NECESSITY AND REPRESENTATION; MAKING SENSE OF IDENTITY POLITICS.
Words by Julian Roney
Figuring out what identity politics is really about will help you make sense of our tense political climate, or at the very least you’ll sound smart at parties.
Identity politics does not describe a political persuasion. In popular media it is linked with the political left, owing in part to its historic use in queer, women’s, and black civil rights movements. To understand its contemporary usage, we need to acknowledge how it is employed to justify a broad range of political claims, legitimate or not.
Identity politics describes an approach to a perceived social issue. It continues to serve many different political programs where the equal treatment of collective identities comes under threat. Collective identity boundaries can be easily defined, as in the case of race, gender or nationality, or they can intersect any number of these categories to specify communities, language groups or common practices. The disavowal of contemporary identity politics is undue. Wherever there is representation there is identity- because how else can collective interests be made intelligible?
Identity politics is not the ‘dead end’, nor the ‘cult’ that it is commonly referred to; rather it is a necessary tool for real social change. If its use is understood as strategic, then it ceases to be as divisive as it is commonly interpreted. This deserves to be fleshed out a bit.
“…identity politics enables the representation of collective interests, which effects real social change.”
March this year the Black Lives Matter campaign was finally granted formal bargaining power alongside the Chicago Police Department and state Attorney General for consultation on ongoing police reform. However this landmark development comes after 4 years of demonstrations and heavy backlash. The resistance to the Black Lives Matter campaign shows the way claims to equal treatment are commonly conflated with claims about the superiority of one identity group over another. The reactionary ‘Blue’ and ‘All Lives Matter’ movements attempt to reassert the importance of dominant power groups precisely because they misunderstand why black identities were foregrounded in the first place.
This traces a line of political reasoning that permeates a lot of the arguments around contemporary identity politics. Representation is not about asserting difference in identity categories, though difference provides boundaries for collective identities to exist. That’s just a fancy way of saying difference defines who a collective identity includes but not why they are seeking justice in the first place. For oppressed groups to be identifiable as an interest group distinct from others, representation necessitates an identity politics.
“Wherever there is representation there is identity- because how else can collective interests be made intelligible?”
In the contemporary political stage, identity politics is employed in many social justice movements. However, from the gut reactions to the coordinated reactionary campaigns, the counter-arguments to these social movements also rely on the same concept of identity politics they criticize. There is a curious contradiction surrounding the condemnation of identity politics in this regard, which is echoed in the protests which scream “Not your identity! Mine instead!”
As it appears, identity politics can be used to serve all political agendas. In spite of its association with the left, it is in fact neutral; wielded by both sides of the political spectrum in similar ways. And its strategic use makes sense- identity politics enables the representation of collective interests, which effects real social change.
Approaching politics by the type of argument it employs rather than the ethics of its conclusions can be an enlightening process. It can settle common confusions and public misconceptions surrounding different issues and help you form your own perspective with a bit more insight. At the least, it will keep your blood pressure down the next time you have to sit down with your conservative uncle.