Impossible You, Impossible Me: The Discursive Impasse of Identity Politics
Now more than ever, the Left needs to win people over. Yet, all too often, the Left pushes people away through its tendencies towards self-righteousness, cultural elitism, anti-intellectualism and attempts to censor all those with divergent views.
Somewhere along the line, Left and Right became mutually dependent. Each has come to produce the other, leading to ever-more dangerous cycles of right-wing populism and left-wing cultural authoritarism. The cycle must be broken with a more authentic politics that addresses fundamental, material concerns.
According to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, political discourses are produced through antagonism. A discourse becomes dominant in the social field and claims to represent reality. Yet, inevitably, any representation leaves things out. Discourse cannot represent all of reality and often depends upon exclusions in order to maintain a level of coherence. People who feel excluded by the totalising discourse, however, speak back. They construct alternative discourses that challenge the dominant discourse’s claims to represent everyone: in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms, they stand in ‘antagonistic relation’ to that discourse. The dominant discourse depends upon exclusion in order to maintain its internal coherence, and yet its fundamental claim to represent the social totality is undermined by the antagonistic assertions of those excluded. To use Laclau and Mouffe’s characteristically obscure idiom: antagonism renders discourse both possible and impossible.
Identity politics illustrates this perfectly. As an outsider, my being, my aspiration, my potential, my needs are all blocked by the dominant discursive frame. The system claims to be universal, to represent everyone equally: yet closer inspection reveals inherent biases. The system is actually biased against women, against racial, sexual and religious minorities, against the poor. It claims to speak for everyone and yet it persistently works in the interests of elite, white, heterosexual and heteronormative men. Various forms of discursive exclusion are identified, in which the outsiders’ capacity to constitute an identity and a life for themselves is blocked. They are not recognised for what they are, but are reduced to a stereotype and placed in limiting boxes, both conceptually and materially. And as each of these excluded groups comes to recognise their exclusion as being equivalent to that of other groups, various discourses of emancipation proliferate and a vision emerges of a society in which everyone has the freedom to be themselves and to work towards their aspirations without arbitrary discrimination. A political horizon emerges for identity politics, which is never reached, because ever-more subtle forms of discrimination can always be weeded out.
The problem arises when these discourses come to occupy positions of power (as I believe they have within certain fields and within certain pockets of our society) and they are not applied with the kind of compassion and openness with which they were intended. Often, the politics of identity are imposed in a manner that is authoritarian – in ways that shut down conversation and position only one version of truth as valid. For those who are on the receiving end of being censored for lack of ‘political correctness,’ it manifests as something like this: You deny me the authentic expression of my being – my capacity to think, speak and act spontaneously. You render my opinions (and my humour!) so unpalatable that I must cloister them away in silence, for fear of being labelled stupid, racist, misogynist, bigoted, etc… And just as identity politics finds its universal resonance, as (almost) every person has at one stage been on the receiving end of arbitrary discrimination, so too the so-called ‘alt-right’ has a kind of universal appeal as everyone, at some stage, will find themselves being accused of mansplaining, cultural appropriation, femmephobia, heteronormativity, etc etc etc… An irritating culture of accusation, ‘calling out’ and righteous posing emerges instead of a culture of emancipation. And it pisses people off.
Enter Trump, with all of his metronomic obscenity, his refusal to conform to any of the dictates of the PC Police. His famous hair itself becomes a symbol of this: defiant matter out of place that refuses conformity to any normal aesthetic standard (we know he could afford a better hair piece, but he is beyond caring). Trump stands in for the every-man: he is the return of the repressed, the expulsion of the people. Stripped of his ability to be a fully formed human being, his political significance seems to be exclusively his many, very public flaws – and those flaws represent precisely his universal appeal. For those sensitive to this discursive construction, Trump signifies everything human that political correctness had denied.
You make me impossible; I make you impossible. We both manufacture our own empty signifiers from the antagonism that results… and become polarised in ways that really aren’t necessary.
Until we find a discourse that can transcend this, we will spiral further and further into evermore deadly cycles of confrontation. Neither side can triumph against the other, as each one produces the other. We must rise above this binary with a politics that is more radically inclusive, more grounded and human.
Trent, Speak English
A range of commentators have claimed that political correctness gave rise to the Trump phenomenon. I think that’s a massive over-statement. So-called political correctness was far from the only factor that led to Trump’s election victory – there were numerous others, foremost being a vacuous Democratic candidate who represented the status quo in almost every possible respect. Having said that, political correctness or an overly zealous Left has put wind in the sails of far right-wing groups which gave the Trump campaign its inner dynamo.
I should emphasise that the forms of denial that inform “identity politics” and “anti-political correctness” are far from morally equivalent. Being the victim of mild cultural censorship is obviously not as bad as being the victim of arbitrary discrimination. Being shut down and labelled racist is obviously not as bad as being treated in a racist way, for example. The point, rather, is simply to recognise that an overly confrontational style pursued by certain sections of the Left (epitomised in a ‘call-out culture’ that verges on bullying) is giving energy to a reactionary form of right-wing politics – which can hardly be considered a desirable outcome. The style of engagement needs to be rethought.
In addition to this, while our fixation on ever-more subtle forms of exclusion may give us an inward sense of righteousness, all-too-often it also gives us an outward appearance of pettiness. Perhaps it would be worth fretting over the subtle micro-exploitation embedded in so-called “cultural appropriation” if we lived in a society in which there were no bigger things to worry about – but in case you didn’t notice, we’re faced with tremendous challenges. Climate change and the escalation of international conflict potentially threaten to wipe out all advanced life from this planet: so could we please try to see our relatively minor cultural and identity-based struggles in perspective?
The tragic character flaw of the Left is its self-righteousness. I am guilty of this as much as anyone. Paradoxically, we assume that our virtues of radical equality make us better people than those who do not adhere to such virtues. We need better ways of engaging. We don’t need to look far to find this: if we only take the kindness and understanding that we take to our engagements with our political allies and extend them to our political opponents, then we will be in a much better position.
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