Questioning diversity: discussing The Tribe

Saturday 13 October, 12:0013:00, Level G StudioBook Club Salons

In association with:

Identity politics seems to be everywhere nowadays, with controversies about racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ rarely out of the news. In his recently published book, The Tribe, former Labour Party activist Ben Cobley argues that this is because the ‘progressive liberal-left, which dominates our public life, has taken on the politics of race, gender, religion and sexuality as a key part of its own group identity – and has used its dominance to embed them into our state and society’.

Cobley describes a new ‘system of diversity’ that has captured so many institutions, with rules that must be obeyed, and explores the consequences of offering favour and protection to some people but not others based on things like skin colour and gender. Cobley and other critics suggest proponents of identity politics have even appropriated key terms like ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’, effectively denying a voice to those who do not play along.

Others suggest that criticisms of ‘identity politics’ downplay the real inequalities that remain despite decades of campaigning for equal rights. Data from a variety of measures – from pay to prison numbers and university admissions to top jobs – seem to show that society is not neutral when it comes to a person’s race, religion, sex and sexual orientation. Adherents of diversity argue that we must all challenge our prejudices and biases in order to root out the unconscious stereotyping that entrenches inequality.

But could it be that inequalities that are assumed to be the result of prejudice are actually not the fault of ‘society’ but the consequence of individual choice or cultural preference? After all, in a genuinely diverse society, you would not expect to see every demographic group equally represented in every profession or cultural sphere. Even if some groups suffer from inherited disadvantages, such as not having relatives or family friends with experience and contacts in the professions, is it right to conflate this with active discrimination, or is a different and less politically loaded approach required to achieve equality of opportunity? Is there a risk that by constantly focusing on ‘prejudice, bias and stereotyping’, we may undermine the merit-based, equal society we all seek?