Identity is not the most important issue

I’m not always a big fan of Sam Harris, as I think his antipathy to religion in general and Islam in particular is toxic – he would do far better to acknowledge that religion is a facet of human existence which we need to take into account. However, the guy does think, and think deeply, as evidenced in a recent podcast largely focussing on identity politics.

At this point, I perhaps need to confess to being a cis white male in a Western developed country, which, according to identity politics, arguably gives me no place to stand in terms of criticism of the state of the world. Sam does make the point (and I think it needs underlining) that this does not preclude someone from having a valid opinion – most of us, if we have a habit of thinking rationally, are able to separate ourselves to at least some extent from our situation in life and consider other points of view. Granted, unless you are (for instance) black, you are handicapped in having an emotional understanding of how it is more difficult to make your way in society (and, from what I see, more so in the States than in the UK, which is where my experience comes from). Likewise I might find it more difficult to relate emotionally to the situation of women, who still face a significantly greater challenge in reaching high level positions here than do men (though that has lessened massively over the course of my lifetime).

Things are made rather more difficult by the concept of intersectionality. This quite accurately notes that there is an additive (or possibly a multiplicative) effect of being in more than one group which is underprivileged; the concept stems initially from the observation that, within feminism, being black disadvantaged you twice – feminism tended to benefit white women, and anti-racism tended to benefit black men. The trouble is that this leads to a tendency toward discounting anyone’s voice unless they are an unemployed black lesbian immigrant disabled muslim, for instance.

I will grant that, in the upside-down economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, this does put one person of my acquaintance at the very pinnacle of that economy. Should she, however, be the only person whose opinion is valid? To listen to some exponents of identity politics, one would think so. Sam and his guest make the extremely good point that this divides people (which is a bad thing) and makes it more difficult to create a broad platform which can actually hope to gain political power.

What I would like to see is a recognition that in a puralist society like ours, everyone is a member of some minority, at least if they apply enough labels to themselves – I have a number of potential labels which render me a member of an underprivileged minority (notably being partially disabled by reason of mental illness), and while I have to accept that I am not as underprivileged as some, I can still look to the fact that (for instance) in the open labour market I am pretty much unemployable. Happily, I have a couple of part time occupations which bring in some money, and am old enough to draw a pension and disabled enough to receive some benefits, so I don’t actually need to work for a living. There was, however, a period during which I was already ill enough not to be able to work, but hadn’t yet the part time occupations, the pension or the benefits, so I do understand on an emotional basis to some extent the situation of those who are less lucky than I have been in those respects.

I also have the liberty to think and write about this, which a lot of people who are less lucky don’t have – their whole concentration is going to be on where the next meal is coming from…

Harris and his guest also touch on the fact that there is actually a sizeable majority of people who are seriously and increasingly underprivileged in our society, as the gap between the very rich and the rest of us widens and the category of “very rich” shrinks, while the middle class who used to bridge the gap increasingly become little or no better off than the working class or the poor. That is a point which I would have liked stressed much more – there is a problem which the vast majority of us face, which is now systemic, and it prejudices most of us, and it is the imbalance in our financialised globalised “free market” capitalist societies.

Nick Hanauer has a splendid TED talk expressing this. Now, Nick is a self-confessed plutocrat, but he sees that the levels of inequality which we now face and which are growing will inevitably lead to a collapse in society – as he says, “the pitchforks are coming” – but that will not merely mean that he and those like him are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of pitchforks, but that there will be a huge disruption in society. I, for one, do not relish the thought of living through a revolution (though, actually, I probably wouldn’t live through it, only into the early stages of it…); revolutions are messy things and tend to kill a lot of people, and in addition have very unpredictable results – sometimes things become better for the majority, but often they don’t. Both the BREXIT vote here and the election of Trump, it seems to me, are expressions of a population which is saying “I don’t mind if things are in complete turmoil, I don’t mind if the world burns, I just want change… any change”

[There was, arguably, a long, slow revolution in the UK between 1800 and around 1970, which progressively made things better for working people and certainly reduced inequality massively, both in absolute terms and in terms of opportunity. That was among the very few revolutions which I can point to which had a generally beneficial effect and very few deaths – a few protestors, but nothing on a large scale. Sadly, the Thatcher government coupled with Blairite Labour managed to undo most if not all of the progress which took 150 years to achieve…]

Identity politics on the left, it seems to me, get in the way of addressing this problem; they divide us where we need to unify to face a more existential threat. There has been a cartoon going around showing a couple of people amid the smoking ruins of a city saying “But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders“.

My worry is that they might equally have been saying “for a beautiful moment in time we achieved marriage equality and eliminated racial and religious discrimination”.

Inequality is not the only existential threat, either. Climate change, unless we can by some miracle mitigate it sufficiently, is going to produce just as much misery as would worldwide revolution – but actually is likely to be accompanied by worldwide revolution.

I have huge sympathy with minorities, but do not want to concentrate on bettering their situation at the expense of civilisation.

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