Time there was, when all public discourse was framed around the familiar Left versus Right debate and everybody knew exactly what everyone else was talking about. Then came the days of the liberal democrats and the social democrats – whose political views were slightly to the right or to the left of centre – and came to signify views that were less extreme, more moderate and closer to the centre. I am, of course, aware that liberal means quite different things on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, it is clear that we had already started accepting shades of opinion and identities that weren’t always defined in black and white.
These days, we live in such pluralistic societies and a multi-polar world that such terms simply aren’t enough to capture the multitudes or the multiplicity of identities, that each of us lives with. For example, I am a Tamil, Hindu Brahmin, woman, daughter, sister, advertising professional, straight, liberal, and most important of all, an Indian.
I can’t help thinking, though, that despite the fact that we have never lived in more peaceful times than now in the 21st century, identity politics is perhaps at the most divisive ever. And it’s playing out in all its shades and dimensions. Perhaps this is what Francis Fukuyama is referring to when he talks of identity as a search for dignity and self-esteem. I recently read an excerpt from his latest book, Identity, and although I haven’t yet read the book, it inspired me to think about the subject and write this post. That’s because I disagree slightly with his premise of identity being about the inner soul and dignity, if that is indeed the premise or chief argument in his book.
I believe that at the heart of all identity politics are two powerful forces: economic access and cultural assertion. If we look at any major identity clash between peoples through the centuries be it slavery and colonialism, Jews and anti-Semitism, casteism in India, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and feminism, we are likely to find that the roots are always economic and cultural.
The other aspect of most identity politics and clashes is that identity itself is always given or conferred, if you will, by the concept of the “other”. As Jean Paul Sartre says in his book, Anti-Semite and Jew, the idea of the Jew and all that he represents is given to him by the presence of the “Other”. The Jew is a slightly more complicated identity than others because it is not only a religion, it is a race and has increasingly come to be associated in more recent times, with a land – Israel – if you were to add the Zionist identity dimension as well.
According to Sartre:
“The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew: that is the simple truth from which we must start. In this sense, the democrat is right as against the anti-Semite, for it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew.” (italics are the author’s)
Elsewhere in the book, he adds:
“Whose is the fault? It is our eyes that reflect to him the unacceptable image that he wishes to dissimulate. It is our words and our gestures – all our words and all our gestures – our anti-Semitism, but equally our condescending liberalism – that have poisoned him. It is we who constrain him to choose to be a Jew whether through flight from himself or through self-assertion; it is we who force him into the dilemma of Jewish authenticity or inauthenticity… this quintessence of man, disgraced, uprooted, destined from the start to either inauthenticity or martyrdom. In this situation, there is not one of us who is not totally guilty and even criminal; the Jewish blood that the Nazis shed falls on all our heads.” (italics are the author’s)
Similarly, the story of slavery has economic exploitation at its roots and was a story of colonialism and the Empire project. It later grew into a cultural and political issue, which is still playing out in parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. Frantz Fanon, when fighting for the cause of the Caribbean people, especially for Martinique, was prescient in pointing out the attempts by the client state – France in this case – to create a narrative of emancipation around the Caribbean blacks as if they had been drained of their African blood, when to the French they would always remain Black.
In an essay, “West Indians and Africans” quoted by his biographer, Irene L Gendzier, Fanon says:
“…before 1939, there was not on one side the Negro and on the other side the white man, but a scale of colours the intervals of which could readily be passed over. One needed only to have children by someone less black than oneself. There was no racial barrier, no discrimination. There was that ironic spice, so characteristic of the Martinique mentality.”
In his book Black Skin, White Masks, he expounds on this theme in greater detail. He says that in the Antilles, that there was nothing surprising within a family, in hearing a mother remark that ‘X is the blackest of my children’, which simply meant that ‘X is the least white’.
Identity was not just about country and flag, it was more about the amount of skin pigmentation that you possessed. The colonial distance was awash and defined in colour.
Those differences haven’t gone away, but have resurfaced in the post-globalisation era, especially in the West. Recent incidents in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh are testimony to this. And the fundamental causes are still economic and cultural.
In India, the caste system as it was laid down millennia ago was entirely based on economic activity. Depending upon your occupation, you were assigned a certain caste and then for posterity you were “born” into that particular caste, whether or not your family were still employed in that occupation. The caste came loaded with baggage such as your position in the social hierarchy, special rights and privileges that you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy. Till today, the caste system operates in India as a sort of unwritten social code but one that is understood by everyone, none better than the politicians because votes are still decided on the basis of caste and religion.
Dr. BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution who hailed from the lower caste of “Untouchables”, and was a scholar par excellence on the subjects of religion, caste and law argued throughout his life for greater equality for the lowest castes. In a famous speech that Ambedkar was invited to give by the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal – a group of progressive Hindu social reformers based in Lahore whose aim was to eradicate the caste system in India – called the Annihilation Of Caste, Ambedkar took issue with the Hindu religion, including aspects of the Veda, and that was too much even for the reformers. He had to therefore cancel the speaking engagement. The speech was however printed by Ambedkar himself at first, then translated into six languages and over the years was printed by mostly Dalit printing presses. It would have sold millions of copies by now, I imagine. Somewhere in the speech, Ambedkar makes a very pertinent point about the dynamism of industry and the ossified morals of the caste system. He says:
“…the stratification of occupations which is the result of the caste system is positively pernicious. Industry is never static. It undergoes rapid and abrupt changes. With such changes, an individual must be free to change his occupation. Without the freedom to adjust himself to changing circumstances, it would be impossible for him to gain his livelihood…. By not permitting readjustment of occupations, caste becomes a direct cause of much of the unemployment we see in the country.”
There are enough reports of atrocities being committed against Dalits in India even today, particularly under the regime of the present Hindu nationalist government. Into this cauldron, if we add religion – of which India has several that coexist in an uneasy peace – we get a potent cocktail of identity conflicts.
This brings us to the social aspects of identity politics and the ways in which it manifests itself. The language and attitudes they express are of hate and prejudice, often of a very violent kind. From the Nazi’s Kristallnacht and their concentration camps and gas chambers to lynchings of slaves and of the Dalits in India, from inflammatory hate-speeches and writings to sexual abuse and domestic violence, assertion of identity is almost always accompanied by violence.
Because the subject is so fraught with emotion and passions run high reason is always abandoned in favour of feelings, however biased and bigoted they might be. As Amartya Sen writes in his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny,
“Perhaps the worst impairment comes from the neglect – and the denial – of the role of reasoning and choice, which follows from the recognition of our plural identities. The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we live. The descriptive weakness of choiceless singularity has the effect of momentously impoverishing the power and reach of our social and political reasoning. The illusion of destiny exacts a remarkably heavy price.”
If we look at the world today, there are several powerful forces asking us to re-examine our beliefs about identity and purity of culture and race. These are globalization, immigration, – both because of greater trade and opening up of borders and because of people fleeing poverty and political persecution – climate change and technological disruption. European countries are dealing with hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, all of which is putting pressure – economic and cultural – on local populations. Even governments of countries that have in the past welcomed immigrants, such as the Centre-left government in Sweden today are taking the extraordinary step of deporting several of them.
All of these trends are going to determine how we deal with the identity issue. In the world of social media, netizens already enjoy multiple identities, nowadays called “avatars” or technological incarnations, if you like. Clashes over identity in one part of the world flash across computer and TV screens across the world instantaneously. Movements like #Me Too are now global in nature.
To add to the confusion, the financial crisis of 2008 from which the world is still recovering has dealt a huge blow to the middle classes and has exacerbated income inequalities across the world, especially in the West. Identity clashes between the 1% and the rest of society or the haves and the have-nots are to be expected, possibly leading to new kinds of class struggles.
The other kind of identity struggle that I foresee is generational. As populations in the West and in some parts of Asia age, the young will emerge – many from the ashes of the 2008 crisis – demanding their share of the economic and cultural pie. However, it is here that I see some reason for optimism. The young have always rejected the politics of the privileged elites and especially those to do with identity. Their idealism and sense of purpose usually allows for greater tolerance and acceptance in society. Of course, there will always be politicians lurking in the dark shadows, ready to poison their minds with toxic, divisive rhetoric but I am hoping the youth from Asia, Africa and Latin America will put up a strong resistance.
The world is changing before our very eyes, not just demographically but socially and economically. The remaking of the new order is in progress and the promise lies not in greater insularity and isolation, but in multitudes.
Now if that reminds me of MAGA and Brexit, it also reminds me that I must read Francis Fukuyama’s Identity soon.