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There has been some great discussion resulting from my piece on The Problem With Male Feminists, and I’m really grateful for everyone who responded.  The most frequent and serious pushback on what I wrote has been that feminism needs to attract men because it is part of a much broader movement.  Feminism, in this view, is the women’s branch of the civil rights/ human rights struggle, just as the black civil rights movement was a manifestation of the same principles for another overlapping group of people.  We should be recognising each other’s humanity, and seeing everyone as human.

During the same time, a friend sent me an account of a speech made by Salman Rushie in which he made a similar point: that “identity politics” was narrowing people’s perspectives and calcifying their sympathies.  Instead of defining ourselves by our love of family, friends or our chosen home, he argued, we have retreated into a rigid and fearful set of identities which only articulate what we hate and what we find offensive.  I hear a similar argument from people who reject feminism, calling themselves as “true egalitarians” because they want everyone to be treated the same.

There’s a lot of truth in these perspectives, and I agree that it would be disastrous if the struggles against patriarchy and white supremacy had the effect of painting people into corners from which they could not escape.  But I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that these forms of activism are simply aspects of one over-arching movement, which should encourage us to focus on our shared humanity instead of our political identities.

The problem is, I don’t know what humanity looks like.  That might sound a rather glib statement, but I don’t.  I can’t envision what it would mean to respect humanity or aspire to it (and as Rowan Williams has pointed out, some religious traditions have found a love of humanity provides a handy alibi for not actually loving or respecting the people around them.)  I think there’s a risk in the language of “humanity”: that it allows us to gloss over the distinctiveness of other people for the sake of a rather bland ideal[1].  Honouring the humanity in another person sounds dangerously close to respecting whatever I can find in them which looks and feels like me.  It short-circuits the arduous process of trying to know them as who they are, to respect their subjectivity and the ways in which they cannot be expressed in my terms.

It also forecloses my chance to learn from them.  Because I’m certain that my instinctive idea of “humanity” is deeply and unfortunately shaped by the problems of the society I grew up in.  Our culture tends to regard white, heterosexual, cis men as the standard, and other people as flawed/interesting deviations from that model.  It’s the reason you don’t hear the newspapers talking about a male banker or a group of white lawyers.  Our notion of the standard human is part of centuries of oppression and the devaluing of groups who didn’t hold power.  Indeed, it was part of the process by which they were kept from gaining power.

Focussing on this “humanity” risks valuing whatever and whoever makes sense under a flawed, racist and misogynist system.  It helps us to ignore the fact that feminism and black activism pose a challenge to what we think constitutes being human.  They don’t simply ask for access to the category or the system, they demand that we rework the ideas behind it.  “Just treating people equally” rests on an assumption that we know what equality means, that these movements are simply rephrasing an obvious and agreed set of abstract principles.  Queer theory, feminist theology and trans activism are not examples of minority or disempowered people suddenly realizing that equality should apply to them as well as to the people in power.  On the contrary, they continue to reveal the inadequacy of the principles we thought we had, and challenge us to rethink them.  On the most basic level, they question who I think I am.

That’s the other problem with dismissing “identity politics”.  It would easy for me to do so, because I don’t have an identity.  At least, I don’t have the sort that people mean when they complain about identity politics.  “Identity” is implicitly defined as that deviation from the standard white, heterosexual, cis man which marks someone out as different.  When I act to further the economic interests and boost the political voice of people like me, no-one calls it identity politics.  They call it building a career or being an engaged citizen.  I could only have male colleagues, only vote for white candidates and only use heterosexual couples as examples in my writing, and no-one would ever suggest I was advancing some sort of identity agenda.  It’d just look as if I was having a “normal” life.  Entirely dismissing “identity politics” would suggest that the society we live in is equitable and keen to value everyone, when it demonstrably isn’t.  I can understand the political risks involved in fragmenting a broad coalition into small groups, but appealing to a shared humanity doesn’t seem to be the answer.  It lets us off too cheaply, too easily and ignores the intellectual and moral demands on us to change the way we think about ourselves, as well as other people.

[1] Yeah, I know I’m sounding rather too much like Edmund Burke for comfort.  It’s making me antsy too. I think we should get past it in the next paragraph, so stay for the ride…