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‘Identity’ Politics — Are They A Problem And When Did They Become One?

The history of wars is a history of clashing identities. As long as people have been able to envision and define who they are, they have clashed with people whose identities seem to be placed in ‘opposition’ to themselves. For example, there was no possibility of a World War II without an ideology of opposition. There is no World War II without Jewish people, tribal people, disabled people,  gay people, and people who seem to define themselves almost solely in opposition to the previously mentioned groups. There is no cold war without capitalism and communism and the fact that they are necessarily defined in opposition to each other.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about alterity to mean that women are defined by what they are not rather than what they are. Instead of being able to come up with a certain list of ‘female’ characteristics or items that could define ‘femininity’ (which, of course, cannot be defined since it is different for different people depending on a number of individual characteristics as well as their cultural contexts) women are defined as people who are not men. There is no certain way for women to exist when there are no men because, without men, there is no way for a woman to be a woman in the way we define ‘womanhood’ in our culture. When asked to describe a woman, for example, it turns out that there is a single set of characteristics (either social or biological) that can be generalized to all women. A woman is, therefore, simply someone who is neither male nor non-binary. Similarly, even though a patriarchal context makes it seem as though male is the default, men are only men so long as women and non-binary people exist.

Without the presence of an ‘other,’ there can be no ‘we’. All identities are defined in opposition to some other identity. A person is a Buddhist because they are not Christian or Jewish or Parsi; a person is agnostic or an atheist if they do not align themselves with any of these religions or the countless others that exist in human society. A person is only gay or bisexual or pansexual if heterosexual people exist. Again, despite heteronormative conventions, a person is straight only so long as people with different sexualities exist. Without them, ‘straight’ ceases to be a form of self-identification and thus a way of self-differentiation.

Thus, identity is inherently oppositional. Additionally, recent years have led to the alt-right criticizing this idea of ‘identity politics’— 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. However, all politics are based on the idea of identity. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was a victory of the idea of national identity as opposed to this immigrant ‘other.’ Narendra Modi’s victories in India in 2014 and 2019 are a victory of this idea of the savarna Hindu over the minority, marginalized identities as of those of Indian Muslims and Indian Dalits. All politics are politics of identity, though the identities of powerful groups are simply so normalized that any assertion made by a person from a marginalized community becomes a call to politics of identity.

These politics of oppositional identities lead to clashes, civil wars, and brutality for the marginal groups. What is interesting — and dangerous — is that violence is almost never caused by minority groups attempting to assert their right to the mainstream in terms of culture formation and cultural identification. Rather, it is the majority that uses their tools of power to coerce, repress, and oppress the minority. Any assertion of minority identity is seen as such a threat that a reminder of their oppressive past is treated as suppression itself to powerful groups. For example, the recent spate of memes referring to white women as ‘Karens’ when they weaponize their position, power, and whiteness in order to assert their superiority over people of color, especially black people. This is especially evident in the case of Amy Cooper, who threatened Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, and then called the police on him simply because he had the ‘audacity’ to ask her to follow the rules. This also extremely evident in the case of the anti-CAA protests in India, where there were numerous acts of violence leading to a pogrom against Muslim people carried out by savarna Hindus. However, the people who were blamed for inciting violence and were subsequently arrested are overwhelmingly Muslim. People like Komal Sharma and Kapil Mishra, who actually committed acts of violence and incited others, walk free.

What does all of this mean? Identities may be inherently oppositional, but why does the presence of ‘others’ have to lead to violence? More importantly for the politically fraught times we seem to be living through, why are these transgressions almost always committed by people who are already in possession of power against people who have been historically denied any access to it?

One explanation is that with a rise in movements like the gay rights movement or the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the world, the transgressions of powerful groups are no longer quiet power plays. With the advent of social media and platforms like WordPress that are open to everyone, the control of a narrative is no longer in the hands of a small privileged majority. With this, even seemingly ‘simple’ assertions of identity and claims of the abuse of the privileged are not simple. To groups that have had power for so long, often hundreds or — as in the case of Hindu savarnas in India — even thousands of years, this inequality and unequal distribution of power is so entrenched in these systems that any call to justice or equality feels threatening to the privileged. There is a quote that says “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” And this may just be what it comes down to. To those who are oppressors and, therefore, completely unfamiliar with the way oppression feels, equality feels like oppression. They think they are being oppressed when they are called on to tone down their blatant racism or casteism. Savarna people start thinking they have earned their places in universities and corporations and that the idea of retributive justice in the form of affirmative action is threatening to them, though this could not be further from the truth.

There is no way to gain justice that does not involve the clash of oppositional identities, even if this clash simply happens in courtrooms and through peace marches rather than through using guns and, frankly, needless warfare. Wars are fought to emphasize the superiority of one identity or ideological system over another. They cannot be used to gain equality in any case. However, these movements have to be just that. They have to agitate. There is no equality gained through appeal to the oppressor.

Identity politics are always going to exist as, indeed, they always have. What has to change is the way we view them. We cannot claim that it is not political when a Savarna person refuses to eat food cooked and water served to them by a Dalit person but then claim that it is identity politics when Dalits demand justice for centuries of injustice. It cannot be one way or the other. Either everything is rooted in identities and politics, or nothing is.

Photo: Gotta Be Worth It via Pexels

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