Why is universalism losing?

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, quite rightly in my opinion, 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 three distinct occurrences: discrimination, stereotyping, and abuse. The association of three 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 three distinct issues is also damaging. 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 everyone across the spectrum of the debate opposes 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.

About The Author

Eric Lonergan is a macro fund manager, economist, and writer. His most recent book is Money (2nd ed) published by Routledge. He is also a supporter of Big Issue Invest (BII), the investment arm of The Big Issue, and is one of the initial limited partners in BII’s Social Enterprise Investment Fund LP. In a personal capacity, he makes direct investments in social enterprises. He also supports and advises The Empathy Museum.

5 Responses

  1. Gary Anderson

    People should take DNA tests. I took a few since I was adopted. I shared the results and one fellow sai I had a world war in my genes. I told him that they get along with each other quite well. While being mostly British, I have Iberian, North African, sub Saharan African, the Levant and German, French. My ancient DNA is both early European and Jewish/Assyrian! So DNA wise, I am not without race, but rather have hundreds of ethnic variations.

  2. Albert

    Delightful essay Eric! Picking apart the three legs that the racism stool (ha!) stands on — discrimination, stereotyping, and abuse.– is essential for any universalist politics. Another useful distinction is a persons self-identity (their fundamental commitments) & their imposed identity (by others or the State). As Sen remarks, the salience of a person’s multiple identities is hardly in their hands. You’ll enjoy the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s essay “Secular liberalism & the moral psychology of identity” & his book “Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment” . Best, Albert. cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2010-12-21.9709137670/file

    • Eric Lonergan

      Thanks Albert. I have just read Bilgrami’s essay. V interesting. I don’t really see why he brings in ‘identity’ however. And I am very unconvinced by the idea of a ‘moral psychology of identity’. I think there are some very clear scientific conclusions from moral psychology which are profoundly informative – i.e. moral reasoning has a cognitive and universal structure – which have no more to do with ‘identity’ than the laws of mathematics. ‘Identity’ is too difficult a concept. Bilgrami seems to re-define it as a set of ‘fundamental commitments’. Why not then just drop the term ‘identity’ altogether and proceed with ‘fundamental commitments’.

      • Albert

        Eric, yes, identity is a difficult concept to ground & any choice (objective, subjective) has its own limitations. I suppose Bilgrami would reply to your orthogonality objection – why not just drop it & use ‘fundamental commitments’ – by urging you to use identity descriptively.
        in politics rather than normatively & pragmatically as you have done in this piece. So something like identity emerges descriptively in politics when 1 one tries to identify one’s interests. 2 influence one’s allegiances and the manner in which one pursues them or allows oneself to be mobilized. Must also add that identities aren’t just instrumental but they may, for instance, be a source of dignity and self-respect when one is feeling especially vulnerable; they may be a source of solidarity and belonging when one is feeling alienated from one’s social environment; and so on. He grapples with your objection in “Notes toward the definition of ‘identity’” sci-hub.tw/10.1162/daed.2006.135.4.5

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