Western Identity Politics Drives The Outrage Bus Off A Cliff

28/09/2016 12:44
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

A few weeks ago, the white American author Lionel Shriver caused a media stir by defending her right to write from a non-white perspective. She was told that she was guilty of 'cultural appropriation'. Leaving aside the complex rights and wrongs which do exist here on both sides, for me, her rebuttal in the New York Times hit one of the 21st Century's biggest political and societal challenges on the head:

"As a lifelong Democratic voter, I'm dismayed by the radical left's ever-growing list of dos and don'ts -- by its impulse to control, to instil self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump."

I absolutely agree that we should celebrate the rising voices and confidence of the people in our society who have been marginalised, sometimes victimised and often ignored. But it is true that a large cross-section of people on the left - of every race, religion and social class - have become increasingly narrow-minded and shrill.

This growing intolerance to opinions and viewpoints that do not align with our own is hugely concerning. But what absolutely terrifies me is the thought that we might be at the very beginning of building a society that believes wholeheartedly in censorship; sold to us as a natural and acceptable part of 'identity politics'.

On Tuesday night we saw this phenomenon in action at a Momentum meeting at the Labour Party Conference. Unite the Union's chief of staff Andrew Murray rounded on the UK media. According to people who were there, alongside a diatribe about how ownership of the media should be physically wrested from 'tax exiles and ne'er-do-wells', he said: "As bad as the media is, it is not all powerful. It can be defeated." He could have said: "We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them." But George Orwell said that in 1984, so it's already taken.

Yes, I know that its proponents will argue that they are just levelling the playing field, that all the media are biased towards the right; all are owned and paid for by corporations and ultra-high-net-worth individuals and that the new generation can't get their voice heard. But you know...that's life. It's not a level playing field and it isn't all fair. And if the media was all state owned or had a hard left-wing perspective, then there would be someone else saying it's not fair and demanding we reset society.

The general media-consuming public want opinions that mirror their own. They like papers to agree with them. And at the moment, like it or not, the press are doing just that. If you don't believe me, look at where Labour and Jeremy Corbyn are in the polls.

Identity politics is defined as 'a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics'. From this definition you can clearly see that identity politics is not the exclusive property of the left wing - far from it; Nigel Farage was the right's identity-politics poster boy. But it's on the left that this phenomenon is now taking hold most obviously in the UK. And it's from the left that we'll see it having the most impact in the future.

Identity politics is driving the outrage bus into new territory - and then straight off a cliff. It's cultural roots can be seen with the 'offended' debate; a place no one goes anymore because 'offense' is a moveable feast. It changes according to the prevailing cultural, educational and societal conditions. Something that most people didn't find offensive in the 1970s is quite clearly outrageously offensive to many more people today. And as with all things, this cultural change is speeding up. Something we found hugely offensive five years ago on Twitter is now just everyday life.

About 18 months ago we reached peak-offended. Being offended had been elevated to a human right and people regularly wrote learned papers, and even whole books, on the subject. We created a whole raft of new terms including Victimhood and Micro-aggression. And many people subconsciously subscribed to the idea that being offended proved you were a person of moral virtue, a person of refined sensitivities and intellect, and therefore must tell everyone how offended you were on Twitter.

Looking back, these were happy days. Today, things are very different. We are at a much darker, more dangerous stage. Insults have become much more aggressive and we are no longer sure whether violence is a threat or a promise. Being offended is no longer the option it once was. Against this backdrop, it's hard to regard identity politics as a force for good; as a welcome raising of voices against the broken status quo. If identity politics really is the future, which I suspect it is, then we all need to find a way of working within it that doesn't threaten to consume us all.