It is said we are in an era of so-called identity politics, but what is it and is it new?
There is much discussion about identity now, largely being framed as something frivolously employed to gain personal advantage, and thus depriving others of freedoms that they now enjoy. However, identity is not trivial, and is actively employed by everyone, even those decrying its use. Identity is part of our evolution, both individually and as societies and nations, so we need to understand how we use it and what its limitations are.
Identity politics is seen as relatively new, but it has been integral to the struggle for recognition and freedom.
To skip over a few details, for many earlier societies, there were fairly well-defined classes, being those who ruled and those who were ruled over. Those in power usually kept it in their family by proclaiming their power could be inherited by their descendants, cementing in wealth inequality. While there was plenty of land, such small societies could largely co-exist with occasional conflicts that disrupted that status quo, but the essentially two-class structure was maintained, with the ruled not having much power.
Once societies became larger, their administration required intermediate classes who represented the rulers in their dealings with other ruled members. These intermediaries gathered their own power and occasionally challenged the rulers for domination, sometimes replacing them. Other times, those classes challenged the fully-centralised power of the ruler, demanding a more formal power-sharing arrangement. One such arrangement occurred when the barons brought King John to heel at Runnymede in 1215, leading to the formal document subsequently known as the Magna Carta.
While the Magna Carta was specific to the barons and the king, it did lay down limitations of the powers of the king. That document is considered the foundational document of democracy of the English-speaking world because it set a precedent whereby each new class of people who evolved from the increasing complexities of the societies could legally ask for themselves to be included in the power-sharing. It is through this precedent that the previously disenfranchised eventually came to be allowed to vote, though not without continuing resistance from those who resented their own loss of power.
To gain these concessions, each class had to label themselves with a common identity with defined distinguishing characteristics so that they could be treated legally as one group. Thus, the process of emancipation required individuals to group together under a common identity to achieve their power goals. Here we see that identity has been a necessary part of politics and gaining power for millennia, and so it is not a recent phenomenon. It was a necessary step in wresting power from elites.
Once the significant groups, like women and non-white races, had achieved some token measure of recognition, though they still face significant systemic prejudices, numerically lesser marginalised groups sought legal recognition and protection, leading to same-sex marriages becoming legal. The current battleground is about trans people, which challenges the whole nature of gender identity which had previously legally relied upon birth biology, but now introduced a whole lot of fuzziness and a legal minefield as it comes up against hard-won legal recognition for other identity-defined groups.
While identity facilitated wresting some power from the top strata of societies, they have continued to ensure that they retained their wealth, power and privilege.
While the slaves were supposedly freed by the US civil war, the defeated elites began a propaganda war that redefined the conflict as being about states rights and not race. Coupled with this, they propagated that white people were naturally on top of humanity, and so non-whites had to be suppressed. This narrative caught on among politicians wanting their support, leading to the Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, persecution and outright violence against African-Americans.
While they could no longer own slaves, the elite white class mobilised fellow, but poorer, whites into supporting them, supposedly as a defense against them losing jobs to the now emancipated slaves. This is an example of how the elite wealthy class used propaganda to mobilise the poor to act against their own betterment. There were times the poor of either race stood together, but against a legal apparatus heavily-biased against blacks, poor whites largely capitulated to the racist narrative, sacrificing their own social mobility to serve the rich.
The narratives promulgated by the rich through supposedly neutral think-tanks to provide an intellectual cover for maintaining their power continue the same formula used by the racist elites but applied right across the whole of society, infusing people with false ideas of losing power if they agree to a more equitable society. They seek to undermine the process of identity leading to a freer society, even though they use the identity paradigm to maintain their privilege. They don't identify as conservatives for nothing!
While societies are made up of individuals, their development parallels that of individuals.
As individuals, we grow up seeing ourselves as part of a group, beginning with the family, but branching out into the school we go to, where we work and who we spend our spare time with, and all with substantial efforts at maintaining that identity by those we associate with. At some point, we may feel like we don't really feel comfortable with the identity we are immersed in, and seek to find some way of explaining that disconnect. That may lead us to abandoning that identity, at least in part, and exploring other ways of seeing ourselves. This is a natural part of our process of evolution.
Those with whom we have been identifying may at first be concerned that we are losing our way, and so try to recentre us in their identity. If we still don't feel that the identity represents us, those others may resent our seemingly rejecting them and take measures to punish us, perhaps by ostracisation or rejection. We may feel that they are not listening to us, so we may do the same to them, and part ways, even though we may feel sorrow because we still feel that some part of us is still with them. That is a conflict within us that affects how we will evolve from there.
Societies go through a similar process, where in the mix of ideas about where a society may evolve to in the future, some in it feel like it is fine as it is but others feel that something is not right about it. We see the same efforts at control by those who are alright with the status quo trying to limit the effects of those who want change. There is the same internal conflict that affects how the society evolves.
Just like how a belief system we have grown up with still largely defines how we think about the world, even if we supposedly rejected it, societies continue along their ingrained narratives while many reject much of them. One such narrative is the idea that the wealthy are entitled to run the society even if there is a veneer of egalitarianism hiding them. In former times, the wealthy and powerful did not need to hide their influence because they had the legal threat of violence to keep others in line.
As democracy really took hold, the wealthy had to retreat somewhat and keep their efforts hidden. There were always those narcissists who self-aggrandised themselves as superior, but mostly the powerful have remained hidden behind proxies, like politicians, lobby groups and think-tanks, steering the public consciousness away from them and focusing upon people as thinking as selfish individuals. This keeps people distracted while preventing them from gathering others into a common identity that may challenge the elites.
It serves the powerful to decry identify-forming that might challenge them, while fomenting identities that serve their purposes, hence their active but hidden support of white racists and suppression of trade unions, women and people of colour. They employ a huge amount of double-think to bamboozle those who are feeling betrayed by society, even if that betrayal has largely been at the hands of those elites.
For example, they cynically cast dispersions on the elites who show some concern for democracy, while feigning concern for those they have actively downtrodden, and push themselves to them as the way out of being controlled by those other elites. This is the double-think in action. It is a process of appropriation and misdirection. The only way to counter this is to expose the lies enough to get enough people to see the delusion created for what it is and vote against those who push it.
While identity has been a necessary step on the path to emancipation, it can become a yoke if it is not transcended.
Identity enabled us to not feel alone in the world. It allows us to proceed with our lives with some confidence, as long as we maintain the sense of identification. It is when that maintenance become too much that we seek to understand why and seek to change it. At some point, there comes a realisation that identity itself is like a mask, in that it projects a persona, which may be useful for a time as we inhabit and explore it, but which hinders when it obscures us from seeing ourselves. We fear to lose it as it may mean a loss of what we have gained through its use.
However, once having seen the identity genie for the delusion that it is, there is only two choices: double-down on it, or let it go. We don't tend to like the latter option, so we mostly double-down, at least until the self-deception becomes untenable. At that time, we are forced to challenge ourselves as to who we really are. In a lesser sense, it is a time of change and often finding another persona, but it is really the first step of the spiritual journey to find who we really are, beyond the personality that hides in a succession of identities.
A society can also follow this path, as it posits its mass identity and evolves through a series of myths about itself. We call belief in those myths patriotism, as if the country is a constant when it is really the sum of all the personas of its citizens as they pursue their individual identity evolutions, all while they are manipulated by those who seek to maintain theirs. At some point, a society will need to abandon its delusions and evolve, or it will collapse under them. Such is the path of past civilisations.
There is a spiritual path for a society, but it requires optimising the spiritual paths of all individuals within it. That requires that it collectively decides that there is true equity of opportunity for each to pursue their own path, without undue pressure to conform to some idea or ideology, but also without preventing others from following theirs. That is a society that is truly free, and is possible if we always seek the truth and not the lies others may seek to delude us with.
It was the lack of fairness and equity that drove many to have to become part of group identities.
To be able to gather power to challenge the privileged and their use of violence, people had to band together by some sort of identity to have enough power to do so. If there had been a lot more fairness in those societies, such identity grouping would have been unnecessary.
The message from this is clear. If we want to have a more harmonious society where people do not have to resort to forging an identity to gain some measure of respect for themselves, that society has to start with respect for all and ensure that people are not discriminated against. It is the systemic othering of peoples that has promoted so-called identity politics. It is the othering that is used to outcast others in an effort to maintain privilege that starts the process by using the identity labelling as their means.
It becomes a twisted self-fulfilling prophesy where the privileged unknowingly promote their own downfall by specifically nominating those who they want to challenge them! Most often, the privileged had enough means of violence to quell those they had labelled for suppression, but it is the successful resistance to that use of violence that has defined the major changes in history. Be wary of what we ask for!
To be harmonious, societies have to promote the individual, not as a means of dividing and conquering that the privileged have used for millennia, but as a true and heartfelt effort to allow each individual to achieve their maximum potential. Not in competition with each other, but as equals each trying to live a better life for themselves, following what their interests are, while respecting others being able to do the same.
Without a forced struggle to achieve power just to have a seat at the table, people do not have the need to promote a group identity. Without that need for identity distracting them, people will have more opportunity to actually be happy and love life for itself. A happier people do not need to create division by unnecessary othering or nominating divisions. People can get on with forging their own path, enabling societies to get on with theirs as they coexist with others. Fairness starts a cycle of peace that fostering continued fairness will only perpetuate.