Posts Tagged ‘identity politics’

Lionel Shriver on identity

Membership of a larger group is not an identity.

“Not identity politics again!” I hear you all moan.

Sadly, yes. But I won’t rant on about it this time. I merely wish to point any reader who may be interested in these matters towards certain things that have been said and written recently.

The quote above is from a talk given recently by American novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. It’s not that identity does not matter, but, rather, it is not something that is conferred on one merely by membership of a larger group. The implications of this seem to me important: one’s identity describes who one is as an individual; it is something that one forges for oneself. It is not mere membership of a tribe.

The whole speech was intelligent and eloquent, and, I think, well worth reading. However, not everyone thought so. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is amongst those who took offence. She makes the devastating observation that “Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness”, and explains here why she therefore felt compelled to heroically walk out:

As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins

Frankly, I am not so convinced that walking out is always seen as a political statement. If I am at a lecture and see someone walking out, I usually assume they’re going for a pee. But now that I know this was indeed a heroic political gesture, I suppose I should take it a bit more seriously.

For Abdel-Magied was by no means the only one who took exception to Lionel Shriver’s speech. From the opening line of this article, it seems there were others who also heroically walked out. So serious was the fall-out, indeed, that, “as a result of the backlash, Brisbane Writers Festival organised a ‘right of reply’ event”. Which is fair enough. People must always have the right to reply. Especially if they feel, as Abdel-Magied does, that

The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote [speech] is … the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.


Then, yesterday, an article by Nasrine Malik appeared on this matter in The Guardian. The headline (not written by Nasrine Malik) tells us that “identity politics doesn’t deserve Lionel Shriver’s contempt”. The article itself, however, is somewhat more nuanced than the headline would suggest, although Malik is quite vehement in distancing herself from Shriver, and insists, as Abdel-Magied had done, that “cultural appropriation” is very much “a thing”:

It is very much a thing. It is, in fact, one of the most frustrating and complicated things to explain and justify to those who have the luxury … of living a life that no one, in the present or historically, has plundered.

I’ll leave the reader to determine what Malik means by having one’s life “plundered”, either “in the present or historically”. I can’t really make much sense of it myself.

Having distanced herself from Shriver, Malik goes on to make many of the points that Shriver herself had made. Her only point of contention with Shriver, as far as I can see, is that Shriver is not very “respectful”. The question of why culture – one’s own, or others’ – should automatically be entitled to respect is one Malik does not address. I’m afraid repeated insistence on “respect” reminds me of nothing so much as The Godfather films.

So there it is. I won’t repeat my own thoughts on the matter: I have previously banged on at length about literature and identity politics, and about the concept of cultural appropriation; and, since I am not a paid columnist, there seems little point in recycling old material when I have no new thoughts to add. I have also, fairly recently, commented on this crazy idea that literature is about “telling one’s story”, or of “giving voice to one’s experience”, or that the story one tells, the experience one “gives one’s voice to”, is necessarily representative of one’s group. In any case, if Lionel Shriver’s eloquence doesn’t convince people, I doubt mine will.

But does any of this actually matter? Could not all this merely be a storm in a teacup? May one not, in these matters, take the imperious view of Edmund Burke?

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number, or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Sadly, no, I don’t think so. Thoughts that are prevalent make an impact on the real world. If we believe that we are defined primarily or even solely by our race, our religion, our gender, our sexuality, and all those other things that seem so essential to proponents of  identity politics; if we believe that we cannot grow and develop, and move away, should we so want, from the various features allegedly pre-determined for us by the circumstances of our birth; if we feel it wrong to absorb other cultures, or for people from other cultures to absorb ours; then the walls we build around ourselves are more than merely walls of the mind.

Last year, I was troubled when a diversity officer (sic) at a students’ union in Britain organized an event which white people were told not to attend. Now, I read that California State University in Los Angeles is offering racially segregated accommodation to its students.

Racial segregation. In the name of liberalism.

I fear we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.



POSTSCRIPT (added 14th September, 2016, 17:15 BST)

I just read a post on this matter on Kenan Malik’s blog Pandemonium. Amongst other things, he says:

The Festival organisers removed from their website links to Shriver’s talk, while also organising a ‘right to reply ‘session with, among others Abdel-Magied and the Korean-American author Suki Kim.  Lionel Shriver was not at this session because it was deliberately organised at the same time as Shriver was speaking, promoting her new novel The Mandibles. There is something more than a little ironic for a festival of writers to remove from their website the keynote speech at the festival because some objected to it, and to organise a ‘right to reply’ while both ensuring that the speaker being replied to cannot attend and removing the speech which is being replied to. The Festival seemed less concerned with opening up debate than with assuaging hurt feelings.

I had not known these details when I wrote my post above, and decided to add this postscript, as I felt these details are of interest. I’d like to add also that the whole of Mr Malik’s post is well worth reading.

POST-POSTSCRIPT (added 16th September, 2016, 15:35 BST)

The links to Lionel Shriver’s speech have now been restored, and the Festival Organisers blamed their temporary unavailability on a technical glitch. The New York Times have corrected their article to reflect this, so it is only right that I do the same.


Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)


Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left them behind, they come back, and take us by surprise.

A case of identity: literature and identity politics

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.