There is a tension in all enlightened ‘identity politics’. How do we combat discrimination without accepting the premise that there is significant difference? And how do we promote universalism without denying individual and group experience? These questions are latent at the heart of two thought-provoking and important books, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I am no longer talking to white people about race?”, and Amartya Sen’s “Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny”.
Eddo-Lodge provides a much-needed history of discrimination and violence towards colonial immigrants in the UK. Her provocative title makes experience the basis of voice. If you haven’t experienced discrimination you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Her legitimate anger is primarily aimed at those who deny the existence of prevalent discrimination. As a statement of experience, it is compelling and educative. As a basis for politicisation it is deeply problematic.
Recognising the existence of discrimination is not the same as acknowledging the existence of significant difference between groups of people. Indeed a central part of the post-colonial campaign against discrimination was aimed at revealing the ignorance at its heart. Both biology and social science proved conclusively that ‘race’ has no basis in objective reality. Skin pigmentation is genetically trivial. The minimal group paradigm in social psychology reveals that our propensity to form groups is so profoundly hard-wired that we do so based on trivial distinction. In Manchester, group allegiance is premised on the colour of your shirt, and the distribution of fans across the city has little cultural logic. The same can be true when animosity is even more intense and differences supposedly run deep. I witnessed this first-hand visiting Northern Ireland in the 1980s: the extremists on both sides really had most in common with each other – no one else on the planet even understood the nature of their dispute. I was reminded of Northern Ireland on a recent trip to North London to watch the derby between Spurs and Arsenal, with policemen lining the streets. Cultural commonality is no barrier to violent tribal aggression, often it harbours the most virulent manifestations.
In order to combat discrimination it is almost impossible not to acknowledge the categories of those who discriminate – even if the labels come close to embodying false premises. Sweden, for example, does not recognise ‘race’ as a valid category in data collection), favouring ‘ethnic origin’.
Despite the arbitrary and unsatisfactory labelling, there are nonetheless multiple motivations for doing so. We need data and evidence. When we fill out forms on ethnicity or ‘race’ it is understandable to reject the very premise – does anyone actually identify as ‘caucasian’? – and yet we need to identify discrimination in order to combat it. Similarly, those who have been discriminated against are unified by their experience – the crux of Eddo-Lodge’s polemic.
This dilemma is not new. Nelson Mandela was a universalist, he sought collective superiority in a universal hierarchy – morality. At the heart of his philosophical framework was the scientifically-correct assertion that there is no significant human difference based on skin pigmentation, and that moral imperatives are universal. Martin Luther King’s strategy was analogous: the content of our character is a universal claim on which it is legitimate for all humans to be judged.
But there has always been a sense that universalism, while essentially true, denies experience. The tension was evident in both the fight against Apartheid and the civil rights movement. In South Africa, Steve Biko advocated a form of nationalism, a ‘black consciousness’ – arguing that ‘white liberals’ did not understand the experience of the victims of apartheid. In a similar vein, Malcolm X opposed MLK’s strategy of universalism, seeking superiority in cultural difference and power in group allegiance.
The weakness of Biko and Malcolm X’s strand of politicisation is also evident in Eddo-Lodge’s work. The moral imperative to combat institutional racism, neo-nationalism and the divisive tribalism nascent in our politics seems trivialised by focussing who can talk about the problem. Eddo-Lodge, to be clear, uses her title for rhetorical force, as if to say, ‘How does that feel?’
There is an inherent tension nonetheless. She starts with a compelling thesis – that the voice of those with direct experience of the question at hand is neglected in all areas of the debate, and our knowledge of the extent of racism reflects ignorance. But focussing on the legitimacy of a particular voice seems counter-productive. The voice of the discriminated against needs amplification, but progressive social change is only won with a universalist ethic. It is no coincidence that Mandela and MLK were universalists. Universalism is not just ethically consistent, it is ultimately more effective.
Groups and language
Two additional dimensions reside at the heart of this problem – the profound evolutionary tendency to form groups, and semantic inaccuracy in the language we use to discuss identity and discrimination. The term ‘racism’ typifies the linguistic challenge. It is often used to refer to four distinct phenomena: discrimination, stereotyping, violent abuse, and the belief in significant genetic differentiation. The association of these four phenomena is not coincidental. Stereotyping has historically been used to emphasis pejorative traits attributed to groups at the receiving end of discrimination or violence.
But the conflation of these four distinct issues is also unhelpful. For example, it was frequently evident in the Brexit debate that a protagonist would declare themselves ‘not racist’ and proceed without a qualm to make a definitively discriminatory argument. For example, I have no doubt that no-one across the spectrum of the debate would advocate one form of racism – pejorative stereotyping and violence towards European migrants – and yet almost everyone who argued that their desire to control immigration was to protect public services engaged in blatant discrimination. Why? Because they exempted everyone from the Republic of Ireland. If the purpose of controlling immigration is solely the protection of public services, the Irish cannot be exempt – particularly as they are one often largest immigration groups. Exemption for the Irish is unambiguous discrimination – albeit ‘positive’ discrimination.
Our propensity to form groups is hard-wired and an evolutionary imperative. Groups can have cultural, religious, and value-based differences and similarities, but progress has always been premised on universal claims. Without an appeal to universalism, antagonism seems inevitable and persistent. Worse still, universalism has been hijacked by retrogressive forces. When the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, legitimately campaigns against institutionalised violence, it is countered with the pernicious “All Lives Matter” – a nasty irony in the context of the history of the American civil rights movement.
What is to be done? Amartya Sen offers an original suggestion. He suggests a simultaneous embrace of universalism and identity, by emphasising *multiple* identities. Violence, he suggests, resides in the framing of groups of people along single identities – whether it be nationhood, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion or culture. His approach is wise and convincing. A person can be British, a mother, a Sikh, and Tory. What unifies us is our multiple identities, what divides us is framing with reference to one. But I still feel Sen could go further. We should also be front-footed about the spurious nature of many “identities”. Most people don’t go around obsessing on their ‘identity’. Group allegiance can be manipulated and created. In the absence of a forceful universalist ethic, the political class is incentivised to create division where it doesn’t exist. Our propensity to fall for this snake oil is very hard to repress.