In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, who had for years passed as Black, was exposed as having Caucasian parents. She was accused of blackface and epitomising white privilege. Unsurprisingly, she was ruined.
In a recent autobiography, she defined herself as “transracial”. The feminist journal Hypatia then ran an article by Rebecca Tuvel, which defended her. Also unsurprisingly, Tuvel was attacked viciously. More than 500 signatories demanded that her article be rescinded and condemned. Yet, something different happened. As a New York Times op-ed by Roger Brubaker noted, many voices spoke out in defence of Tuvel’s article; it was not retracted after all.
The point isn’t to defend Dolezal or the idea of transracialism. Rather, this debate is a sign of changing times. While the millennial left’s preoccupation with identity has not disappeared, the moralistic fire has grown dimmer.
This moralising culture was built on what Brubaker called “epistemological insiderism”. That is the view that only the bearer of an identity is entitled to speak about that identity. To question this was considered tantamount to silencing oppressed voices and erasing history. So, too, micro-aggressions and misuse of language were identified with actual violence.
In a self-righteous race to the bottom, transgressions were called out in the increasingly toxic echo chambers of social media. We were told to check our privilege. Then, it was argued that checking privilege was privileged; so-called allies were indulging themselves with “performative wokeness”. Thus, moral worth was determined not by one’s actions, but by one’s nature: privilege became an inescapable original sin.
This reification of identity led to infinite particularism: after all, there are as many combinations of identity as there are individuals who bear them. It became de rigueur also to check the privilege of one’s age, level of ability, mental health and even one’s knowledge, appearance or cultural background. Intersectionality tried and failed to provide a universal framework within which to explain oppression. Rather, it became a catalogue.
At the same time, trigger warnings and cultural appropriation became a battleground. Hurt feelings or distress were taken as unassailable arguments. To disagree was to “gaslight” the victim. Activists suggested white people refrain from eating tacos, practising yoga or wearing flashy gold jewellery. No-one really considered the upshot: were Anglo-Saxons really supposed to restrict their cultural intake to Morris dancing, Jane Austen and porridge? Upshots are rarely considered in an atmosphere of moralistic browbeating.
As has been widely noted, this culture had a censorious edge. Last year, Yale students forced two faculty members to resign. Their crime? One of them wrote an open letter criticising campus restrictions on Halloween costumes, suggesting instead that students openly debate any costumes they found offensive. The other defended the letter. This dark side was not confined to the student world. It has become commonplace in Australia, for example, for politicians to justify law and order politics in feminist terms.
Of course, it might be argued that the left has always had a moralistic streak. After all, was it not Chairman Mao who popularised checking one’s privilege? On the other hand, when the radicals of the Italian Red Brigades marched, pistol in hand, one assumes that they didn’t issue trigger warnings.
However, modern identity politics was different. It was a product of neoliberalism. Everydayfeminism.com, which usually specialises in patronising cartoons and “radical self love”, is a magnificent case in point. Last year, it ran an article (now removed) entitled “20 ways to help your employees struggling with food insecurity and hunger”.
To be fair, not all identity politicians are business owners. But many demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit that would make the puritans of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic blush. At the website safetypinbox.com, for the low monthly price of US$100, you can subscribe and receive a box containing tasks guaranteed to make you a better ally. Why just check your privilege when you can pay it off in endless instalments?
These ridiculous extremes aren’t aberrations – they are the logical conclusion of identity politics. This is at least part of the reason that identity politics is in decline. Articles documenting the latest inanities are first rate click-bait these days. Critiques of identity politics are almost as cliché as the politics themselves.
However, there are other signs of the demise of these moralistic times. Recently, Jacobin magazine ran an excellent long-form article on the issue by Shuja Haider. Among other things, Haider quotes Richard Spencer, a white supremacist leader of the alt-right, celebrating the closure of a yoga class for students with disabilities. While the program was closed due to concerns about cultural appropriation, Spencer praised this as an example of “racial consciousness formation” and applauded student activists for “engaging in the kind of ideological project that traditionalists should be hard at work on”. He and other alt-right thinkers have started branding their own politics as white identity politics.
When the far right starts adopting some of the left’s goals, it is perhaps a sign that something is wrong. On the other hand, the popularity of critiques like the one published in Jacobin shows that identity politics no longer enjoys the easy moral authority it once did. Even a few years ago, the article would have invited scandal and opprobrium.
Perhaps the most important reason for this shift is the return of class politics, in the form of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other newly popular social democrats. To identity politics, class is just another privilege to be checked. But to socialists, class is the basis for a universal politics that transcends identity and moral individualism. So, in place of sanctimony and fragmentation, a space is opening up for debate and solidarity. This is happening not a moment too soon.