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On the evils of identity politics

One of the most shocking things about the brutal attack in Woolwich yesterday was the arrogance with which one of the bloodied knifemen claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. In what sounded like a South London accent, this British-seeming, casually dressed young man bizarrely spoke as if he were a representative of the ummah. He talked about “our lands and what “our people” have to go through every day.  He presumably meant Iraqis and Afghanis, or perhaps the broader global “Muslim family”.

How can a couple of men so thoroughly convince themselves that they speak for all Muslims, to the extent that they seriously believe their savage and psychotic attack on a man in the street is some kind of glorious act of Islamic resistance? Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously. A country where one’s identity, one’s racial or religious or cultural make-up, now counts for everything, certainly for more than what one does or what one believes. A country in which the politics of identity, the narrow and deeply divisive communal politics of shared cultural traits, has been privileged over all other kinds of politics.

- Brendan O’Neill

 

He was writing in the aftermath of the murder of a young soldier in London this week.

There are many reasons how this state of affairs came about, and I am sure commenters have their views on this. I would point to what has happened in our own education system and the climate of ideas in the West for the past few decades. While Western society is, by some measures, more “individualistic” than it used to be – and that is a good thing – in some ways tribal mentalities remain strong. Maybe part of that has to do with post-modernism and the whole challenge to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that there are universal, shared qualities that all humans have, most importantly, the capacity for long-term, rational action, coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will.

As those notions have been challenged, or even mocked – consider how it is fashionable these days to say we are all driven by “unseen” motives and urges that come from Darwinian evolution – then people are more susceptible to collectivism, to group-think, with its consequent view of people as either “belonging” to this or that group. Throw in the features of Islam as it is today as described by the likes of Bernard Lewis, and this fusion of religious fundamentalism, craven Western self-abasement, victimology, and post-modernist moral relativism, then it is not hard to see why these thugs can claim to speak for a whole chunk of humanity.

16 comments to On the evils of identity politics

  • Darrell

    Celebrate Diversity. Or Else.

  • hovis

    Agreed.

    My tuppence worth on this vileness:

    There is no shared culture, nor values. We can all draw our own conclusions of the causes. It would appear Wellington’s reported quip that “If a man be born in a stable, that does not make him a horse.” is as true as ever. You choose to identify with a culture, and these two chose the wrong one.

    Vering O/T a little. It’s interesting that you hint at the challengeto free will and rise of neo-darwinism (essentially Scientistic Fundamentalism)as another rotten influence adding its siren call in the mood music to our time.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    …coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will. As those notions have been challenged, or even mocked – consider how it is fashionable these days to say we are all driven by “unseen” motives

    This struck me as a very compelling point. Why does identity politics – whether of religion, race, class or gender – go so well with authoritarianism? There is not a necessary link of logic, one can conceive of a totalitarianism that sought to completely deny these divisions, but the link is repeated again and again. It could well be that the whole appeal of identity politics is that it does diminish the idea of individual free will.

  • Laird

    “It could well be that the whole appeal of identity politics is that it does diminish the idea of individual free will.”

    A very interesting observation which I hadn’t previously considered. Of course, assuming that there is a correlation between the two ideas that doesn’t suggest that there is a causal relationship between them or, even if there is, in which direction that causality runs. Worth more consideration.

  • Gareth

    Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously

    Very true. This approach blew up in Bradford when youths rioted and the ‘elders’ the council had been interacting with for years were shown to have little true influence in their community.

    We hear it all the time and it is insidious. Politicians in particular, from the PM claiming to speak for all of us to local councilors claiming to speak for their communities.

    Authorities of whatever form prefer to work with mouthpieces rather than individuals because it is more efficient. The mouthpieces and the authorities both have self-interest at heart of increasing their own reputations and everyone else can largely be ignored. They can then agree between themselves what the mouthpiece will try to sell to the group they claim to represent. This happens with our national politics – far from representing us in Westminster on many issues, where politicians have achieved their own consensus our MPs instead represent the government in each constituency. The traffic of policies and representation is from the centre outwards not the other way around.

  • Ian Bennett

    Natalie asked, “Why does identity politics – whether of religion, race, class or gender – go so well with authoritarianism?” Perhaps because it encourages a collectivist mindset; it attempts to assign each of us to a group, which can then be pitted against other groups.

  • Mr Ed

    Socialism* abhors responsibility**, it is an aspect of self-ownership and property. Anything that diminishes personal responsibility (before the transition) is likely to be looked on favourably by socialists. To blame ‘class’, ‘gender’ etc. is to depersonalise the acting human, and to deny free will.

    All socialists are also dictators, or adherents of, so to speak for a ‘community’ is simply to be the vanguard of the collective.

    All politics is vile, these politics are just the essence of it, violence, predation, hatred and death. Add in some mysticism, and you have a recipe for an eternal battle, but with clearer lines.

    * using the noun to represent those adherents of the doctrine in the generality, au Mises.
    ** except when meting out class-based punishments, of course.

  • I wonder if this event is not more strongly related to the increasing individualism you note than you might believe, to play devil’s advocate for a bit. These two murderers would hardly have converted to a lunatic strain of Islam had they already had a culture of their own, a sense of belonging and identity. A few individualists aside, it seems that most people need and crave a transcendent identity, and will find one where they can. (Think of all the good Sixties atheists who ended up in ashrams…)

  • RRS

    We are observing something in these kinds of social dysfunctions(see, Atocha, 7/7, AQM, AQI, Stockholm, Paris Ban Lieu) in western civilization similar to what has been learned about metastasis of disease in medical experience. In fact we might even label these events (of more dispersed,increasing frequency), as evidence of continuing metastasis.

    In medicine, one approach is to determine the means and courses of “migration” from the organic “core” of the disease to other organs. We have not yet begun such an examination; the metastasis continues.

  • JohnW

    The accent was South London/ Caribbean mix.

    This was clearly an Islamic assault – a religion which the establishment hopes to see reformed.

    But if Islam were open to reform should it not have been reformed by now?

    Its science is absurd, its art is risible, its law is barbaric. How can any educated person view such nonsense with anything other than derision and contempt?.

    The reason WHY Islam has NOT been reformed is because it CANNOT be reformed – it is all or nothing.

    It is a political movement proclaiming a supremacist agenda with jihad at its core.

    See-

    “….”wiser” supporters of offensive jihad believe that Muslims “must sit and wait until the era of our strength returns.” In the meantime, according to these Muslims, “there is nothing shameful about taqiyya [deception] until the time is ripe.” Al-Ghanami bemoans the fact that such Muslims operate naively “on the assumption that the world doesn’t read, doesn’t monitor… and is not paying attention to the calls for killing, tyranny, and aggression that we are spreading.”

    Similarly, Abdallah Al-Naggar writes: “Today, the Muslims’ circumstances are different [i.e., they are weak], and talk of this aspect [of jihad] requires a smart approach, one that stresses the aspect of self defense, instead of aggression and onslaught,” since discussing offensive jihad “arouses the enmity of people”; thus, “there is a need for wisdom [i.e., kitman] in our impassioned discussions of war and battles.”

    These writers are insightful enough to understand that Islam’s imperative for Muslims to wage offensive jihad is the one insurmountable obstacle for peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. Best not to keep reminding the infidel world, then.”

    http://www.meforum.org/2767/offensive-jihad

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    The reason WHY Islam has NOT been reformed is because it CANNOT be reformed – it is all or nothing.

    Centuries ago Islam was reformed, unfortunately it was reformed for the worse. Thanks Al-Ghazali, the modern world really appreciates your efforts!

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Islam is not only capable of reform, it is doing it all the time! After all, Al-qiada is not an ancient formation. Indeed, the trouble is that it is not capable of sticking to one form! There is no Papacy to decide on such questions. Since each man can be his own pope, there will be as many interpretations of Islam as there are Muslim men!

  • Why does identity politics – whether of religion, race, class or gender – go so well with authoritarianism?

    Ian Bennett beat me to it: divide and conquer.

  • Mastiff: individualism in no way precludes social interaction and cooperation on a voluntary basis – be such socialization based on culture, religion, business interests or any other platform. The fact that the Left managed to rob so many people in the West of the possibility to belong to what is known as ‘civil society’, does not make their project and its results individualist in any way.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    It’s a good thing that we Samizdatistas don’t go in for groupthink. All together now, “We’re All Individuals!!!”
    Seriously, I think that belonging to any society is good for us. An average human, if left alone, would have a hard time surviving. Having family and friends around is beneficial, or can be. Thus societies, and politics, are natural to us. Being able to choose which society you want- that is what libertarians should support.

  • Paul Marks

    Well one of the murderers was a convert – so I would suspect he has thought more about Islam than that great Islamic theologian Mr David Cameron (who appears to have got his ideas about Islam from reading the Guardian newspaper and watching the BBC – although I repeat myself).

    As for how someone is to interpret Islam.

    Why not the way Muhammed did – but his words and ACTIONS (by what he actually did in his life).

    This is what the terrorists (both Sunni and Shia) say – and how are they wrong?

    Once one accepts (as the Western establishment do) that Muhammed was a good man (whose conduct is to be followed) and that what he taught was basically good – then all is lost.