Its become almost cliche to say that we are now somehow living in an age of identity politics. Controversies ostensibly belonging to that term seem to be piling up at a ferocious rate. Whether it be to do with toxic masculinity in online gaming communities, the tearing down of confederate statues in southern American states, the campaign access to transgender bathrooms, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign to recognize that gender is not a category that excludes the working class, or the right to freedom of speech of members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web,’ it seems we’re just awash with this intense and rapidly proliferating series of disputes over how we regulate speech and symbolic acts, in the public sphere. Clearly, we do think these debates are important — after all, as any politically-active user on Twitter and Facebook will tell you — we can spend vast amounts of time in arguments about these issues. And we continue to engage in them, even tho they don’t seem to change anyone’s minds (and reports suggest they are actually not very good for our mental health!).
But how did we get here? What made us suddenly so aware of identity, and why do we feel the need to argue about it? Is there anything redeeming about identity politics, and how — or to what extent — should the left be engaging in it? To discuss these questions and more, our guest for this episode is Marie Moran. Marie is a lecturer in Equality Studies at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, in UCD, in Dublin, and she has a piece in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, called ‘Identity and Identity Politics’. Based on some pretty compelling research, she lays out an argument in the piece that identity is actually a very new concept in the analysis of social life, and that we need to exercise much greater care in our approach to distinguishing what it is, and what isn’t.
As you’ll hear in the interview, Marie isn’t necessarily opposed to identity politics. Not by any means. But she does believe that we may have taken a wrong turn in our grasp of its political significance. Thus, while we might find it hard not to be put off by the toxicity of today’s “call out culture,” Moran would remind us that the Black Power Movements who first embraced the concept of identity in the 1960s, did not have an essentializing approach to it. That is, that they didn’t see their struggle to secure recognition for their groups in the public sphere as an end in itself (EDIT: Marie has since written me an email asking me to clarify that her position is that identity is “invariably” essentializing “and by definition does” essentialize. I hope the listener/reader will understand my point here, however, which is to follow Marie’s own argument that not all identity struggles are carried out for the sake of identity, only). So, this is going to be one of the big topics in the interview you’re about to hear — what it means to essentialize identity, and the linkages between today’s identity mania, and capitalism’s culture of self. Towards the end, we get into a good discussion of the similarities and differences between Marie’s approach to the topic, and those presented by Asad Haider in his new book, ‘Mistaken Identity’ (we posted on this, last week). There’s been a lot of controversy about the book online, but I think you’ll find Marie’s take to be pretty thoughtful.
On a final note, I just want to apologize for the poor audio quality in this interview — due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up having to record this interview in Skype. I’ve done my best to clean it up, but you’ll definitely hear some echo on the line. Its a shame, but stick with us – this is a really fascinating interview. Maries is a very careful and precise scholar. And I think you’ll agree that she’s making an important contribution to this debate.