Can we transcend identity liberalism?

nytidentityliberalismI wrote recently about the challenge to identity liberalism in the wake of a tumultuous political year. The post was a response to arguments from the American writer Sohrab Ahmari that identity liberals need to be less tribal, and the American academic Mark Lilla that we need a post-identity liberalism which concentrates on broadening its base. As I was writing ,the British MP, Stephen Kinnock, urged Labour in the UK to stop ‘obsessing about diversity’ and focus on the interests of the white working class.

The debate is getting pretty heated and with that heat comes the inevitable health warning about a lack of light. As someone who has been involved in so-called identity politics (a label I have always eschewed) since the early 1980s, I recognise we need a big conversation and a new strategy to protect liberal gains. More of the same and nothing new risks very profound losses. But my note of caution to critics of identity liberalism is that it is not a retreat to pre-identity liberalism that we need, nor a crudely reductive post-identity liberalism. Let’s talk openly about how we got to where we are and how we might move forward. Our vision needs to be bigger and bolder than either. We need to transcend identity liberalism.

How can we do this? The answer, of course, lies in part in developing a shared understanding of how we got here including how gains were won. It was interesting to me as a veteran of the LGBT rights movement that both Ahmari and Lilla cited sexuality as a particular problem because I think, in fact, it might provide part of the solution. I was particularly interested that in Ahmari’s case his concern appears to be related to his Roman Catholicism. I’m a Catholic myself and have long sought to reconcile practicing my faith with practicing my sexuality. However, I’ve also long been concerned with the suggestion, unwitting or otherwise, that faith and LGBT communities are mutually exclusive. And therein lies part of the problem.

I was also struck by Lilla’s assertion that sexuality is a ‘narrow’ cause, the suggestion being that it is likely to be seen as a distraction for most ordinary people (as if LGBT people are not ordinary). Even if we were to accept that point at face value, it’s not narrow to those who are LGBT. So we have to find a way to reconcile broad and narrow. But in fact, I think the progress we have made on LGBT rights actually tells us something else.

The quite remarkable change in attitudes on sexuality which has taken place in little more than a generation is well evidenced by attitudinal both here and in the United States. And yet we have paid too little attention to understanding why this change has occurred and in doing so failed to learn some of the lessons and to apply them elsewhere. But it’s in the why, and indeed the how, gains have been made, that some clues can be found as to why progress on LGBT issues may be able to help us reconcile current polarities.

There is no doubt that they have partly been driven by tireless campaigning. And yes some of that has been loud, even shrill. But much of it has been painstakingly tactical and incremental. Ask my friend Ruth Hunt at Stonewall and she will tell you that not only has none of the policy and legislative gain in the UK been achieved by accident, it has not been achieved without careful calculation. The same will be true in the United States. And so it is odd that Lilla suggests that we would be well served by arguing for our cause ‘quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.’ I think some of us feel that is exactly what we have been doing for a very long time.

But that tireless campaigning has been just part of the story. And although we don’t have empirical data on the same scale as the longitudinal survey based datasets, it’s pretty clear that the reason why attitudes have changed so profoundly is because community by community, family by family, we have discovered that LGBT people are not the other, they are us. They are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.

We are not ‘one of them’ as the playground taunt used to ring out, we are one of us. We are not different, we are the same. In the absurd but hilarious comedy sketch set in working class Belfast by British comedian, Catherine Tait, the refrain is that ‘our John is a gay man now.’ John has tried to come out quietly and unremarkably but to his horror, his mammy cannot resist telling the world. Yet the point of the refrain is as much that he is ‘our John’ as it is that he’s a gay man.

Why have we not made the same kind of progress on race, the area where the most profound tensions are manifest? Arguably it’s because for all the integration that has been achieved, for many white people, black and ethnic minority people have remained the other. The integration we cherish is actually all too often superficial. Scratch at the surface and you will find cultural silos in which misunderstanding gnaws away at fragile cohesion, particularly in areas where economic inequality abounds.

It is this which informed Trevor Phillips’ much-misinterpreted critique of multiculturalism. When I was a councillor in London’s east end nearly 20 years ago, the resulting divisions were palpable. But even then sufficient progress had been made on LGBT issues for many white working class people I met not to be remotely concerned about my sexuality. It was a work in progress but attitudes were shifting. It is a hard truth that the same could not always be said of the Bengali community at the time. These things are rarely as simple as we would like them to be.

Like Lilla, Ahmari counsels caution. We must he says be more comfortable with democracy. And he suggests that the achievement of gay marriage (‘a profound change to the organisation of the family unit’) has been achieved by means of the short-circuiting of democracy; that the real democratic route would have been by means of referenda. Yet, just as in the UK, the passage of rights to equal marriage in the US has happened in response to the huge change in attitudes that I have already referred to. And it’s a change has been marked amongst most Christian communities too including amongst lay Catholics despite the position of the church establishment, though not amongst white evangelicals in the US or some non-Christian religious communities in the UK.

It is true that I looked on at last year’s marriage referendum in Ireland and felt more than a touch of envy. There it was the people’s choice to change the constitution and the extent and diversity of popular support galvanised for the change was remarkable and inspiring. Will it build a surer foundation for the maintenance of those rights in the future? We don’t yet know. But my scepticism about the use of referenda to secure rights is partly that can lead to a ping-pong approach in which rights become contingent rather than grounded. In practice, a parliamentary approach in the UK has, whether by design or not, enabled an incremental approach to reform and a level of scrutiny which referenda (alone) scarcely provides. In any case, as we are finding in the post-Brexit landscape the two are hardly mutually exclusive.

So progress on LGBT issues offers some clues about why gains have been made and about how we might best achieve and protect them. Of course, the experiences of women, black people, and disabled people are similar but also different. Discrimination and disadvantage have a myriad of dynamics. But the result is a common experience of denied identity and social inequality. It doesn’t, however, stop there. There is also often a shared experience of economic inequality which, crucially, is also shared with white working class communities. Does this suggest there is a way to forge Lilla’s path of post-identity liberalism without obscuring identities and eroding rights?

There are however contradictions and traps everywhere. The achievement of equal marriage owes something to social conservatism as well as progressive liberalism. And I have previously acknowledged that the progress made in relation to sexuality owes a debt to economic liberalism as well as social liberalism, to the right as well as to the left. Yet I am a cautious economic liberal. I can see that untrammelled economic liberalism appears to have been ruinous for middle America and large swathes of the UK beyond London and the south east (a point echoed in Kinnock’s contribution). But I fear for the protectionist response of Trump and Farage because far from finding common cause it all too easily scapegoats the beneficiaries of social liberalism even though they are found in white working class communities too.

So what are we to do? It is worth making one thing very clear. Lines do have to be drawn. There is a level of left behindness in some communities that we can respond to with empathy and a commitment to dialogue. However, there are those on the far right seeking to exploit this state of affairs whose ambitions we need to stand foursquare against. If a post-identity liberalism is possible it also needs to be based on inclusivity.

At the extreme, this means very clear delineation from the falsehoods of white supremacists and male misogynists. But closer to the main stream it means that universalism can be championed as well by a woman or a black person as it can by a white man. And whether it comes from the left or the right, it certainly needs better champions than Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Transcending identity liberalism also means doing some hard thinking about the relationship between social and economic liberalism. The latter can be a force for social progress but left unchecked it can lead to the sort of yawning inequality that has somehow created a clash of identities which has put social liberalism in the dock.

At this moment of profound uncertainty, there is some inevitable and necessary focus on what has gone wrong. But focusing on what we’ve achieved must be part of the conversation too. We need to cherish the consequences we intended as well as understand those we didn’t.

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