‘Identity politics’, much like ‘political correctness’, is being battered in the public square.

Rather than becoming a serious category of political critique, its obscurity of meaning makes it a useful tool for opposing political ideologies. It is used as a pejorative for the political left and, at the same time, as a euphemism for white supremacy (‘white identity’). Now, even notionally left-leaning figures have started railing against identity politics, calling it divisive.

The hackneyed left/right distinction will not help us to understand the debate over identity politics. Indeed, this conflict may well reflect and reveal deep, structural features of what it is to be a human.



What is identity politics?

Identity politics seeks to give political weight to the ways in which particular groups are marginalised by the structures of society. To be a woman, a person of colour, transgender or Indigenous is to be born into a set of social meanings and power relations that constrain what sort of life is possible for you.

Your experience of the world will be conditioned in very different ways from those on the other side of social power. Identity politics, at its simplest, is an attempt to expose and respond politically to this reality.

Importantly, identity politics has always been a reaction to liberalism, although both frameworks have the same end goals of equality and ending oppression. A liberal approach to social justice sees the demand for political equality as emanating from a shared human dignity. As such, it de-emphasises difference. If only we look past the superficial things that divide us, we’re told, we see a common humanity. It washes away any justifications for discrimination on the basis of race, gender or orientation.

But liberalism can tend to mask the circumstances that make us need liberating in the first place. By focusing on universalism –  the ways in which you and I are the same – I may well become more aware of our shared human equality and less sensitive to how different our lived experiences may be. So the forms of privilege I enjoy and you lack remain invisible to me.

Liberalism at its most strident treats every person as a sort of abstract locus of radical freedom and rationality. Identity politics resists that abstraction – an abstraction which, as identity politics points out, implicitly serves those on the privileged end of power imbalances. In doing so, liberalism makes it harder for us to see and dismantle the structures that perpetuate inequality.

The real gulf here isn’t between left and right or between minority and majority, it’s between two conceptions of how human beings stand in relation to their historical and cultural background. Are we defined by our place within society or do we somehow transcend it?

The philosophy of identity

“What are we?” should be the simplest question to answer, yet it is one of the most annoyingly intractable problems in philosophy. Are we minded animals or embodied minds? Are we souls? Bodies? Brains? Particular bits of brains? All of these answers have been tried, and all answer some of our everyday assumptions about personal identity while running afoul of others.

What they all have in common is they treat selves or persons as a type of object. They all regard the person from a third-person perspective. That’s the perspective we take on other people all the time, both in our everyday interactions and in trying to influence human behaviour via psychology, medicine, marketing, politics and so on. And we can take a third-person perspective on ourselves, too. Whenever you ask, “Why did I act like that?” you’re viewing yourself as an object and wondering what forces made you act one way instead of another.

Yet in your self-reflection you never, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘coincide’ with yourself. You view yourself as an object. Just by doing that you go beyond yourself, make yourself something different to the self you’re contemplating. Just as the eye can never catch sight of itself (but only, at best, a reflection of itself), you can only see yourself by being something more than yourself, so to speak.

You detach from all that you are – your history, your memory, your character – in order to observe yourself. That ability to detach is precisely what makes reflective endorsement or rejection of your concrete identity possible at all.

So which one are we? The observer or the observed? The object we contemplate in a field of other objects and forces –  a mass of psychological drives subject to cause and effect – or the conscious subject that somehow detaches from all that? The answer has to be ‘both’. We are pretty clearly physical objects, prone to various forms of constraint, influence and control.

Yet we cannot simply disavow our past, our language or the identities society imposes on us either. But we are also something more, something that can step back from what we are, something that appears to itself as free. We’re doomed to be both these things. Our destiny is internal division.

Making sense of the identity politics debate

How does any of this relate to the issue of identity politics? Well, consider the two political anthropologies sketched above – one view says we’re constrained by the identities we find ourselves born or built into, the other that we’re all free, rational, autonomous agents.

These are exaggerations of course – most liberals don’t think we’re completely unaffected by our social situation and most proponents of identity politics don’t think we’re completely lacking in autonomy. But they pick out a genuine point of disagreement.

Both identity politics and universalism answer different but real dimensions of human existence.

One way to think of that disagreement is as a clash between the type of self we might take ourselves to be – as an object determined by history and society, or as a free, undetached locus of consciousness. That is not the whole story, but it opens up one useful way to think about it. Both identity politics and universalism answer to different but real dimensions of human existence.

Rather than simply insisting on one approach to the complete exclusion of the other, we should consider how both might be responses to irreducible and contradictory aspects of what we are.

The question is where we go from there.