A defence of identity politics and its massive impact on Irish society
Why it's important to call out things that people do or say that enforce systems of prejudice
Visibility, and an accurate sense of how many people share a given identity, plays a key role in identity politics. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
There’s been a backlash in recent years, from both the right and the left, over what is termed identity politics. The words will show up among other spooky phrases such as generation snowflake or political correctness.
The proposition here is that young liberals and leftists have largely abandoned real political issues in favour of a narrow focus on oppressed groups. This is considered harmful for a variety of reasons; chief among them that this model is considered divisive and is unfair to people who are not considered marginalised based on their identity.
When people criticise kids and their identity politics, it is very much me that they are talking about. I’m in an art college, talk and write about the world through the lens of my marginalised identity, and have been known to call out things that people do or say that I think enforce systems of prejudice. They’re talking about most of my friends too.
So it’s in my interest to stick up for us a little bit.
Firstly, some definitions. At its heart, the various actions and rhetoric referred to as identity politics have one basic function. It is a unity of people based on a common political interest. If this seems like it describes more or less every form of political organising, that’s because it does. Whether you’re organising a trade union, Irexit campaigners, or an LGBTQ+ society; the principal remains the same. I am involved, as much as my schedule allows, with the advocacy group Independent Living Movement Ireland, which campaigns and lobbies for the rights of disabled people to live independent lives.
It is important not to obfuscate for the sake of non-confrontational language here; political unions like these are about power. One isolated person with a disability can write letters to their TD, post on Twitter, or howl into the void about their unfair treatment. An individual, certainly one without access to other resources, can do very little to meaningfully impact society. A group of disabled people, however, is in a position to start making demands.
Visibility, an accurate sense of how many people share a given identity, plays a key role in this kind of politics. Accurate statistics have a part to play here; for instance there’s a broad consensus that about one in five people have some form of disability. But, as anyone who’s ever tried to assuage a travelling companion’s fear of flying by pointing out that “we’re much more likely to die on the car ride to the airport”, statistics are not a native language for human brains.
So this is the logic behind the idea to push for more representation of certain identities in mass media. This is why you’ll see people campaign for and celebrate more queer characters in movies, more television hosts of colour, or even more disabled newspaper columnists! It helps people to truly understand who they share their society with and how their social and political points of view may be different to groups which have historically dominated these spaces.
And it is hard to argue that this particular iteration of identity politics hasn’t had a massive impact on our society. Would Ireland’s two recent referendums have gone the way they went without people such as Panti Bliss, Una Mullally or Tara Flynn seizing the cultural megaphone? Communities which have been ignored for a very long time are now being seen and heard.
People can argue in good faith against identity politics, saying that we need unity rather than division. At worst, this argument manifests itself in a kind of mangled centrist position; claiming that both the modern far left and the modern far right (the neo-nazis who call themselves the alt-right) are equally guilty of obsessing over things like race and gender and sexual orientation.
This is making an argument from a naive perspective; dealing with the world as how it should be rather than dealing with it as it is. I personally find this a little bit ironic, considering how often me and mine are criticised for being impractical and idealistic.
An example: one could persuasively argue that disability doesn’t really exist. The fact that different humans have different abilities does not in itself create an identity. But disability does exist, just like how money or a private limited company exists. The reality of disability is maintained in our collective imagination, so it is real only for as long as we maintain belief in its existence. But if an individual, or even a group of individuals, stopped believing in money while the rest of the world carried on exchanging pieces of paper for goods and services... well they wouldn’t get very far, would they?
This is to say that for the most part, we didn’t choose the identities that we are supposedly obsessed with. It was other people who, before we were even born, categorised us and identified us.
We’re just playing the hand we’re given.
Platform Series: Ferdia MacAonghusa
1) How’d you like to be pushed around?
2) These are not my best days
3) Do something positive for the disabled
4) Our disabled bodies are different
5) Heard about the fella in a wheelchair?
6) I’m not bad for experiencing depression
7) I’ve finally found a way to be free
8) How about a job?
9) A defence of identity politics
10) Becoming disabled radicalised me