The Trouble With Identity Politics

This piece was written in advance of the election next week, and in light of the debate about the Mayoral election within the Jewish community and George Galloway’s success in Bradford West. Not to mention the usual inflammatory identity stuff from the BNP which is in my opinion racism in disguise (see this leaflet for example – could barely bring myself to download it).

The problem with identity politics is that everyone who is not involved in pontificating about what it means to hold a certain identity tends to be lumped together in an amorphous mass or may even feel bullied into some kind of homogeneous model of identity that, beneath the surface, does not reflect the reality. The delicate balance between setting out a shared sense of identity and belonging in tension with the uniqueness of every individual is battered by the blunt political discourse. My research of Jewish identity construction in the Greco-Roman period tells me four things about how we speak of identity today.

First, that a community struggles with how it constructs a coherent understanding of what it means to be counted in, whilst tolerating the fact that the theoretical models rarely, if ever, fit the reality. This tension needs a positive space in which the conversation can unfold and one in which threats of exclusion are not the bottom line. I’m not talking about the blatant violation of shared norms, but that belonging to a group and having idiosyncracies does not necessarily make you a hypocrite or heretic. It does make you a human being.

Secondly, I have learnt that the more a community tries to clarify in black-and-white the boundaries of belonging, the less likely those boundaries will hold true for any of its members. I recently taught a text from the Talmud, one of the great creative works of the Jewish world in the first centuries of the common era. In this text, the definition of who could be included in a certain ritual act became so narrow that there was potential for even the authors of the text being excluded. The eventual outcome of black-and-white is that we discover we are all a bit grey.

Thirdly, when we define ourselves in opposition to others we jeopardise our own integrity by thrusting false assumptions on to the ‘other’ and falsely aligning all positive attributes in our favour. Defining oneself against the other is a common trope in many communities seeking to understand who they are, but it is almost always founded on falsehood, polemic or apologetics. The reading of rabbinic literature I love is when a defined identity along these lines of ‘us and them’ is set out and what follows in a piece of brilliance turns the traits and motifs of belonging on their head; suddenly it is not the outsider who behaves in a certain way but the person counted in or doing the defining.

Fourthly, and finally, the most threatening and potentially destabilising person is the individual who deliberately straddles the boundary. However, not only are these people destabilising they can also be the drive towards creativity. A community has to engage with what purpose the boundary serves and whether it is possible to be in and out at the same time. Facing these challenges is not easy and may include some kind of ideological disagreement. However, to face the challenge is also to face the profoundly important question of understanding who we are.

The problem for me, though, is that no matter how complex these issues are in the dense, poetic, creative and highly engaging discursive texts of rabbinic literature (or other conversations), when it comes to politics they are trampled and abused beneath the feet of rhetoric and oratory that seeks only the easily understood sound bite. We are unable to unpick assumptions and challenge falsehoods; in an instant we are all assaulted in the way we are counted in or out as it suits the rhetorician. But it is more than that. If my community chooses to have a conversation about belonging that is up to us, but when politicians use the debate to win votes I think it is inflammatory and dangerous. At the end of the day, we all belong to this small island and we should all be counted in to the debates about civic responsibility, shared values, anxieties and thoughts of our future. We should be able to articulate the responses from within the multiple identities we hold without being pigeon holed by others. However, we must not delegate responsibility for the complex conversations about identity and belonging solely to politicians or their parties, because it is simply too important to be left in their hands.