular subject. 

Anything politicians can do, someone else can do better. Along came Twitter in 2006 and famous people were encouraged to join and soon realised that they could plug their own interests through this amazing medium. The more followers they gained, the higher their profile and the more they could raise their earning potential. Politicians took their time to join in with PM David Cameron’s first tweet arrive in 2012. No early adopter, he.

But the social microblogging system really blossomed when the mainstream media got in on the act, looking at the “trending” stories of the day. That started off as a good idea, a good talking point but, probably because the UK media generally enjoys a good fight, it quickly became adversarial.

“Twitter STORM … FURY over …. Someone or other ENRAGED” blazed (another exaggerated word) one or other tabloid and off we all went. Who’s not going to read about that, particularly if it’s online and you don’t have to pay for a paper.

Nowadays, we are forever in uproar. No reasoned debate (longer than the 140 characters not allowed) just an exchange of insults that quickly reaches a much wider audience when national papers get involved. So what might once have been a spat between a newscaster and his follower with some 2,000 followers of his own (still following? Well done, you) becomes a national outrage. 

I have to say, Twitter can’t be blamed. It’s a fun idea. A social media platform that allows us to air our views. I’m told users in the US are less hostile to each other than we are in the UK. I have a theory about this (no evidence so it’s not a scientific one) and that it’s to do with our feudal past. I wonder if we have a "follower" mentality and and are used to obeying rules. Therefore, if everyone is outraged or virtue-signalling like mad, it’s hard for us as individuals to say: “Hold on, I don’t agree.” We keep quiet and the herd moves on. 

It’s a worrying trend, particularly as what used to be minority groups understood the power of social media long before traditional organisations did and now seem to be in charge of the political agenda. Identity politics gives everyone the chance to accuse their opponents of some sort of “ism” which, if denied, is still an “ism” but it’s an unconscious one. We can’t have a view, we have to take a side, and it’s got to be on the side that’s the most publicly vocal, not necessarily the one that is the most logical or well reasoned. We’ve lost our rational selves and seem to be in a permanent state of emotional hysteria. 

That is not a good way to run a society. That way, as Dr Lawrence points out, madness - or least totalitarism* - lies. 

I sense some hope. The backlash against the abrupt and unreasonable ending career ending of the newscaster surprised everyone, including the journalist himself and his bosses. Maybe people are beginning to understand and question the damage such public displays of outrage are doing to us all. 

In the end, I feel that the twittersphere (I’m not rewarding its bad behaviour with a capital T) has become a bit like navel gazing. Unless used well and thoughtfully, it’s pointless and rather an unpleasant habit. Probably best to avoid it.

By Lulu Sinclair
Writer, journalist and qualified counsellor

*  Note the “ism” in that too.

Photos by:  Austin Distel on Unsplash
                   Merakist on Unsplash
                  Jack deMore on Unsplash