What is the answer to identity politics?

Lionel Shriver’s recent article in the Spectator is a fine example of an increasingly common take from non-wingnuts, who see the rise of identity politics as a central political problem of our era. She is articulate in describing the corrosive quality of identity politics, and the dilemma it puts white people in, but presents no route back to what she considers normality. She’s working in a crowded field; here, more or less at random, is a recent example from the Guardian that approaches the same problem to similar effect. Well, enough already. The next phase of the discussion has to be some practical solutions, or at least direction on where we take our complaints next. If nothing else this would help the fretful decide if they want to accept identity politics as a permanent and ever-increasing aspect of our culture, or are concerned off enough to do something about it.

Identity politics is strongest in societies in which people differ radically in how they look, the things they value and the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and in its tolerance of expression of those differences. If you don’t want identity politics to exist the logical solution is to create a society that minimises those differences, and that is less tolerant of political and cultural expression of them. In such a society intolerance would be expressed both formally — that means in law — and informally, by fostering the social enforcement of cultural norms. A society with that maximises ethnic, religious and narrative homogeneity is one that has a minimal strain of identity politics. This is what Orban and Salvini are doing.

I think Shriver understands the problem, at least unconsciously. She picks the timeline of the last 50 years as being the era of improving minority outcomes and deteriorating race relations, apparently without realising the significance of that date as a turning point in American demographic history.

She decries the prospect of explicit white identity politics but acknowledges that identity politics would give them a place to “experience solidarity… feel communal pride… fight back when slandered or stereotyped… advocate for their interest”, and sympathise with each other when wronged (“feel sorry for themselves” — same thing). Where did people experience these things in the past, before politics was religion? Was there a larger, unquestioned, shared value system within which people could experience benign communal feeling while still viewing themselves as a distinct group?

She notes that “white Americans may be embracing (race)… in part because they’re within shouting distance of becoming a minority in what they had been regarding as their country.” Is it a coincidence that they all regarded it as “their” country? Or was it because their ownership was an implicit and essential part of the official American story (taught in schools, endorsed in the media) from the Mayflower to Moon Landing and everything in between, and a story that other ethnicities were obliged to accept? Notwithstanding how kind or cruel it was, there was a structural purpose of that that view of American society. Everyone knew that there was a right and wrong way to view the story of the nation and that disruptive alternative interpretations, however justified, were shut out: one national story at a time please.

If creating (recreating) the sort of society in which identity politics can find no purchase is not the solution, what is?

To be clear, I’m not arguing for white identity politics, but against identity politics of any brand. The movement insists that what we are is more important than who we are; that our lives derive their meaning from our membership of groups; that what happens to us isn’t the product of our own decisions but of unequal power dynamics that are bigger than we are.

What I am about to say is a practical rather than moral judgement — but no. The society of yesterday gave us the society of today, so scrubbing off the top layer of identity hysteria gets us nowhere — it will just grow back because the material conditions that created it haven’t changed. And, of course, why would the people using identity as a psychological battering ram abandon something that works so well?

I’m younger that Lionel Shriver but I can sympathise with her position. Like her, I grew up in a time when society was moving from illiberalism to adversarial, post-modern pandemonium. We arrived at a time of relative equilibrium — so we believed this strange interregnum was a stable state and would continue forever. It won’t; it hasn’t. We continue to hurtle towards our destination. If you don’t like where we’re headed, saying “let’s not hurtle” isn’t going to help — you’re a passenger on a runaway train. If you want things to change you’re going to have to push hard in the other direction.

Sam Harris once wrote (incorrectly, I think) that a religious moderate is just a religious fundamentalist without the courage of their convictions. Well, many critics of identity politics are simply illiberals who aren’t willing to follow their objections through to their conclusions. If you don’t have the stomach for that fight, maybe you’re better off shutting up and letting the blue waves wash over you.

Foreign correspondent