Identity politics, the ultimate ‘own goal’

Yesterday I furiously wrote about an article that described that way that public health posters perpetrated stigma against people with a disability.

It made me think, once again, about the so-called left and perils of identity politics. This is well trammelled ground, but it’s increasingly striking me how dangerous it is.

I consider myself left wing, both economically and socially. This means that I believe in social and economic justice (broadly, the provision of welfare, including public health for citizens, not just because it makes them productive economic units). I am anti racist and I am a feminist. I am a secular humanist. All these things aren’t surprising, given that I grew up under the ‘New Zealand Experiment‘ – a failed attempt at operationalising the neo-liberal economics of the Washington Consensus.

Yesterday’s article on disability demonstrates the worst excesses of identity politics. It completely overlooks the colossal impact of mass vaccination campaigns against terrible diseases such as polio and smallpox in favour of a fine-grained, revisionist textual ‘reading’of posters used during the campaigns, between 60-100 years ago.

The imagery, it argues, depicts disabilities as negative and contributes to the stigmatisation of people with disabilities. Rather, we should depict people with disabilities as representing the ‘full spectrum of human difference’. Which of course, we do.

This is the long shadow of neo-liberalism, a cultural artefact that so individualises our thinking that all issues are refracted through the lens of ‘the person’.

As our politics is increasingly shuffled into the hands of technocrats – economists and ultimately, the authors of sophisticated currency trading algorithms, we search for meaning and engagement in the political sphere. We’re constantly told that decisions are made by technocrats, opaque and delineated along complicated economic (or epidemiological) modelling. It is beyond our ken.

And so, we’ve turned our agency inwards.

Now, I’m watching as the neo liberal machine encourages the flourishing of increasingly stupid ‘identity politics’ which is designed to disempower. Young people, disenfranchised both socially and economically, are encouraged to direct their agency inwards. Can’t change the world? Can’t get a job? Can’t earn any money? Constantly told the world is an unsafe place for you?

Look inwards. Look to yourself. Think very, very hard about your gender and your body. Spent hours on Twitter arguing about JK Rowling, threatening to kill or rape one another in some embarrassingly facile internecine war over the intricacies of your gender and ‘lived experience’. This is all you have left – this is the fetishisation of the individual when there is nothing left available. It’s tragic.

We often hear how the cult of the individual is the result of indulged, narcissistic young people, raised by helicopter parents, unable to function as adults. This misses the point. Late stage neo liberalism creates this narcissism. It fosters it, unintentionally, in the same way that heat opens a seed pod. Neo liberalism exists and thrives on the disempowerment of collectivism. The more individual we are, the more atomised we are, the less we combine together to demand change.

The irony of identity politics is that it promises personal freedom, the realisation and actualisation of one’s ‘true’ self. In reality, it just reproduces old inequalities and injustices.

Take the article about the vaccination posters, above. It might seem, on the surface, to be about empowering people with disabilities. Sure, it’s easy to see how these images could stigmatise disability. The author is no doubt lauded for her work.

But what are the real consequences? What does the article really tell us in terms of age-old injustices?

  1. It is wrong to connect vaccination with the absence of a paralysing or debilitating disease.
  2. Disability doesn’t exist, it’s simply the ‘full spectrum of human difference’. Everyone is different, therefore, no-one is. Don’t stigmatise disability by offering help or sympathy.
  3. Overlook the material reality of mass public health campaigns (posters convey pictorial information to literate and non-literate people) in favour of focusing on unpalatable imagery that is, in some cases, almost 100 years old.
  4. We should privilege the individual (stigmatisation, hurt feelings, prejudice) over the collective (ridding entire countries of a painful, disabling and traumatic illness).

The author is basically pointing out that some 60-100 year old imagery of disability presents a pretty nasty picture by today’s standards and reminds us that people get disabling illnesses and we should consider their lives and feelings. I’m one of them, so I agree. Fair enough. That’s nice.

The real consequences, however, are more sinister. If you convince people that disability is ‘just another way of being normal’ you undermine attempts to address it. It’s a direct substitution of ‘feelings’ for ‘doings’.

Second, focusing on the individual (hurt feelings) instead of the collective (e.g mass public health campaign to eradicate polio) privileges one over the other. The first thing I thought when I saw this article was that it was written by the anti vax lobby.

Who loses? As usual, poor people, the least franchised.

Examples of the individualisation of political agency abound, and each and every time they serve to replicate existing disparities and reward the wealthy and powerful.

Yesterday I mentioned NZ’s shift to a midwife-led model of maternity care. Again, this was because of a sustained campaign based around identity politics – women as strong and capable, and birth as a natural process. Healthcare as a consumer item, a fashion of the body rather than essential, lifesaving technology.

The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that this cheaper model of care wasn’t as good for babies and mothers.

Here’s a classic example of the pitfalls of individual politics. Good healthcare is obtained through sustained collective pressure. If you can’t make the case on utilitarian grounds (the negative consequences cost more than the intervention itself) then you must make them on social justice grounds (I am a citizen and I deserve to have a healthy birth on those grounds alone). Here, women were undermined by a campaign, run by women, to shift their entire maternity model to a cheaper, more dangerous version.

Perhaps what is most striking is that no-one even thought to check and see how it was working along the way.

Once again, we recognise a structural inequality (being a woman) at the heart of poorer health care.

Identity politics convinces people to work against their own interests in a way that a monolithic government could never do.

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