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Identifying difference

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As we have learned, identity politics has contributed in important ways to improving the lives of a large number of people and particularly those of women and minority groups. However, there are some issues with the movement that threaten to allow oppression to sneak in once again, through the back door. In this video, I will outline two key points of criticism that could be levelled against identity politics, ignorance of which might lead to precisely the problems activists wish to resist. Casting your mind back to activity 4 in the second week of the first course, you might recognize that the first problem with identity politics is the danger of misunderstanding the nature of power.
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Relying on a particularly antagonistic form of activism, identity politics involves the association of one group with shared characteristics that act independently, and often confrontationally from one another. It is common to hear minority groups make the argument that only they have a set of experiences particular to the defining characteristics of their members and therefore only they can adequately represent their interests. Identity politics is therefore committed to the sort of power expressed by authors like Hobbes, Dahl and Arendt. That is to say, a power that can be owned by people and leveraged against others. I don’t want to take issue here with the notion of adequately representing ideas.
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Instead, I think it’s important to appreciate that identities exist within, and are not separate from the context from which they emerged. We have seen that Fanon problematised at the very beginning of the civil rights movement, the notion of black identity as grounded in, and emergent from the history of white supremacy. This is to say that the idea of blackness emerged in the context of colonial violence, and understanding it without an appreciation of this context would be to fundamentally misunderstand the term.
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To use another example, homosexuality did not exist before the 1840s, not because people of the same gender did not engage in relationships or sexual practices, but because it took the medicalisation of sexual practices to develop the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality. Prior to the 19th century, it simply would not have made sense to divide people into the two groups, but when scientists and doctors began to study the nature of reproduction, categories were invented to facilitate study, leading to the relatively modern phenomena of homophobia. Identity is always held in tension with
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the sociopolitical context from which it emerges: the identity of being black is, according to Fanon, held in tension with the history of colonialism. Whilst an identity of homosexuality is rooted in the medicalisation of sex. As Connolly puts it, ‘an identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognised’. The danger here is when individuals cling too strongly to an identity that has been forged by their oppressors. The actress, model, and feminist activist, Emma Watson expressed this concern in 2014 when commenting on the music videos of Beyoncé Knowles self-titled 2013 album.
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If you’ve not seen images of this album, I recommend you pause the video now and search for them in order to understand the context for this discussion. ‘As I was watching [the videos] I felt very conflicted’, Watson said. ‘I felt her message felt very conflicted in the sense that on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then on camera, it felt very male, such a male, voyeuristic experience of her’. Whilst acknowledging that Knowles was both a feminist and empowering and that it was her choice to dress as she did, nevertheless, her comments expressed concern at the factors influencing the identity Knowles was expressing.
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Given the long history of masculine oppression and commodification of female beauty, Watson’s comments were perhaps expressing a justified concern about the nature of money and exploitation in the music industry. The second issue with the development of identity politics is also in part illustrated by this example. Depoliticisation is the phenomena whereby the inherently contested nature of politics is reduced down to an aesthetic choice. If Watson was correct in her comments about the provocative nature of some of the music videos, then this is an example of how the executive level of the music industry has succeeded in turning the exploitation of female beauty into a commodity that is designed by women themselves.
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One might also look to attempts to no- platform controversial political speakers at universities. On the one hand, defenders of this practice argue that no-platforming is an important gesture to protect both the feelings and mental health of students in vulnerable groups. On the other hand, detractors claim that
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it undermines one of the key foundations of a healthy politics: the very ability to challenge and undermine persecution and oppression. In both cases, the depoliticisation occurs when the contested nature of identity is ignored and the needs of groups identities is held as more important than the need to contest, challenge, and provoke. To conclude, identity politics rests upon a philosophical position called essentialism. According to which context is unimportant because everything has a particular set of attributes that make it that way. But what if this is not the case? What if identities change over time? They are, as I have argued here, contingent upon their contexts and differences between individuals in a group are as significant as they are between different groups.
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We have already seen how focused upon the identity of a group leads to infighting between members of that group. Black feminists have, for example, extended this criticism to in particular second-wave feminists, arguing that second-wave feminists misunderstand and misrepresent the experiences of black women. It is becoming increasingly apparent, therefore, that a reliance upon fixed identities in the culture wars that emerge as a result, both limit effective political action and create the conditions for political action that actively disadvantages members of the group.

As we have learned, identity politics has contributed in important ways to improving the lives of a large number of people, and particularly those of women and minority groups. However, there are some issues with the movement that threaten to allow oppression to sneak in once again through the back door.

In this video I will outline two key points of criticism that can be levelled against identity politics, ignorance of which might lead to precisely the problems activists wish to resist.

Connolly, W.E. (2002) Identity, Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London.

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