Identity Politics and its Limitations
I learnt from Wikipedia that identity politics deals with various socio-political movements that are based on group identities, which can be found in the feminist movements, gay and lesbian movements and so on.
“Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the self-interest and perspectives of self-identified social interest groups and ways in which people’s politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ideology, nation, sexual orientation, culture, currency, information preference, history, musical and/or literary genre, medical conditions, profession, hobby, or any other loosely correlated yet simple to intuit social organizations. … It can most notably be found in class movements, feminist movements, gay and lesbian movements, disability movements, ethnic movements and post colonial movements. But wherever it is found it is also open to wide debate and critique.”
While these movements have their place in enabling the voices of the minorities and the marginalised to be heard and their issues of discrimination to be addressed in the society, I learnt that there are also limitations to identity politics, because it does not necessarily bring about equality. In this blog, the writer noted that Peter Rollins had explained how the scapegoat mechanism continues to function even when the mainstream tries to include minority groups into their circles as part of identity politics.
“This is why the liberal strategy of opening up communities to previously scapegoated others is not, in itself, sufficient. In religious terms we can note how some conservative churches are beginning to open up to the possibility that gays and lesbians can be equal members of their community. Just as they eventually learned to reject explicit racism and sexism now they are gradually learning to overcome heterosexism. But the problem is that the fundamental structure of scapegoating is not broken in the acceptance of the latest “other,” and if the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts.
There will always be an other as long as we refuse to face ourselves. For example in some of these groups gays and lesbians are now being accepted as long as they embrace the idea of lifelong monogamous marriage. This means that those, gay and straight, who don’t accept that lifestyle for themselves can be excluded as immoral, corrupt and a threat to the institution of marriage.”
So from my understanding, the more people focus on identifying minority groups and then trying to include them into the mainstream, without first accepting the otherness in themselves, the more they continue to discriminate the minorities based on their perceived differences. Another problem is that everyone assumes that all the individuals within a particular minority group must subscribe to the same kind of lifestyle or ideology, and so the people within that group lose their individuality. I came across this article in which the writer shares how marxism (or socialism that denounces classism) helps minority groups move beyond the limits of identity politics.
Similarly, in this article, the writer explains why identity politics does not liberate the oppressed whereas Marxism provides the theoretical tools for ending oppression.
The bulk of this article is a critique of the theory behind what is known in academic and left circles as “identity politics”—the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can either define it or fight against it—counterposing to it a Marxist analysis. My central premise is that Marxism provides the theoretical tools for ending oppression, while identity politics does not.”
(From “The Politics of Identity” by Sharon Smith, International Socialist Review)
From my understanding of the article, the theory of identity politics ignores the entire element of social class, which is a problem because class inequality causes oppression. So it is thought that Marxism or socialism that seeks to remove class inequality would serve to end oppression of the minorities and the marginalised.
I have checked out the above video and I think Peter Rollins summed up very well the significance of the cross as symbolising our crucifixion of various identities, which transcends our perceived differences and moves beyond the limits of identity politics. As long as people identify themselves based on social interests or political affiliations or belief systems or ethnic groups and so on, there will always be some forms of discrimination and conflicts and tribalism, in which one group tends to think they have all the right answers and others don’t. I like the scenario he gave about a minister who would supposedly confess publicly that his own uncertainty and unknowing and that he doesn’t have all the right answers, and in some cases, the church would fire him not because they did not know he does not have all the right answers but rather they do not want to face their own uncertainties and unknowing and would rather hire someone who appears to have all the right answers to preach to them. I also agree that unity and equality can be made possible that people come together and have deep conversations by laying aside their various identities, and learn from one another, and being conscious that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, gay nor straight, republican nor democrat, high class nor low class, feminist nor misogynist, black nor white, and so on, for we are all one.
As Peter Rollins also shared in the video, it is important that people hold on to their beliefs with a loose hand. If they hold on to their beliefs too tightly, they will not be open to learn from others. The same goes with group identities. I think that is why Peter Rollins does not want to subscribe fully to identity politics because the various group identities have their limitations and ultimately do not bring about equality that they desire because it can become another “us” versus “them” mentality. I think some feminists have probably misunderstood him in the past as saying he does not care about diversity or about equality of women or minorities when he did not want to subscribe to identity politics. But he was actually going beyond the limits of identity politics, beyond feminism, and so on, as much as these movements have their place, because he sees that true equality and unity can only be made possible when people lay aside their various identities and embrace the other. He also clarified in the video that it doesn’t mean people stop being men or women and so on, but rather people can choose to look beyond these outward differences and commune at a deeper level. So his message on crucified identities resonates with me as well because I too believe the gospel of our true identity shared among humanity is one way for greater peace and equality.
- Peter Rollins – We are a fiction (themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com)