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Dreadlocks, North Korea, and the Zenith of Identity Politics

07/04/2016 12:15 | Updated 07 April 2016

Last week in the United States, the spectre of identity politics reared its ugly head once more, as a white student at San Francisco State University was assaulted by a woman of colour (reports conflict as to whether she was a student or staff member) for the evident crime of wearing dreadlocks, allegedly because dreadlocks are "black culture". Such an accusation of "cultural appropriation" was also recently levelled at Justin Bieber, for also wearing dreadlocks. Such accusations are nothing new from identity politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and points to a vision of an identitarian society to which we should not subscribe.

It seems remarkable in the first instance that we have got to a point in the USA where it is considered acceptable to assault a person purely because you take offence at their hairstyle. However, the student's own response - that dreadlocks have also been worn by white people in the past - strikes me as disingenuous; rather than implicitly accept the premise that it is acceptable to police what people wear purely on account of the colour of their skin, we should be replying that people are simpy free to choose what they wear.

More disingenuous still is when, in defence of such policing of someone's hairstyle, the hairstyle itself becomes politicised by writers. How, for instance, is it reasonable for dreadlocks - a hairstyle with many means to different people - to be prescripted as a "a global symbol of anti-racism" without such an assumption being questioned? It seems just as illogical as attempting to tie Muslim identity down to bearded Islamists preaching hate - though this too has been done in the UK, as evidenced by the contrast between the Guardian's near-fawning feature on the British leader of Hizb-ut-Tahrir shortly before a piece on Maajid Nawaz which, by contrast, gave considerable space to his critics and appeared to attempt to cast him as somehow less of an "authentic" Muslim.

At least in these cases, however, the people taking offence at the San Francisco student and Bieber are complaining about the alleged appropriation of their own culture, in stark contrast to a now-infamous episode at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where protestors (many of whom were not Asian-American) attacked the alleged "appropriation" of Japanese culture in a "Kimono Day" despite the fact that many Japanese-Americans supported the museum's initiative to the point of holding counter-protests against the decision to end the initiative (though this opinion was not universal, with the Globe also interviewing Asian-American protestors).

Similarly, the reaction to Avril Lavigne's "Hello Kitty" music video in Japan was broadly positive or indifferent, which you wouldn't have guessed for the storm of accusations of fetishisation or "appropriation" being levelled by some western commentators. Such wanton offence-taking on behalf of the non-offended seems to speak of something far more sinister than empathy or compassion (two words often thrown around by those protesting against offensive speech and expression). Rather, it seems to speak of a striving for a society not characterised by free expression, cosmopolitanism, and cultural interchange & development, but instead for one characterised by identitarianism, the putting of people into tiny boxes, and a society in which your haircut must be approved in advance - a policy existing only in North Korea today.

And on the subject of the latter, it's worth revisiting how some on the New Left - those same people nobly taking offence on behalf of people who aren't offended, or indeed other cultures - responded to the case of Otto Warmbier, sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour for attempting - yes, attempting - to steal a single poster. In a widely-circulated piece, a writer proclaimed that "white male privilege is not universal", and seemed to compare living in America while non-white to living under the North Korean justice system. Never mind that Warmbier was allegedly promised a substantial sum of money if he returned with a poster, when his family are facing financial uncertainty - the author characterised Warmbier as acting the way he did for fun and out of an alleged sense of entitlement (how his mind was successfuly read and this sense of entitlement established remains a mystery), before bizarrely concluding that this was more shocking than the North Korean government effectively sentencing him to death. That we live in a world where wearing the wrong hairstyle or trying on a replica kimono induces more virtue-signalling outrage among some in our society than the sentencing of a man to be worked to death, likely as a diplomatic pawn if previous similar situations are instructive, should concern us all.

Yet this is the road down which some aspire to take our society - the zenith of identity politics where certain dress, and indeed political positions and behaviours, "belong" only to certain groups. Warmbier must have acted the way he did because that's how a white man is "supposed" to act; the assaulted College student does not deserve our sympathy because white people are not "supposed" to wear dreadlocks; and Kimono Day is to be shut down because non-Japanese people are not "supposed" to wear kimonos. Such rabid identitarianism, ascribing clothing, hairstyles, and behaviours to people based solely on facets of their identity, can only be harmful in the long run. The erection of physical walls between communities in Northern Ireland based on the religious identity of said communities (which, until fairly recently, were only becoming either more numerous or higher) has arguably done little in the long term but keep communities isolated and less likely to integrate into a single civil society. We should be very wary, therefore, of erecting mental walls around communities today.

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