Identity crisis

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

Identity politics is the dominant force in Western public life today. It is the subject of much debate and something of a backlash, as many fear it threatens democracy, liberalism and free speech. US commentator Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment is just the latest high-profile intellectual take on the issue. Fukuyama worries that that the universal recognition on which liberal democracy is based has been increasingly challenged by ‘narrower forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, or gender, which have resulted in anti-immigrant populism, the upsurge of politicised Islam, the fractious “identity liberalism” of college campuses, and the emergence of white nationalism’. Quite a charge list. Fukuyama concludes that ‘identity cannot be transcended; we must begin to shape identity in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy’.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, published a stinging New York Times op-ed, ‘The end of identity liberalism’, blaming identity politics for facilitating Donald Trump’s accession to the White House, writing: ‘American liberalism… has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.’

But are these critiques an overreaction to what might be better understood as the self-empowerment of those previously marginalised, and a demand from historically excluded groups for recognition and inclusion? Remi Adekoya suggests in Quillette that the ‘fundamental objective of left-wing identitarians is to strengthen the weaker groups while simultaneously weakening the strongest (whites, especially cis, hetero, white males) to achieve a more “equitable’ distribution of power’. Many of its supporters suggest that the twenty-first-century identitarian is simply the latest version of those activists who demanded women’s or black liberation in the 1960s.

But might this be misleading, ignoring the extent to which the drivers and concerns of identity politics have changed over the decades? At a time when identity is the focus of constant discussion and attention, it can be easy to overlook its complex history, either to see it as a seamless development of previous liberation movements or a totally new phenomenon. So, if one is to grasp what is unique about contemporary identity politics, it is essential to explore its history.

Professor Frank Furedi will deliver a lecture looking at the history of society’s concern with identity and its rapid politicisation in the twenty-first century and attempt to explain its main drivers. He will explore how the term ‘identity crisis’ was invented in the 1940s and – until it began to capture the public imagination from the 1960s – how commentators and researchers paid little attention to the social, cultural and political role of identity. He will explore how the politicisation of identity began to acquire its current dominant form in the 1990s, acquiring new characteristics as it became entangled with the emerging politics of victimhood and therapy culture.

Respondents will discuss issues such as: How has identity politics come to be less focused on political and social issues of overcoming discrimination than its 1960s and 1970s versions were? Is it a form of collectivism or is it better understood as a kind of fragmentation? What is the impact of identity on free speech when advocates of identity politics assert that there are matters on which only specific cultural groups can speak? Can the politics of solidarity and the ideal of universalism survive an era where society is divided into often competing identity groups? Is identitarianism really a threat to democracy and liberalism as its critics suggest?