Sunday, August 26, 2018

Libertarian Bell

Some times, at folk music festivals, after the main act has finished, there is a "sing-around" in a pub, where the punters are asked to sing a song of their own choosing. (People like this, because they fondly imagine that pub singing of this kind is where folk music began.) When it comes to my turn, I generally pass and say that I cannot sing. A nice man always says "Come on, Andrew, everyone can sing a little bit." So last time this happened I tried to sing/recite "Don't Go In Them Lions Cage Tonight".
Since then, he has stopped asking me.
A number of my Patreon supporters have said that they wished I wrote more about politics.
So this is me, writing more about politics.
I fully expect it to have the same affect as the folk song in the pub.

1: Introduction
M'learned friend drew my attention to the following essay in the Economist, a right-leaning British periodical.
A philosophy lecturer from Sussex University, Kathleen Stock, wrote an essay for the same magazine. She took issue (from a rather dry, philosophical standpoint) with the proposition that people who were anatomically male could be said to "really" be female. She didn't say they definitely couldn't be; but she thought there could be unintended consequences of re-defining what "female" meant.
Some of the students at Sussex University were outraged by the article, which they felt was prejudiced against transexual people. The Student Union issued a statement condemning the lecturer.
The writer of the present article, one Claire Fox from something called the Institute of Ideas, is outraged by the students' outrage and condemns their condemnation. She thinks that nowadays it is progressives who are trying to police what can and can't be said, and that modern liberalism contains a dangerous streak of authoritarianism.

Matters quickly escalate, and before long things are blasphemous and taboo and everyone is being denounced, vilified and damned.
Here is Ms. Fox:
The Sussex Students’ Union denounced (Kathleen Stock) as a transphobe. In the union's original statement, it declared “we will not tolerate hate on our campus.” “Trans and non-binary lives are not a debate.”

These key tropes —“we will not tolerate” and “this is not a debate”—  are now frequently deployed to curtail discussion of issues deemed to be taboo, invariably to “protect” people deemed vulnerable from speech deemed hateful. This secular version of blasphemy follows a sacred script, written by those who consider themselves liberals. Dare to query it and you’ll be damned.

M'learned friend, who drew my attention to the article, said that he knew I didn't like the phrase "political correctness" but that the state of play at Sussex University was analogous to the situation which prevailed in the UK before the Catholic Emancipation Act — when  only people who were prepared to sign up to the Articles of the Church of England were allowed to study at University.
I felt that this was a little bit on the strong side.

2: Political Correctness Goes Mad In Dorset
You wouldn't say "Jewish Conspiracy" if what you meant was "I'm afraid Mr Levi and Mr Cohen are going to vote together to kick me off the PTA". You wouldn't say "He has a wonderful sense of rhythm" if what you meant was "he is a talented percussionist". And you wouldn't say "elf and safety gone mad" if what you meant was "are you quite sure there is really some regulation which says I can't have a glass of water?" So why say "Political Correctness" if what you mean is "prevailing orthodoxy", "self-censorship" or even "over-politeness"?
There is no such thing as Political Correctness: it is a fictional concept, invented by conspiracy theorists who think that a secret society of Jewish intellectuals in Frankfurt are plotting the overthrow of civilization as we know it. 
Are there such things as prevailing orthodoxy, self-censorship and over-politeness? Of course there are. Just try saying "The Queen is terrible at her job", "There is no need to respect our servicemen" or "I am a big fan of Gary Glitter" and see how far you get.
Are there things which you just can't say nowadays? I seriously doubt it. Most of the things which you just can't say are said all the bloody time. "You can't say that trans women are not women": no; and if you do, you will be asked to write a long think piece in the Economist. "You can't complain about religious dress": no, and if you do, you will be paid a huge sum of money to write a column in the Daily Telegraph and be interviewed in every news outlet in the country. "You can't talk about immigration", no, and during the EU referendum campaign neither side wanted to talk about anything else.
In practice "You will be damned, denounced, vilified and treated like a non-conformist prior to 1829" actually seems to mean "Someone in the Guardian will write a rude article about you, and the University of Sussex Student Union will pass a jolly stiff resolution."
I will not be locked up if I speak against the royal family and the army and in favour of pedophiles. No-one will come and smash my printing press. But the chorus of disapproval would make Sussex University's motion of censure against their philosophy teacher seem like the mild rustling of programmes at the back of the auditorium.

3: The Great Farron Flip Flop
Here is Ms Fox again:
I still consider myself a liberal in the Enlightenment sense of the word. But I have to admit that being a liberal these days is confusing.....
.....In contrast, today’s so-called progressive liberals are often intolerant, calling for official censure against anyone perceived as uttering non-progressive views.
Far from being a challenging paradox, the idea of "illiberal liberals" is a rhetorical cliche, on a level with "if you are so keen on socialism why don't you go and live there?" and "if men evolved from monkeys how come there are still monkeys?"
"Liberal" in the old-fashioned British sense means someone who believes that it is the job of government to make wise laws which maximize individual freedom. "Liberal" in the modern American sense means simply "of the left" or "progressive" or simply "socialist". The extreme right use it as a cuss word to describe anyone who isn't on the extreme right. 
So if I talk about illiberal liberals then I am saying nothing more than "People who are liberal in the American sense are not always liberal in the British sense", which we knew already. The same person might very well want to improve the standards of education for everyone but be prepared in so doing to curtail the freedom of rich people to educate their children privately. Ms Fox's essay is predicated on a piece of word play.

3: Arooga! Arooga!
A cursory look at the coverage of the so-called “Free Tommy” brigade, centered around the alleged censorship of Tommy Robinson, a notorious anti-Islam campaigner, reveals how liberals shun defending the free-speech rights of the unpalatable. Yes, I find many of Mr Robinson’s views odious, but a pick’n’mix attitude to free speech betrays liberalism, not Mr Robinson, and worse, it adds to the myth that “free speech” is a “right-wing” cause. 
This paragraph should set off a major klaxon. A story about a man being sent to jail for contempt of court has morphed into a story about a man being denied freedom of speech because other people don't like his views.

I certainly don't like Tommy Robinson's views, if they even count as "views". He believes in "the right of English people to their own country over and above people from elsewhere" and has a massive bee in his bonnet about their being more Muslim folk in this country than there used to be, or as he puts it "the struggle against global Islamification." But he was sent to prison for taking photographs inside a court, which is not allowed in the UK;  and for live-streaming photographs of defendants in a case where the judge had imposed reporting restrictions. There will be no prizes for guessing the ethnicity or faith background of the defendants in question. 
You could, I suppose, say that "free speech" by definition includes the freedom to make comments which are prejudicial to an ongoing trial after you have been told not to; in which case it is literally true that anyone punished for contempt of court has had their freedom of speech curtailed. Similarly, you might say that a citizen forced to pay compensation to another citizen after defaming them; or a civil servant prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act have had their freedom of speech inhibited. But how is any of this connected with students snarling at a philosophy lecturer about an article they didn't like? Is there some connection between the ancient British law of contempt and the recent emergence of these illiberal liberals?
Ms Fox appears to think that liberals (British sense) should have sided with the Free Tommy campaign because what was at stake was an individual's freedom of speech. She suggests that these liberals adopted a "pick and mix attitude to free speech". This appears to mean that she thinks that freedom of speech is indivisible: that if you defend it in one case you have to defend it in every case. If you believe in the freedom of the press to hold the government to account you must logically also believe in the freedom of a far-right podcaster to make prejudicial comments about a trial  and also, presumably, the freedom to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater. It is possible that Ms Fox, a libertarian, does believe in the absolute and unqualified freedom to say whatever you like whenever you like regardless of context. But this is not something which either kind of liberal has ever been in favour of.  
"The British contempt laws are not compatible with Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights " might be a perfectly feasible position. "Tommy Robinson shouldn't have been punished for taking photos inside a court because liberals" not so much.
I doubt very much if Ms Fox really believes that Tommy Robinson's imprisonment had anything to do with freedom of speech. I think that the paragraph is best understood as a kind of mating cry to People Who Are Not Liberals (In The American Sense). I think that People Who Are Not Liberals (In The American Sense) will hear "Free Tommy....censorship....Tommy Robinson....liberals....free speech....free speech....free speech." And they will instantly pick up the message: "It's okay. I'm on your side."

4:  Bound to Lose, Bound to Lose, You're Bound To Lose
The writer says that liberals (American sense) didn't defend Tommy Robinson because they found his views "unpalatable". She also talks about free speech being tossed aside "to silence those labelled as intolerant" and says that liberals want to prevent speech which is "deemed" hateful, and to censure views which are "perceived" as non-progressive.

Labelled, deemed, progressive. She cannot bring herself to say that people like Tommy Robinson really are intolerant and hateful; merely that illiberal liberals label them and perceive them as such. And she thinks that "liberals" (American sense) merely find him "unpalatable"  as if disapproving of ethnonationalism were a matter of taste, like preferring Irish whiskey to Scotch. 
But this unleashes a massive can of unstated assumption worms. Are liberals only being illiberal in cases where they try to silence a perfectly harmless person who they have falsely labelled or deemed intolerant? Or are they also illiberal when they try to silence someone who really is intolerant and hateful? Or is there in fact no such thing as intolerance and hatred? Is the claim "Some of the people you accuse of being witches are not witches at all: be very careful before you proceed". Or is the claim "Stop hunting witches, you silly children: there is no such thing."

A case could probably be made that some students at Sussex unfairly took against what was intended to be a dry, logical essay on how we define terms like "male" and "female". But Claire Fox's essay is illustrated with pictures of demonstrators holding up placards saying "No platform for fascists". Are we to take away the message: "Careful now. Perhaps the people you want to de-platform are not really fascists at all?" Or is it "If you would refuse a platform to anyone, even a literal fascist, you are no true liberal."
Not allowing a fascist to speak in your meeting hall; and refusing to appear at a meeting to which a fascist has been invited seems to be a pretty moderate form of censorship. I would not be in favour of saying "no platform for people who supported the bedroom tax" or "no platform for people who think Mrs Thatcher was quite right about the coal mines" or "no platform for people who think Corbyn has it wrong about trade unions." That kind of stuff we can and should debate. But your British National Parties and Britain Firsts and English Defense Leagues? You should certainly be free to join that kind of club. I would take a dim view of anyone who tried to stop you. I disagree with what you say but will defend to the point of mild inconvenience your right to say it. But don't think I am going to help you say it or facilitate your saying it. Don't expect me to appear at your meeting or let you borrow my hall.

And don't expect me to be your friend.

Don't you think it is a little bit suspicious that the Right is saying that it is dangerously illiberal of the Left to refuse to share a platform with people whose views they don't like while at the exact same moment they denounce, vilify and damn the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition because he has, in the past, shared a platform with people whose views they don't like?


5: H.P Sauce is the Great British Sauce
I suppose that at one time "identity politics" had a meaning. It described the kind of thinking which says "I support Labour because I am a Labour supporter; I am a Labour supporter because my father and my grandfather before me supported Labour": your political affiliation was part of who you were. But like Political Correctness and Liberal, the term "identity politics" has become a right-wing snarl word. At this moment, a nasty group of fans are boycotting Marvel and trying to set up their own company because they see comic books like Ms Marvel, Moon Girl and Ultimate Spider-Man as being full of "identity politics". What they mean  — literally the only thing they mean — is that Ms Marvel's parents are from Pakistan and she is a cultural Muslim; that Moon Girl is African American and Miles Morales is Hispanic. The tendency to use "identity" to mean "non-white" and indeed "non-white and therefore bad" reached its ludicrous end point last week when someone literally and without irony said that sales of mayonnaise were falling because young people preferred "identity condiments".

6: Conclusion: In Which The Various Threads of The Argument Are Drawn Together, And Pigs Fly
How far should intolerance be tolerated is a good question.
One answer would be "Always, without qualification, and without question: if you are tolerant of immigrants cooking unfamiliar food, then you must be equally tolerant of newspapers saying that those same immigrants should be put down like cockroaches."
Another answer would be "Never, without compromise: the slightest suggestion that someone has criticized a fellow citizen's dress, religion or sexuality must be stamped on without mercy."
In between there are many shades of grey. Fifty or more. Most of us, whether we call ourselves liberal or not, fall into that grey area.
But the Economist essay is not talking about shades of grey. The Economist essay seems to envisage a situation where the poor reasonable souls who calmly explain to transsexuals that they might want to think a little bit more systematically about the philosophy of gender are SILENCED and PROSECUTED by the intolerant left. And yet only last week I read that someone had taken the trouble to walk along Crosby sea front sticking cocks on all the statues along with the slogan "women don't have penises". Someone stuck a cock on the statue of Colston in Bristol yesterday, although sadly on his plinth, not his crotch. Just imagine: someone took the trouble to draw this thing, and then spent money on getting it printed, and then distributed roles of stickers to all their friends; and then someone must have gone out with stickers in their pocket, deliberately looking for places to display them. Imagine being that person. Imagine caring enough about other people's bits to think it worthwhile.
Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, 25 Sep 2018

An article that said "Hey! Both sides! Take it down a notch!" might possibly have been worth writing. But anyone whose response to this kind of thing is "Gosh! Aren't liberals a problem!" needs to take a long hard look at their values. 
I think that from 1945 to about 2000, there was a broad "liberal" (American sense) consensus across all political parties. Fascists were no platformed by default. People like Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson existed, but they were mostly marching behind black flags in out of the way drill halls, not being invited to speak on mainstream talk shows and being lauded by the President of the U.S.A. Enoch Powell wasn't prosecuted or imprisoned as a result of the so-called "rivers of blood" speech, but he was kicked out of the Conservative Party and remained on the political sidelines for the rest of his life. But the rise of Trump and Farage has allowed the intolerant and the hateful  the kinds of people who compare refugees with rats and cockroaches and call black people semi-savages, and think that slavery wasn't too bad and anyway the South never supported slavery  to express their views in public.
And when decent folk in all political parties refuse to engage with them we get articles in the Economist saying "why has the left become so intolerant all of a sudden."

7: Conclusion, in which the exegete cleverly deconstructs the article's major premise and leaves the stage to massive cheers.
You probably noted that Ms Fox specifically says that she is quoting from the Sussex Student Union's original statement.
If you go to the Student Union's website, you will find that the original statement is not there.
You will instead find the revised statement, which merely states that the Union is "in solidarity" with trans and non-binary students, and that they "strongly disagree" with the views of Dr Kathleen Stock."
I can, if I wish, read Dr Stock's dull essay on the Economist magazine's website.
I can, if I wish, read Claire Fox's screed about the intolerant toleratti.
But I cannot find out what the Student Union originally said about Dr Stock.
Because someone has persuaded or compelled them to remove it.
I look forward to a future essay in the Economist asking why the Sussex University Student Union have been denied their freedom of speech in this regard.



It is probably too late to stop me from publishing my notes on Boris Johnson and Talons of Weng Chiang, but if you join my Patreon you might be able to divert me into something more interesting next month. 

37 comments:

  1. Thank you.
    Also, did that photo really come from the future?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey, if I up my Patreon level, will you give us more politics?

    (I'm not sure of the global status of up as a verb. As a usage example, I supply a quotation from an undergraduate institution 40 or 50 years ago:

    "I upped my IQ at [instution's name withheld]. UP YOURS."

    Anyway, a fine essay.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What, no Edit function? Gonna have to up my proofreading energy in the small hours of the night when I post.

    (A rude additional line suggests itself here, but I suppress my free speech.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can't entirely agree with this. I'm reminded of Miss Manners's observation that "Freedom is always appealing until you are forced to try to put up with someone else's". (I rather think this is an improvement over Voltaire's rather extreme original.) We are dangerously close to saying that we unambiguously support people's right to say things that we agree with.

    I think the part of all this that bothers me most is how quick most people on the "liberal" side of this are to attribute hatred to anyone who disagrees with them about anything. If the Sussex Students Union really did say "we will not tolerate hate on our campus" in their original statement, then that seems like a completely irrelevant statement to make in respect of what seems(*) to have been a carefully argued and notably hate-free article. I certainly like the revised version of the SU statement much more, and I wonder whether they changed it because they came to the same conclusion rather than because they were forced to.

    (*) I say "seems" because I can't get the Economist to show me the original Stock article, so I am going on Andrew's characterisation of it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think that the students probably took the view that despite the fairly calm tone of the piece, the essay still seemed to say that some people who identified as women weren't really women, and was ultimately saying the same thing as the people who stick willies on statues.

    As I said, if the piece had simply said "chill the heck out" to the students, that wouldn't have been very interesting. But it seemed to go from "students over react to article" to "the liberals are real fascists" in rather too few stages.

    Liberals attribute hatred to anyone who disagrees with them? Do you think that liberals are attributing hatred to Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Donald Trump (where none actually exists)? Or do you think that liberals routinely say that people who disagree with them about a 1p in the pound tax increase to fund hospitals hate nurses and patients?

    Shall I tell you who I think attributes hatred to anyone who disagrees with them?

    "Look at ALL of these StarWars books George lucas left that Disney could have made in to blockbuster movies! But Disney would rather attack original fans and destroy characters out of hate for middle aged white males..lol!"

    ReplyDelete
  6. Do you think that liberals are attributing hatred to Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Donald Trump (where none actually exists)?

    No; I think they are attributing hatred to those people where it does exist.

    The trouble is, it's so easy to extrapolate from that to attributing to everyone who disagrees. To pick a not-at-all incendiary example, pro-life activists have developed a very unhelpful habit of referring to pro-choicers as anti-life, and pro-choice activists to pro-lifers as anti-choice. It doesn't actually take much empathy or intelligence on either side to realise how undeserved both those epithets are: very, very few of the people on either side hate either women or babies. Yet the rhetoric on both sides would lead you believe that's the main issue.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Do you think that liberals are attributing hatred to Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Donald Trump (where none actually exists)?

    No; I think they are attributing hatred to those people where it does exist.

    The trouble is, it's so easy to extrapolate from that to attributing to everyone who disagrees. To pick a not-at-all incendiary example, pro-life activists have developed a very unhelpful habit of referring to pro-choicers as anti-life, and pro-choice activists to pro-lifers as anti-choice. It doesn't actually take much empathy or intelligence on either side to realise how undeserved both those epithets are: very, very few of the people on either side hate either women or babies. Yet the rhetoric on both sides would lead you believe that's the main issue."

    Yes, but this doesn't seem to be saying much more than "On very sensitive controversial political issues, people get very opinionated" which doesn't seem to invalidate what Andrew is saying.

    Besides which I don't see how you can use the issue of abortion where you have 'pro-lifers' bombing abortion clinics to argue that it proves that liberals (who by and large aren't anti-abortion) are being illiberal.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm not arguing that liberals are less liberal than conservatives. I'm saying that I hold them to higher standards of liberality. (And, for avoidance of doubt, I don't think that bombing clinics is a valid expression of conservatism.)

    I suppose the link back to what Andrew was saying is that, both in the abortion case (from either of its perspectives) and in case of the original Sussex Students Union statement, a leap is very quickly made from "I disagree with you about this issue" to "you are a bad person". I lament that.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I do entirely agree with Andrew. The underlying factor here is that there’s quite a systemic approach to portray ‘liberals’ as going censorship-mad, and Claire Fox and her cohorts at Spiked are very often found to be in the forefront of this. There’s very little evidence base for this, and often it brings in things like ‘trigger warnings’ which have absolutely nothing to do with censorship. (This Guardian article gives some context.)

    And it’s coming from a government who are themselves increasingly censorious. They’ve banned numerous political groups to the point where even saying you support them is illegal. Anywhere, not just on college campuses. Admittedly, only genuinely extreme ones so far. But they don’t seem to be saying “no you must fight bad ideas with good ideas” to themselves. It’s only people they don’t agree with who are expected to find platforms for all sorts of fanatics, then devote their time to trying to debate them.

    I genuinely don’t see how you can be expected to tolerate intolerance, or reason with the fundamentally unreasonable. There may be borderline cases, of course. But if things carry on swinging to the far right then this is going to come up more and more. And they didn’t fight the far right with cleverly worded Facebook memes in the Forties.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In practice "You will be damned, denounced, vilified and treated like a non-conformist prior to 1829" actually seems to mean "Someone in the Guardian will write a rude article about you, and the University of Sussex Student Union will pass a jolly stiff resolution." I will not be locked up if I speak against the royal family and the army and in favour of pedophiles. No-one will come and smash my printing press.

    You could lose your job, though.

    I believe this web-site's host works in a public library? If I am wrong about that then take it as a hypothetical.

    Does anyone think that if this hypothetical host wrote an article on this web-site, under their own name, arguing (in a totally hate-free manner) 'that some people who identified as women weren't really women', that there is any possible way in which said host would not be fired from their job at the public library?

    You can argue whether that means their freedom of speech is curtailed, or merely that speech has consequences, that no one has to employ someone who has views they disagree with, and the freedom to fire people who publish such stuff is as important, indeed a necessary corollary, to them having the freedom to publish [you could then question who exactly is the employer of someone in the public sector: should all those with a library card get to vote on whether they are fired?].

    But I don't think you can deny that it means that there (by statistics) must exist some people who feel they cannot express their reasonable views without risking being fired. and that these people will be annoyed by that, and that the fact that other people, who have the benefit [dare I say privilege?] of having jobs at the Economist, can express those views, is not much comfort if you think, rightly or wrongly, that you can't even say 'you know, I agree with that article' without possibly ending up unemployed.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I suppose that at one time "identity politics" had a meaning. It described the kind of thinking which says "I support Labour because I am a Labour supporter; I am a Labour supporter because my father and my grandfather before me supported Labour": your political affiliation was part of who you were.

    That's not my understanding: my understanding of the term is that it means, 'if you are black, you should vote for the black candidate, regardless of party or policies; if gay, for the gay candidate; if a woman, for the female candidate; if trans, for the trans candidate; and so on'. The (prima facie sensible) rationale being that only someone in the same situation as you can know enough about what it's really like to be that way that they can represent you.

    This is why traditional party politicians dislike it; because it cuts across the tools they use to get votes, namely policies and principles. This can work two ways, of course: either they can try to persuade the electorate that the policies and principles they have are the right ones [the Corbyn approach], or they can try to come up with policies and principles which match what the electorate already thinks [the Blair approach].

    But if people are voting based on unchangeable aspects of identity, that all goes out the window. You can't become black, or gay, or whatever, in order to appeal to the electorate; so if people are voting based on those aspects of their identity, for matching candidates, then you are locked out.

    Of course it has its problems; for example, it seems ridiculous that everyone with a given skin tone, for example, even if they have the same experiences, will necessarily agree on the best way to deal with those experiences.

    And of course it also leads inevitably to 'if you're white, vote for the white candidate'. And the end result of that is not necessarily a great situation to end up in.

    But that, I think, is what is meant by 'identity politics', and you've got it backwards: it's not, as you wrote, your political affiliation being part of you who are; it's instead the reverse of that, it's picking your political affiliation based on whichever aspect of your identity you think is most important.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I do think, as a point of fact, that SK's definition of "identity politics" is much closer to how the term is usually used than Andrew's.

    And of course it also leads inevitably to 'if you're white, vote for the white candidate'. And the end result of that is not necessarily a great situation to end up in.

    There is of course no need to express this as a prediction: it's exactly how Trump got elected.

    ReplyDelete
  13. There is of course no need to express this as a prediction

    Also, it is just possible that the majority of examples in Ms Morissette's famous lyric are not, in fact, ironic.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I read recently that in Kenya it's considered a sign of God's blessing if it rains on your wedding day.

    Now that's ironic.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Does anyone think that if this hypothetical host wrote an article on this web-site, under their own name, arguing (in a totally hate-free manner) 'that some people who identified as women weren't really women', that there is any possible way in which said host would not be fired from their job at the public library?

    Sadly it is a very hypothetical question, since every single person I've come across who has felt the need to write articles about how trans women aren't women has also gone on record somewhere expressing their opinion about how trans women are sad, ugly, sexual perverts, rapists, misogynists and/or mentally ill. I don't believe in the existence in practice of a "totally hate-free manner" of denying trans people their identity.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't believe in the existence in practice of a "totally hate-free manner" of denying trans people their identity.

    So, you agree with my main point that anyone working in a public library who wrote under their own name an article arguing 'that some people who identified as women weren't really women' would be in real danger of losing their job?

    ReplyDelete
  17. “But if people are voting based on unchangeable aspects of identity, that all goes out the window.”

    That totally misses the point. If someone is, to use your example, black, it’s not their aesthetic experience that counts (how it feels to see a black face in the mirror), but their social experience. And social experience is not at all unchangeable. A significantly higher proportion of black people in Britain get stopped and searched by the cops. That’s either some strange side-effect of skin pigmentation or a result of police policy, and one of those things seems a bit more likely than the other. It could be changed by… well.. cops stopping less black people in the street. I suppose that would be one way.

    The “then white people should vote for the white candidate” argument deliberately blurs this distinction. It presupposes that the cops are going to have to pick on someone because of stuff, so if that stops being black people it’s likely to start being white people. It's classic divide and rule, so of course Trump is saying it.

    Louise H, you’re right of course. Tone can just be a means of disguising content. If someone wrote a paper full of calmly worded quasi-scientific terminology but the upshot was “that’s why we need to gas the Jews”, they’d be as much a Nazi as someone who scrawled a swastika on a wall.

    ReplyDelete
  18. That totally misses the point.

    I'm not sure what point you think I'm missing. I'm just outlining how the term 'identity politics' was, I believe, originally used (in the States, I think, which is where it originates) because the original article, I think, got it wrong.

    If I have a point it's 'I think you got the original definition wrong, here's what I think is the right one', so I'm not sure how I can have missed that.

    I agree that how the term is used now has little to do with that original meaning (it takes quite a lot of semantic drift to go from 'vote for the candidate who shares your identity' to anything about comics) but if you're going to give the original use then you may as well get it right.

    ReplyDelete
  19. 'I'm not sure what point you think I'm missing."

    Okay I'll write it out for you.

    Wait, I already have...

    ReplyDelete
  20. Okay, I guess we'll just have to keep being at cross-purposes then.

    ReplyDelete
  21. That's not my understanding: my understanding of the term is that it means, 'if you are black, you should vote for the black candidate, regardless of party or policies; if gay, for the gay candidate; if a woman, for the female candidate; if trans, for the trans candidate; and so on'. The (prima facie sensible) rationale being that only someone in the same situation as you can know enough about what it's really like to be that way that they can represent you.

    Commenting from the States, that's not how I would understand the term. I think of it as meaning (1) that people can have concerns/interests that are specific to their identity (2) that there is an advantage to politicians who can signal that they understand and are sympathetic to those concerns, (3) those politicians may or may not share the identity, but sharing the identity makes it easier to demonstrate understanding and sympathy.

    So, for example, in the Democratic primary, both Clinton and Sanders were white, but one reason why black Democrats supported Clinton over Sanders was that she was more successful in communicating an understanding and respect for the concerns of the community.

    ReplyDelete
  22. (2) that there is an advantage to politicians who can signal that they understand and are sympathetic to those concerns, (3) those politicians may or may not share the identity, but sharing the identity makes it easier to demonstrate understanding and sympathy

    Interesting. But what if there's one candidate who does share the identity, and one who doesn't share it but is 'signalling'?

    Anyway, it sounds like that does fit my definition if it is expanded to include the idea that candidates can be sort of honourary members of an identity. That is, 'if you're black you vote for the black candidate (or the honourary black candidate); if gay, the gay candidate (or the honourary gay candidate); etc etc'

    Would that be fair?

    One thing it definitely does have, I get the impression, is the connotation that all those witha given identity will / ought to (I'm not sure how much it's a descriptive and how much a normative term) vote the same way, as a bloc: 'the 'black vote', the 'gay vote', the 'female vote', etc. Is that right?

    ReplyDelete
  23. One thing it definitely does have, I get the impression, is the connotation that all those witha given identity will / ought to (I'm not sure how much it's a descriptive and how much a normative term) vote the same way, as a bloc: 'the 'black vote', the 'gay vote', the 'female vote', etc. Is that right?

    No, I don't think that's correct (and for the same reason I don't think the preceding paragraph is correct). The simplest reason why that isn't true is that people have multiple identities. So if somebody is gay, married, has children, and cares for a relative with chronic health problems. Each one of those is an identity which includes certain concerns and interests. Politicians compete to increase the salience of each identity within the campaign. So one candidate might campaign to appeal to the interests and solidarity of people raising children, while another candidate might campaign with a focus on turning out gay people with an interest in issues affecting the gay community (and I credit Ezra Klein with consistently making this point). So the question of which identities are electorally relevant is not per-determined, it depends on both actual social and political factors (the question of what issues are most pressing at any moment) and the way campaigns are conducted.

    So, for example, this (And of course it also leads inevitably to 'if you're white, vote for the white candidate'. And the end result of that is not necessarily a great situation to end up in. ) doesn't happen inevitably. It requires active effort to increase the salience of white identity.

    Secondly, of course, even that is an oversimplification, there are always going to be divisions within any group. For example, there were people who said, discussing the question of how Trump's comments about illegal immigrants would hurt him with Hispanic voters during the 2016 campaign, that there was a significant block of Latino voters in border states who were part of families which had lived in the US for generations who themselves opposed illegal immigration because they thought it increased prejudice against the already present Latino community. I don't know how large that category is, but I don't doubt that it exists.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I think SK is correct about the original meaning of the term "identity politics". Over time, it's come to have a secondary definition along the lines of "Reductively treating people as members of one or a few demographic groups, without paying due regard to their individual circumstances or preferences." I think this is the meaning people use when they talk about identity politics in comic books -- i.e., they think the argument that "We need more black/women/gay/whatever superheroes, because otherwise black/female/gay/whatever children will have no-one to look up to" reduces both children and characters to representatives of their demographic groups, that people can and ought to empathise and look up to people who don't match them demographically, and so on.

    So, for example, this (And of course it also leads inevitably to 'if you're white, vote for the white candidate'. And the end result of that is not necessarily a great situation to end up in. ) doesn't happen inevitably. It requires active effort to increase the salience of white identity.

    Not necessarily. I've noticed a trend over the last few years for people to denounce the past sins of white people, claim that the west is full of white supremacy, argue that it's OK to hold whites to a different and higher standard than everybody else, and so on. I doubt the people doing these things are actively trying to "increase the salience of white identity", but that does seem to be the likely result.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I think SK is correct about the original meaning of the term "identity politics".

    Out of curiosity, who would you think of as original users of the term "identity politics"? I realized I didn't know, so I checked the google ngram viewer which showed that the term clearly appeared during the early 90s (rising steadily from 0 over the period 1990-98). My memory isn't good enough to know exactly what prompted it, but the question in my mind is whether it came from academic circles, or from political journalism.

    If it came from academia (which I suspect is the case) I would hypothesize that it arose because the combination of the gay rights movement (starting in the 80s, but gained national visibility around the time of ACT-UP, 1987-88) and the rise of non-black minority populations (between 1970-1990 the percentage of Americans identifying as Asian-American trippled, and the percentage of Hispanics doubled) lead to the need for a term which framed identity in non-binary ways (rather than white/black or labor/capital).

    If it came from political journalism, the timing would make less sense but could have been generally related to the approach of Bill Clinton and the DLC to try to distance the democratic party from "identity politics." But, if that was the case, it still wouldn't be based on a, "connotation that all those witha given identity will / ought to (I'm not sure how much it's a descriptive and how much a normative term) vote the same way," since Bill Clinton clearly wanted to win the votes of African-American voters, but to do so with a different framing.

    What would you think would have prompted people to start using the phrase in the 90s?

    I've noticed a trend over the last few years for people to denounce the past sins of white people, claim that the west is full of white supremacy, argue that it's OK to hold whites to a different and higher standard than everybody else, and so on. I doubt the people doing these things are actively trying to "increase the salience of white identity", but that does seem to be the likely result.

    Fair enough. I think there's some truth to that. On the other hand, while looking up "identity politics" I just read this which includes the following exchange which also seems correct (continued).

    ReplyDelete
  26. Continuing, here is the excerpt:

    You mention in the piece, “By then, Hillary Clinton … was talking about white Americans needing to recognize their privilege.” You were saying that as like, “OK, here are the liberals playing identity politics.” Is there a tension between the dark web claiming to really prioritize strong opinions and free speech, and the toxic reaction they seem to often have to people saying things like this?

    Hilary Clinton was definitely using identity politics but in certainly a more palatable way than Donald Trump uses identity politics. I think I say right there in the piece that for a long time the right had absolutely cornered the market on identity politics. And no one does it better than Trump. I guess, this is the thing. I could have wrapped up the piece by saying, “Hey, the intellectual dark web isn’t perfect. But it’s our best hope,” or, “This is a really important movement for our times. This is the only way forward.” There’s a little bit of me that thinks that. I have moments where I would love for it to be that simple. Honestly, I just don’t know. And the answer to the question is I just don’t know.

    I was looking up the Hilary Clinton quote. So this is the whole quote: “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences. We all need to try as best we can to walk in one another’s shoes.” It feels unhealthy that we’ve gotten to a place where something like that is considered identity politics.

    Well, we’re in a very unhealthy place as a culture. I don’t disagree with you a bit. ...

    ReplyDelete
  27. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/#HistScop

    I think of all Marx's many wrong ideas, 'false consciousness' is the most pernicious.

    How is Titius?

    ReplyDelete
  28. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/#HistScop

    Can you help me out a little bit there? To whatever extent we're disagreeing (rather than just having a dialogue) I would think that supports my side of the argument. The definition and history given there are interesting, and not framed in terms of electoral politics.

    Just to review, your first description was: "[M]y understanding of the term is that it means, 'if you are black, you should vote for the black candidate, regardless of party or policies; if gay, for the gay candidate; if a woman, for the female candidate; if trans, for the trans candidate; and so on'. The (prima facie sensible) rationale being that only someone in the same situation as you can know enough about what it's really like to be that way that they can represent you."

    I can see how you're getting there, but I don't think the first part of that statement follows from the second -- because I don't think the process of going from individual beliefs and values to voting decisions in a simple or transparent one. Electoral politics are, necessarily, coalition politics, and so there's a calculation to be made about how best to participate in, and see oneself as part of a coalition.

    The quote in that article which seems like the most direct definition of "identity politics" is the following:

    What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different

    That is a complicated idea, and something which can be done well or done poorly, but it isn't directly about who one will/should vote for.

    ReplyDelete
  29. It seems to fit together perfectly to me: if a group demands recognition qua women, blacks, lesbians, then surely their representative must be a woman, black, a lesbian? Therefore if you can convince people they must demand recognition not based on their own individual politics, but as a group identified by a particular shared attribute then you have convinced them that they must be represented by someone who is part of that group, haven't you? That's the only logical conclusion.

    Then there's an extension to this where someone not in the group can perhaps be blessed by some representative of the group to be an 'honorary member' of the group. But that's not core to the original identity politics concept, which is based on — as the definition says — demanding recognition as a group and that necessarily implies that when given the chance to vote for a representative, you have to vote for one who is a member of the group, as only a member of the group can represent the group, if what is important is representation in that sense.

    (There's a slight equivocation here that people make, on the word 'represent'. Your member of parliament is your 'representative', but there are two senses you can take this. They could 'represent' you as a picture represents its subject, that is, they looks like you, they behave like you, they to all intents and purposes are you, acting and speaking and voting the way you would do if you were in the Chamber. Or they could 'represent' you the way a lawyer represents their client, speaking on their client's behalf, looking out for their client's interests, etc, but without necessarily looking like their client, or sharing any attributes with them. Identity politics is putting the emphasis on the first of those meanings, saying what is important is the that representative selected by the group represents the group in the sense of being alike to the group, in whatever aspect the group has picked to define itself [or, let's be honest, has had picked for it to define itself: not all groups get a choice in how they are seen]).

    ReplyDelete
  30. What would you think would have prompted people to start using the phrase in the 90s?

    I'm afraid I didn't come to political maturity until after the phrase "identity politics" had already been coined, so I couldn't really say. My impression that SK was right about the original meaning was based on the fact that I'd heard the phrase used according to his definition, but not according to the definition Andrew gave.

    If it came from political journalism, the timing would make less sense but could have been generally related to the approach of Bill Clinton and the DLC to try to distance the democratic party from "identity politics." But, if that was the case, it still wouldn't be based on a, "connotation that all those witha given identity will / ought to (I'm not sure how much it's a descriptive and how much a normative term) vote the same way," since Bill Clinton clearly wanted to win the votes of African-American voters, but to do so with a different framing.

    As far as I know, African-Americans voted Democrat pretty solidly by the early 1990s, so emphasising identity politics probably wouldn't have won Clinton many more votes, simply because there weren't many more votes left to win. On the other hand, it would have put off centrist swing voters, whose support Clinton needed to become President. So I think distancing himself from identity politics was probably a sound political strategy.

    I was looking up the Hilary Clinton quote. So this is the whole quote: “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences. We all need to try as best we can to walk in one another’s shoes.” It feels unhealthy that we’ve gotten to a place where something like that is considered identity politics.

    One thing that doesn't get remembered nearly enough is that white people in America are by no means a monolithic bloc. For sure, the median white American is more privileged than the median black American, but lots of white Americans are also very unprivileged -- as in, "My hometown became a ghost town after the factory moved all its jobs to China, now it's impossible to find work here and likely always will be, and my social security is barely enough for me to make ends meet here, much less afford to move somewhere else to look for a job." So when people talk about how white Americans need to recognise their privilege, it sounds to them like they're being berated for something they don't have, and when people talk of doing a better job of listening to African-Americans whilst doing nothing to help solve their issues, it sounds like nobody cares about helping them. It's no wonder such people get resentful over time, or that, when a politician like Trump comes along promising to take their problems seriously and bring jobs back, they end up supporting him.

    (If I were in a mischievous mood, I'd suggest that maybe Hillary Clinton ought to "practice humility rather than assume that [her] experiences [of being privileged] are every [white person's] experiences," but since I'm not, I'll just do a bit of preterition instead.)


    (And incidentally, I think Clinton's comments are actually a good example of unintentionally increasing the salience of white identity. The more people talk of "white Americans" as if they were some uniform group with the same outlook, set of experiences, societal privilege, etc., the more white people are likely to think of themselves as white people, even if that wasn't originally a particularly salient part of their self-identification.)

    ReplyDelete

  31. What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different

    That's probably the best definition of the term I've come across. I'm not sure it implies that you *have to* vote for someone of your own identity group, although it does naturally lead to such attitudes.

    ReplyDelete
  32. That's probably the best definition of the term I've come across.

    I agree (and it isn't surprising, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tends to be good), and I think that definition is clear and meaningful -- it offers something that's has enough substance that you could point to pros and cons of that belief.

    I agree with you that this perspective would offer a reason/motivation to vote for somebody from the same identity group, but that isn't a logical necessity (so I would disagree with SK that "surely their representative must be [member of identity group]"] and I hope to write more on that as I have time.

    ReplyDelete
  33. It seems to fit together perfectly to me: if a group demands recognition qua women, blacks, lesbians, then surely their representative must be a woman, black, a lesbian? Therefore if you can convince people they must demand recognition not based on their own individual politics, but as a group identified by a particular shared attribute then you have convinced them that they must be represented by someone who is part of that group, haven't you? That's the only logical conclusion.

    Just to follow up on this. I understand the logical steps that you're taking, but I think that you're putting much more weight on that logic than it can bare (and, generally, describing it in prejudicial terms).

    You appear to be thinking of "identity politics" as some sort of trump card. As if it removes somebody's ability to balance different concerns, or have multiple attachments, they are logically bound to a single outcome. I'd argue that's an incorrect way to view it which also turns it into a bit of a strawman, in that it assumes that the argument is more absolutest than it is.

    [Side note: I'll concede that there are people who support identity politics who will argue that there is only one valid choice, and I'd argue with them as well that they are making an overstated claim. My point being that people make overstated claims all the time in politics, but I would hope that in this discussion we can step back and recognize that they are engaging in hyperbole.]

    The line that comes to mind, to explain why I disagree with you is a comment from Barney Frank quoted by Al Franken. He said "The only time I have voted for somebody who agreed with all my positions was when I voted for myself -- in my first campaign."

    I chuckle at that line. I'm a straight, white, cis, man, and I always vote for people who only partially represent my views. I can imagine that is even more true for people of color, etc . . . So I would say both that people have lots of practice voting for candidates who don't represent them perfectly and that candidates who share an identity may have an advantage in being able to represent a voter who shares that identity but that in no way guarantees that they will be a perfect representative either (and, in fact, they inevitably will not).

    ReplyDelete
  34. You appear to be thinking of "identity politics" as some sort of trump card

    The question was, 'what did the term "identity politics" mean when it was first used?'

    My position is that when first used it meant the system of politics by which people were encouraged to make all other considerations secondary to making sure that a member of their 'identity group', howsoever defined, was present at the decision-making body by voting for a member of said group instead of voting for someone because of, say, principles or policies.

    I stand by that, and I think the dictionary article, in the quoted section, also supports that by defining identity politics as the group seeking representation qua group, and this aim of 'getting one of us at the table' trumping other considerations.

    It definitely didn't, and I don't think ever did, mean anything like 'I support Labour because I am a Labour supporter; I am a Labour supporter because my father and my grandfather before me supported Labour'.

    ReplyDelete
  35. We may be reaching the point at which we've each made our points and there's not much more to say. But I'll try one more time. You write (emphasis mine):

    ... the system of politics by which people were encouraged to make all other considerations secondary to making sure that a member of their 'identity group', howsoever defined, was present at the decision-making body by voting for a member of said group instead of voting for someone because of, say, principles or policies.

    My reaction is that's a fairly strong claim, and should demand fairly significant evidence (which I don't think you've provided to date) to support it. But it may depend on what you mean by "encouraged." If you're just saying "some people desire the outcome [in which voting for a member of [identity group] is more important than all other considerations and they encourage other people in that belief, though they are unlikely to succeed in convincing them." Sure, that's not refutable because you can probably find somebody saying that. But if you are claiming both (a) identity politics is a significant force, both intellectually and politically and (b) the primary direction in which that force is directed is towards an outcome in which [members of identity group] will vote for [other members of identity group] ahead of all other concerns. I'm very skeptical of that claim, and would ask for a lot more evidence than some rough inferences to support it.

    To use a rough analogy I read what you're saying as if somebody looked at the second wave feminist movement and said, "lesbian separatism is the logical conclusion of the arguments being made by these feminists." On one hand, you could find plenty of lesbian separatists who would make that very argument. On the other hand, lesbian separatism is clearly a minor element within the feminist movement.

    However, that's a claim about the way in which "identity politics" plays out in politic life; perhaps you're just talking about the origins of the phrase. You say:

    I stand by that, and I think the dictionary article, in the quoted section, also supports that by defining identity politics as the group seeking representation qua group, and this aim of 'getting one of us at the table' trumping other considerations.

    I think you're misreading the quote, and also misinterpreting what it is arguing against. The quote uses the word "recognition" not "representation" and those don't mean the same thing. It's not saying (in that passage) that political power should be be given to women as women; it's saying that women seeking political power should be able to do so in a way which foregrounds their experience and perspective as women (rather than seeking political power by presenting themselves as fitting a definition of leadership which is formally gender neutral but heavily defined in ways which connect to masculine traits).

    That's a rough gloss, and I'm happy to make the arguments for why somebody would believe that, but for now I just want to try to convey that it's pointing in a different direction than where you're trying to go with that.

    I think that if you're interested in trying to sort some of this out (and, again, you may be tired of the conversation by this point as well) it would be very helpful if you could step through your logic more directly. Because I think you're being awfully hasty about moving from point A to point Q without really thinking about the steps in between.

    ReplyDelete
  36. To follow-up on a couple of threads:

    So when people talk about how white Americans need to recognise their privilege, it sounds to them like they're being berated for something they don't have, and when people talk of doing a better job of listening to African-Americans whilst doing nothing to help solve their issues, it sounds like nobody cares about helping them.

    I agree, I understand why a comment like that increases the salience of white identity (as I said). Additionally, I'd agree with the interviewee in that essay (who's opposed to identity politics) that the actual quote is, "fairly anodyne." So, what I'm saying is, it's worth thinking about what dynamic creates a context in which an anodyne sentiment feels like berating.

    [Identity politics] definitely didn't, and I don't think ever did, mean anything like 'I support Labour because I am a Labour supporter; I am a Labour supporter because my father and my grandfather before me supported Labour'.

    I would also note that the people who originally used the term "identity politics" wouldn't have thought to include white voters supporting a candidate who explicitly appealed to a white identity, but I also think it's a logical extension of the idea, and an appropriate use of the term. So, while we're talking about original usage, we can also understand that usage has shifted.

    Also, just to be clear, when I said you were conceiving of "identity politics" as a "trump card" what I meant by that was, precisely, the idea that "identity politics" would trump "principles or policies" -- which is something I disagree with, and you are claiming to be the intent.

    The question was, 'what did the term "identity politics" mean when it was first used?'

    The entry cites Iris Marion Young as one of the first people to develop the concept identified as "identity politcs" (which also fits with the timing of the google n-gram results). Looking up a contemporaneous review of her book to try to judge how it was understood at the time I find this (pdf) which says things like

    Young's book examines an important shift in American political thought in which social groups based on personal identity rather than economic interest have begun to demand cultural and political representation. To this extent, Young's book serves as perhaps the best attempt thus far at coming to terms with the appreciation of (postmodern) notions of "difference" within the context of a (still Marxist) critical theory. Nevertheless, Young's book does not represent a balancing act; rather Justics And The Politics Of Difference clearly sides with French social theory and its resistance to totalizing categories rather than with traditional critical theory and its continued reliance on the Enlightenment ideal of the "public sphere.

    ...

    Young, howeverm seemns willing to take the new social movements much more seriously: "In these movements I locate the social base of a conception of justice that seeks to reduce and eliminate domination and oppression (67)". Furthermore, one may understand her position of social movements within the context of a theory of democracy. Whereas recent liberal ideology has persistently conceived of democracy as a procedure made available to free individuals, an emancipatory or critical perspective demands the cultural and political acceptance of groups. Note, however, that this does not signify a devolution of authority to such groups; merely their substantial participation in politicized policy formation is encouraged.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I read the phrase "cultural and political acceptance of groups" and I think about something like the slogan, "we're here, we're queer, get used to it." -- thinking in part of Michael Berube's comments about the way in which Mark Lilla dismissed (and missed) the importance of that phrase.

    Now to page 117. “Democratic politics is about persuasion, not self-expression. I’m here, I’m queer will never provoke more than a pat on the head or a roll of the eyes.” Where to start? Let’s start with the pronoun. It’s “we,” not “I.” It’s a collective statement made by gay people taking part in a public demonstration, it’s not some kind of solipsistic declaration made by the flamboyantly dressed guy who shows up late to the dinner party. (But that is Lilla’s strategy throughout—to cast “identity liberals” as narcissists incapable of thinking of the common good.) More to the point, it leaves out the demand: Get used to it. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Lilla repeatedly insists that he is happy that so many, though not all, Americans did indeed get used to it. You would think he would refrain from rolling his eyes at those among his fellow citizens who engage in same-sex relations, never mind mentally patting them on the head.

    ReplyDelete