With months of race riots continuing in the United States, identity politics is a phrase all too familiar to us in 2020.
Often credited to French philosopher Michel Foucault, identity politics is a window on the world that sees all social relationships as a power struggle. Black versus white, male versus female, gay versus straight, and on the list goes. Each group, according to this worldview, is battling it out to advance their particular political agenda.
With humour and precision, Michael Bird, a lecturer at Ridley College, explains that in the new social pyramid:
“Your authority derives not so much from achievement or ability, but from your minority status and experiences of victimisation. So, that means in an argument, a white woman trumps a white man; a black woman trumps a white woman, a disabled woman trumps a black woman, and a disabled black transgendered Muslim refugee trumps pretty much everybody.”
Late last year, Australians watching Q&A encountered a rather confronting example of this new creed. One of the visiting guests was Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, whose writings have appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and beyond.
To viewers’ surprise, Eltahawy labelled Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison a “white supremacist” and a “patriarchal authoritarian”. She went on to explain that, “for me, as a feminist, the most important thing is to destroy patriarchy.” At one point, Eltahawy bypassed the panel to address the audience directly:
“How long must we wait for men and boys to stop murdering us, to stop beating us, and to stop raping us? How many rapists must we kill — not by the state, because I disagree with the death penalty… until men stop raping us?”
Behind her biting words, of course, Eltahawy had some genuine grievances. Domestic violence, for instance, affects women especially, and it’s an issue dealt with by police every two minutes in Australia. Sexual abuse remains a serious problem in our societies, and one that predominantly affects women, too.
There are many social ills in the modern world, and they should concern us all. But Eltahawy’s biting tone was unnerving, and it is becoming more commonplace.
Westerners are finding it increasingly difficult to sift social concerns from heated ideas like identity politics. The pressure is on now, not just to provide care to the disadvantaged, but to prove your sincerity by embracing politicised viewpoints. Resentment, victimhood and grievance are the new currency.
In the interests of equality, we are learning to assume the best about some people and the worst about others, even if we haven’t met them. This hardly feels like progress. How did it all come to this?
Essayist and author Mary Eberstadt recently addressed this question in her book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. It’s a title worth the price of entry.
Until the 1960s, Western sexual ethics were more or less Christian sexual ethics: a man married a woman; sex was reserved for that covenant; children were a natural result; and the family unit was the safe place for children to be raised.
The Sexual Revolution changed all that. As faith waned and morals loosened after the wars, personal happiness was one pursuit we could all agree on. Sexual fulfilment played a crucial role in this. Consequently, rates of infidelity, divorce, teenage sex and unmarried pregnancy began to soar from the 60s, and they have stayed high ever since.
Other forces were at play. Abortion and the pill turned sex into a childless exchange. This made marriage optional. IVF therapies took this a step further by enabling children to be born in the absence of either a father or a mother. So what the family unit looks like now is limited only to the imagination.
Many consider all of these benign trends of the modern world, but Eberstadt disagrees. Having researched and published widely in this field, Eberstadt credits the Sexual Revolution and its impact on the family unit with a “sharp rise in psychiatric trouble among the young… the explosion of loneliness on a scale never before recorded [and] the rise in so-called ‘deaths of despair’ that are plainly related to loss of love.”
She explains how the weakening of family ties and identity has led to a ‘longing for belonging’ among many in the West. She quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who reasoned that:
“the more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.”
In other words, says Eberstadt, the breakdown of loving, stable homes in the West has prompted us to look for family and loyalty elsewhere.
Enter identity politics.
Mary Eberstadt’s thesis is a compelling one — that the erosion of the family unit has led us to find our identity in fragmented groups. Whether or not hers is the best explanation for the social splintering we now see in the West, it is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
Having taken individualism to an extreme and tasted the loneliness it can cause, we now face a new kind of tribal warfare — a postmodern caste system. We are losing the ability to see each other as individuals, and instead as mere symbols of rival groups.
This is not progress. We will need something greater than the sum of our parts to pull us back together. Perhaps we can begin with the wise words of C.S. Lewis, who said:
“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”