This happened some twenty and more years ago now, but it sticks in my mind. I was at some social gathering, and a young lady to whom I had only been introduced a few minutes earlier asked me if I had been to see Bombay Dreams, a West End musical featuring Bollywood music that was, at the time, rather popular. There was no particular reason why she should ask me this, other than that, very obviously, my appearance indicated that I originated from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. No, I replied politely. Was I planning to see it? No, I replied again, Bollywood isn’t really my kind of thing. She seemed a bit surprised, as I remember, but didn’t say anything. Much later in the evening, we bumped into each other again, and this time she asked me why I had turned my back on my own culture.
The first thing that bothered me about this was her assumption that she knew what my culture was. Actually, she didn’t: if “my culture” indicates the culture in which I had grown up, Bollywood films and Bollywood music weren’t part of “my culture” at all: these were most certainly not things I had grown up with, either at home or outside. But something else bothered me: it was the implication that, whatever my cultural background may or may not have been, it was somehow wrong for me to have moved away from it – that my identity was somehow pre-determined by the circumstances of my birth, and that for me to deviate from it was somehow reprehensible.
This was, as I say, a long time ago, and at the time, the term “identity politics” did not have quite the currency it has now. I think I was barely aware of it then. Now, of course, one can hardly get away from it: “identity” is one of those terms – like “political correctness”, or “multiculturalism”, and all those other things that people get so hot-under-the-collar about – that everyone seems to use, but no-one ever thinks of defining. This allows X to define “identity” and “identity politics” in one way, and argue for their reasonableness; while Y defines them another way, and rages against their unreasonableness. And given their respective definitions – implicitly assumed, though rarely stated – they are both right.
Even “trigger warnings” – a rather hot topic these days, one I ranted about here rather intemperately only quite recently, and which my more reasonable friend Mark Dietz then commented on with characteristically greater circumspection: despite the demands that were made for “trigger warnings”, both the nature of these desired warnings and the reasoning behind them seem to me curiously unclear. Three quite different things seem to me to be conflated in these demands. The first is simply a request that teachers guide their students sensitively through issues likely to prove distressing, or contentious, or difficult, or, indeed, any mixture of these three. Such a request does seem quite reasonable, I suppose, and if we are to take, as Prof. Aaron Hanlon does, the benign view that this is all that is being asked for, there is, I guess, little to complain about – although one may reasonably ask how a general reader, who does not have the benefit of a teacher’s guiding hand, can be expected to deal with the difficulties that the poor darling little rosebuds of students need so gently to be led through. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that these cornerstones of literary traditions are read only by those who have to, and that the rest of us, very sensibly, keep away from them; and that those of us who don’t really deserve all we get. Which is fair enough, I suppose. But, leaving that aside for now, if demands for “trigger warnings” go no further than this, I think we can all live with them.
The second aspect we may also view charitably: it concerns those students who have suffered some sort of trauma in the past, and are now suffering from PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, I most certainly would not wish to belittle this issue, although I would insist that this is the provenance of the therapist rather than of the English teacher. The best we can do here is to ensure that the teacher is aware of this issue, and refer the student to an appropriate therapist should it raise its head. Certainly, in the incident cited by those demanding “trigger warnings” – of the lack of concern for a student who had previously been sexually assaulted – the teacher’s insensitivity is clearly unacceptable.
But there is a third interpretation of these demands, and it is this third interpretation that particularly troubles me. And this interpretation concerns “identity politics”. Since I have been censorious earlier in this post about discussing concepts without adequately defining them, let me, if not define, at least try to characterise what I understand by that term, based on my own observations.
I personally would characterise “identity politics” along the following lines:
“Identity politics” is a loose term describing a set of ideologies that views each individual’s identity in terms of such signifiers as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, nationality, and so on. It further considers the feelings and emotions that are direct consequences of identity, as determined by such signifiers, to be of the utmost importance, and any attempt to deny the validity or importance of these feelings and emotions, or even any attempt to question or to challenge them, or to look beyond them, is perceived as oppressive. This is particularly the case when it comes to identities the possessors of which are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against in some way. Protection of these feelings and emotions is then given the highest priority both in public policy, and in private interactions.
Now, this is merely how I, personally, understand “identity politics”: I would welcome other perspectives.
If this is, indeed, what “identity politics” is, then there are, I think, a number of very legitimate objections to be made against the concept. The first is that it subsumes personal identity to the identity of a group, thus denying, or at least refusing adequately to acknowledge, the variety of identities that inevitably exist within any given group. It further denies individuals within the group the freedom to dissent – the freedom to disagree with the core values of the group they have been born into, and also to the freedom to adopt values not belonging to the group: adherents of identity politics frown on such dissent. I have, personally, experienced such disapproval frequently, from all sorts of sources: that incident, though fairly harmless in itself, of that young lady insisting that I should, being of an Indian background, enjoy Bollywood music, was but a prelude to what has followed in the years since. The belief that one’s values should be determined by the accidental circumstances of one’s birth, and that to deviate from them is somehow a betrayal, though to my mind an invidious belief, is extraordinarily widespread: I have heard it expressed in various forms over the years, from the fairly innocuous to the downright malicious and nasty, from people of all ethnic backgrounds, and from right across the political spectrum. Those who follow these matters on social media will be more than familiar with such pejorative terms as “Uncle Tom” and “coconut” – terms referring people with dark skins who have, quite unaccountably, exercised their freedom of choice to choose for themselves values other than those that Identity Politicians insist have been pre-determined for them. Recently, in what purported to be an academic conference, a comfortable professor of media studies from a prestigious American university described as “native informants” those Muslims who no longer believe in the religion into which they were born. So much for freedom of thought.
(As an aside, if what applies to Muslims applies also to Hindus – and why should it not? – I think I too, going by the good professor’s formulation, and despite the disapprobation I am bound to attract for not identifying myself as an adherent of the religion of my forefathers, should declare myself to be a “native informant”. I’m not entirely sure, though, what I am meant to be informing on, to whom, or, for that matter, how much the job pays.)
There are, it seems to me, a great many attributes that combine to create any individual’s unique identity. Some of these may indeed be innate and immutable – such as race, or gender, or the religion practised by the family into which one is born; but there are also many that are acquired by choice – tastes, opinions, politics, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), lifestyles, and so on. The ability to choose for oneself one’s identity may be limited – I cannot choose to be Chinese, for instance; nor can I choose to be, say, an operatic tenor, much though I’d love to – but all choices are necessarily limited to some extent or other: that in itself does not invalidate the fact that we have a choice. And, despite such obvious limits, the scope we have to determine our own identities is, it seems to me, actually very broad – far more so, I think, than is generally reckoned. And for all the attributes that combine to create an individual identity – whether innate or acquired – any individual is, or should be, at complete liberty to decide the weighting he or she chooses to give to each. To deny any individual this choice is to force the individual to accept an identity that has been pre-determined; and this seems to me at least as oppressive as any of the other oppressions that proponents of identity politics claim to oppose.
The pre-determined view also seems to me to see identity as something that is fixed rather than fluid, and, once again, this is surely erroneous. I am not, for instance, the person I was thirty years ago; or even twenty, or even ten years ago: my identity, as with so many other things, is something that has evolved over the years, and will surely go on evolving. Through experience, one’s perspective alters, one’s values change. Identity politics, by focussing on those attributes that are essentially immutable, seem to me not to recognise this fluidity: “finding one’s self” is seen as a process of discovering what one already is – or, rather, what Identity Politicians think one should be, given one’s background – rather than exploring the potentials of what one may become. Such a view of identity merely impoverishes us.
A final fatal flaw of “identity politics” – and one that makes identity politics inimical, I think, to the study of literature – is its implicit assumption that our feelings and emotions are triggered primarily, or even solely, by the nature of our identities. I strongly – indeed, passionately – believe this to be wrong. For me, perhaps the greatest gift we possess as humans is our ability to empathise – or, as Auden put it, our ability to “weep because another wept”; that, regardless of what our own background may be, regardless of our race or gender or sexuality or of any of these things, we can make a leap of the imagination, and enter into the minds of people whose identities are very different from our own. To deny this greatest of gifts is to deny all that is finest in humanity. It is to see the mass of humanity as but a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe enclosed within its own space, unable to communicate with any other. These enclosed spaces may be what Identity Politicians refer to as “safe spaces”, but one doesn’t go to literature merely to be enclosed in these “safe places”: study of literature requires us to venture into “dangerous spaces”.
Indeed, this venture into dangerous places is what literature demands. It puts before us perspectives other than our own; it urges us, challenges us, to absorb these different perspectives, and, in the process of so doing, broaden our own. Sometimes, these perspectives encountered are profound and original, and in such cases, absorbing these perspectives into our own enriches us to an extent far, far greater than I think I have the ability to articulate. But none of these wonders can happen if we were merely to cower within our pre-determined “safe spaces”, as Identity Politicians seem to demand we must.
So what exactly is being demanded by the Identity Politicians – those brave warriors who urge faculties of literature to issue trigger warnings because, as they put it, “identities matter”? That teachers should teach sensitive subjects sensitively, and be aware that some students may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or are these demands, as I suspect, going further – that we tailor the teaching of literature, or, indeed, choose the texts to be taught, in view of the identities, or the perceived identities, of the students? If so, that is simply the end of literature. Better not to teach literature at all than to teach it under such conditions. Such a demand implies a denial of literature itself.
It is not surprising that this demand to incorporate identity politics into teaching has reared its head so prominently in the teaching of literature. For literature is, it seems to me, more perhaps than any other branch of learning, a powerful denial of the basic underlying assumptions of identity politics. Literature tells us that we are not prisoners to the circumstances of our birth, that we are not stuck inside our pre-determined “safe spaces”. It broadens our mental horizons; it makes us realise that the world we inhabit is a big world, bigger than we’d ever imagined; it blows away all those putrid little tribalisms that so diminish us in the name, of all things, of freedom.
And no, I still haven’t seen Bombay Dreams. As I say, it’s just not my kind of thing.