This evening I came home from a discussion about race and identity in Europe to see that the above post by the author Matt Haig was being discussed vigorously on Twitter. Since I was in a reflective mood, and because I was struck by how many people were grateful that he had expressed these views, I thought that I would write a response. There’s a lot to unpack here, so it may be longer than I intended.
“1. Identity politics. It’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? Judging people on what they signify rather than their character.”
Like Mr. Haig, I don’t think that anyone who is the object of discrimination is particularly comfortable in being judged on what they signify rather than their character. In an ideal world, we would all just be people, celebrating our differences and ultimately cherishing our common humanity. In that world, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Of course, and sadly, we don’t live in that world. Mr. Haig – and this may just be the imprecision of his language – refers to identity politics, such as he defines them, as if they are something that certain groups created from thin air. Instead, they arose from very distinct and sustained forms of oppression, and I think that it is important to acknowledge that.
The examples which Mr. Haig names are interesting, and I think that a main flaw in his argument here is that he deals in absolutes. It’s possible both to acknowledge Caitlin Jenner’s bravery in relation to her gender and to critique her politics – and many people do. It’s possible both to acknowledge Sadiq Khan’s qualities as a politician and the symbolic importance of his victory in this current climate – and many people do. The same was true of President Barack Obama when he first took office. If anything, in my view, it made President Obama’s triumph doubly compelling, and doubly remarkable. He was both the outstanding presidential candidate and he was the first black president in a country which only a hundred years before saw black men being lynched and fed their own genitals. In this context, to acknowledge his identity did not diminish his achievement: instead, it amplified it.
2. “Twitter is full of identity politics. Statements about how you will never understand what it is to be Mexican/black/a woman/depressed unless you have lived experience.”
I think those statements are fine in themselves – I mean, I think they are basically just true. You can’t truly understand how depression feels if you haven’t felt it. In Mr. Haig’s own words, “it’s hard to explain depression to people who haven’t suffered from it…[it’s] like experiencing life on earth to an alien.” I can’t truly understand what it feels like to be Mexican because, well, I’m not. I sense that this is Mr. Haig’s main frustration – that we are rigidly ascribing characteristics to ourselves of a particular minority group, that we should break free of these straitjackets. To some extent he’s right – not all Muslims have exactly the same experience of being Muslim, or Christians exactly the same experience of being Christian. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there are, broadly speaking, similar issues that people from particular groups will face in certain situations. That’s not so much identity politics as day-to-day life. What Mr. Haig also fails to acknowledge – or seems to – is the extent to which that lived experience is being ignored, and the terrible effects that this has in our society. If more politicians paid attention to the lived experience of women, then we wouldn’t have such oppressive abortion laws; if people were more attentive to the lived experience of those with depression, then there wouldn’t be such stigma about mental health. When Mr. Haig writes “I hate all this stuff”, he can also usefully consider how much people who suffer due to our society’s prejudice hate the fact that their suffering goes unacknowledged.
3. “The use of ‘old white man’ as an insult that automatically disqualifies someone from a debate.”
Looking at it from Mr. Haig’s point of view, I see his frustration – if you’re having a discussion about an issue, it can be disconcerting to be told that you’re wrong simply because of who you are. In intellectual terms, it’s also not much of an argument. Yet this is where Twitter can be pretty much the worst possible format for such debates, which can descend into slanging matches. In a debate, you get several minutes of speaking time to make your arguments. On Twitter, you get a split second; what’s more, you’re publishing your thoughts on a platform where many people who have never had the chance to speak their own minds with such freedom are fed up from hearing from and presumably being talked down to by the archetypal ‘old white man’. Therefore, whenever an ‘old white man’ tweets a supposedly patronising opinion, he may have a sensation similar to that of a lamb opening its front door to a wolf. The ‘old white man’ is unlikely to feel enriched by such an experience, but he can usefully reflect, in time, upon where the anger comes from.
4. “We are all the same, when you place us next to sea-horses, but identity politics wants to chip away at our sameness and reduce us to differences that don’t actually reflect who we are.”
I don’t think that identity politics, as Mr. Haig defines them, sow the seeds of division in our society: I think that they are the fruit of that division. I happen to agree with him that there is a real danger in assuming that everyone from a particular marginalised group thinks the same. They don’t: that’s the kind of intellectual laziness that allows “community leaders” to go on television and position themselves as the exclusive voice of Muslims and the white working class, skewing the public discourse in ways that can be dangerous. That being said, it is useful – no, necessary – to reflect on the similar ways in which people from a particular group may be oppressed by a certain set of laws or traditional practices.
5. “We are becoming a world where we are all judging the shell, and not the soul.”
If true, I would argue that this isn’t the fault of marginalised groups, but the fault of public figures and policymakers who should and do know better. There are countless people fighting daily to be seen as just as human as their fellow citizens – just look at refugees, or the Black Lives Matter movement. If those drowning refugees were judged by their souls and not their shells, they’d still be alive.
The most striking thing about this post is that it discusses the apparent defensiveness of marginalised groups – their retreat into “identity politics” – without providing any context for why those groups might have become defensive. It therefore gives the impression that these marginalised groups merely tumbled into despair and even self pity and victim-hood without so much as a nudge from racism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or transphobia. Mr. Haig criticises identity politics as the cause of society’s ills as opposed to its symptom: and, to that extent, I think that his analysis is intellectually incomplete.
After I had subsequently tweeted that an excessive focus upon identity politics could be used to further repressive agendas, I was sent the following private message on Twitter by someone whose views I respect very much. I think it is a useful addition to the conversation, so I have asked permission to reproduce it below.
“I think my essential problem is alluded to in your piece, about how it broadens out and flattens individualism and the worst end of it responds by a misuse of intersectionality, forming a hierarchy of suffering and indulging in the narcissism of petty differences. I tend to broadly agree with your piece but do worry about this aspect as well as the tendency to see every identity only through the lens of suffering rather than experience or culture. If that makes sense.”