Identity politics harms the oppressed

by Peter Baldwin, Chair Blackheath Philosophy Forum

This article supports Count 3 of my indictment of identity politics set out in J'Accuse Identity Politics in which I claim that the worst victims of this ideology are the very people it claims to champion. There is a huge amount to be said about this, but in this article I focus on two cases: the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and the role of identity politics in reshaping policy toward indigenous people in Australia over the past several decades. In both these cases, but especially the latter, the embrace of identity politics has not just failed to improve the lot of the severely disadvantaged people concerned, but actually made things far worse.


There is a well-known saying that holds that ‘ideas have consequences’. John Maynard Keynes put it most colourfully:

Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

And big ideas sometimes have big consequences. Who could have imagined that the scribblings of some bearded character sitting in the British museum in mid 19th century London would lead to the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of his followers over the course of the following century?

Who, furthermore, would have thought that despite these manifest consequences, in our own time Marx’s ideas in their most extreme authoritarian interpretations would be enjoying an academic revival with international conferences dedicated to them attracting hundreds of speakers?

Who could have foretold the immense global prestige of academic celebrities like Slavoj Zizek, a welcome guest on the ABC’s Q & A program, who has claimed that ‘the worst of Stalinism is better than the best of liberal capitalism’.

Or the French philosopher Alain Badiou, formerly chair of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, the most prestigious academic philosophy post in the French-speaking world, who to this day maintains that the Chinese Cultural Revolution ‘was inspirational, as deranging and fertile for him as falling in love’. In 2014 Badiou visited Australia, lecturing to packed audiences in Melbourne.

What sane person would want to revive such an ideology, given what we now know about what it led to, the vast human suffering it caused?

 

Ideology over consequences

The short answer to the above question: an ideologue. Someone so infatuated with a particular worldview that it starts to take on the character of a quasi-religion such that to challenge it is heresy. If facts and evidence fail to vindicate an ideology or the activism it mandates, so much for the worse for facts and evidence. Not only must they be ignored, they must be actively suppressed.

This was the mentality of the old communists. But it is also true of our modern-day ‘social justice’ warriors and the academic scribblers specializing in various branches of ‘critical theory’ who provide the theoretical underpinnings for the identarian ideology, which can be traced back to the Frankfurt School philosophers who reinterpreted Marxism to give it a cultural rather than an economic focus.

I contend there is precious little evidence that our contemporary ‘social justice warriors’, who nowadays rampage almost unimpeded through universities all over the Western world, and increasingly beyond, or the academic theorists who concoct justifications for their conduct, ever reflect on the real-world impact of their activities on those they claim to champion.

Not only do they not care about consequences, they work to suppress the voices of those who do. Heretics against the identarian ideology are subjected to vilification, blatant misrepresentation of their views, and sometimes hysterical social media campaigns to comprehensively destroy them socially and professionally.

These are strong claims, and I don’t suggest that this mentality infects everyone engaged in the activist movements I will be discussing below. However they are widespread enough to be exerting a pernicious influence on how some key questions for our society are being debated (or not debated).

Before turning to specific instances to illustrate the case I am making, a brief digression into moral philosophy is called for.

How should we evaluate political decisions, social policies and ideologies? It has always seemed to me obvious that the right way to do this is by judging, as best we can, the consequences that flow from them. The philosophers call this Consequentialism.

The right policy is that which produces the best consequences, ‘best’ in my view being those effects that produce the greatest net benefit for people (and other sentient creatures, more broadly) to which, as a leftist of the egalitarian rather than identarian school, I would add a requirement that burdens and benefits be distributed fairly.

This latter judgement makes me an adherent of a specific form of Consequentialism - Utilitarianism -  that has for some decades been generally disparaged by most moral philosophers, though with some distinguished exceptions such as the Australian J.J.C. Smart and the recently deceased Briton Derek Parfit.

It is not my intention here to make a detailed defence of Utilitarianism, other than to note that the most cogent objections to it, apart from those that depend on some weird and utterly improbable scenarios (for example check out this list of trolley problems in ascending order of absurdity) relate to its application to relations with close associates (friends, family) that most of us think we have special obligations to.

When it comes to public policy decisions, however, most of the latter objections fall away. Special consideration for immediate family is seen as a virtue in the private realm, but in the public sphere such favouritism is called nepotism. The ANU philosopher Robert E. Goodin makes what to my mind is a very strong systematic case for applying Utilitarianism to judgments about public policy (Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy, Cambridge University Press 1995). Apart from which it just strikes me as common sense and is consistent with most people’s moral intuitions.

Making judgments about likely consequences is not always easy – we live in a world of great uncertainty, especially about the longer term effects of major policy shifts. However we should do our best to honestly evaluate the probable effects, taking account of the best evidence available at the time.

Crucially, we should be willing to revise our assessments as new evidence becomes available. To quote Keynes again, when accused of being inconsistent at a government hearing, he allegedly replied:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

And to state what ought to be obvious, for the best judgments to be made it is essential that rival viewpoints can be presented and debated without let or hindrance, free of the kind of ‘thought policing’ that pervades debate on contentious issues nowadays.

Now down to specific cases.

 

Black Lives Matter and other catastrophes

Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement that originated in America and is now spreading worldwide, a movement that many regard as a quintessential campaign for social justice. This arose after several highly publicised incidents where young black men were shot by white police officers, most importantly the shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Almost immediately, a narrative emerged and spread virally that maintained that the shooting was a racist murder in which Brown was shot with his hands raised calling out ‘don’t shoot’. We now know, after the most exhaustive examinations, including by the federal Department of Justice during Attorney-General Eric Holder’s tenure, that this account is completely false.

The overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that Brown was shot during an altercation in which he tried to get control of officer Wilson’s gun. Even the liberal Washington Post newspaper ended up awarding the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ narrative its ‘four Pinocchios’ award for misleading news reports. This is just one of a number of false narratives involving incidents of this kind (along with, it must be said, some genuine cases where racial animus was present).

Did this warrant any adjustment in the position of the activists and theorists of identity politics? Certainly not! We see, time and again, in everything from ‘scholarly’ academic papers to TV shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit the thoroughly discredited ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ narrative. This is not mere sloppiness: evidence contradicting the received narrative is strictly irrelevant.

The received narrative is this: The US is in the grip of a wave of racially motivated murders of young black men by white cops. Given this, it is imperative that police forces all over the country be confronted by rowdy groups of activists, to prevent them from continuing this rampage. This exemplifies the kind of ‘race based mobilization’ advocated by one critical race academic posting on the website of the Harvard Law School.

This has succeeded spectacularly, at least in the sense that it has left police forces across the nation thoroughly cowed and intimidated. According to the national representative body of police chiefs, police dramatically scaled back the kind of pro-active policing that had proved so successful in reducing crime rates, especially homicide rates, across the nation. Who would want to repeat the experience of Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the shots in Ferguson, who despite being ultimately vindicated lost his job, was forced to move house, his life destroyed?

But, did this result in a reduction of violent deaths of young black men? There is good reason to think it had precisely the opposite effect. The American writer and commentator Heather MacDonald coined the expression ‘Ferguson effect’ for the spike in violent crimes, especially homicides, in inner-urban black areas that followed Ferguson:

Violent crime in many American cities began rising in the second half of 2014, after two decades of decline. The Major Cities Chiefs Association convened an emergency session in August 2015 to discuss the double-digit surge in violence besetting its member police departments. Homicides at that point were up 76% in Milwaukee, 60% in St. Louis, and 56% in Baltimore, compared to the same period in 2014; the average homicide increase among 35 cities surveyed by the Association was 19%. ‘Crime is the worst I’ve ever seen it,’ said St. Louis Alderman Joe Vacarro in May. July 2015 was the bloodiest month in Baltimore since 1972, with 45 people killed in 30 days.

This upsurge in violent deaths is a large multiple of the small number of genuinely racially motivated police shootings – in the year following Ferguson the overall increase in black deaths nationally was over 700. The reality is that by far the most significant contributor to black deaths in inner-cities is gang violence; and the only force that stands between unrestrained gang violence and inner city communities is the cops. Thus the effective disempowering of the police has been a disaster for black communities – a view expressed vocally to MacDonald at meetings where residents feel they can speak freely.

This sort of information should, at the very least, provoke some serious reflection on the part of those who champion Black Lives Matter. There should be a proper debate about it. By contrast, MacDonald has been subjected to extraordinary vilification and abuse and subjected to blatantly false accusations of being a ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’.

As usual, this is at its worst when she tries to speak on university campuses, nowadays the least free places when it comes to debating contentious ideas, as happened at University of California Lost Angeles (UCLA) and Claremont-McKenna College in California, ranked as the seventh best liberal arts college in the nation by Forbes magazine. The latter event was virtually shut down, with MacDonald forced to speak to an empty hall, and the UCLA event was severely disrupted, to the great frustration of students and staff who actually wanted to hear the arguments.

The students who organised the Claremont-McKenna disruption issued a statement saying it was wrong to permit the college to ‘host the notorious white supremacist fascist Heather Mac Donald. As a community, we cannot and will not allow fascism to have a platform’.

Take a look at the video below and despair for the state of higher education.

The crippling of meaningful debate about matters like these is a matter of great moral gravity. We are talking about real, avoidable human suffering on the part of the very people the activists claim to be championing.

The Black Lives Matter issue is just one instance of the ideologically-driven suppression of proper debate about issues of great significance. In the UK there is an epidemic of Female Genital Mutilation, mainly involving children of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. According to NHS statistics, an average of fifteen cases are reported each day.

It has been a criminal offense to inflict FGM since 1985, potentially attracting a fourteen year gaol term. Yet in more than three decades the Crown Prosecution Service has failed to secure a single conviction for what a House of Commons committee rightly declared ‘an extreme case of violence against women and girls’. The same CPS proudly boasts of over 15,000 convictions for ‘hate crimes’, many little more than obnoxious tweets, in a single year.

Where are the human rights lawyers and the feminists? Silent, with a few honourable exceptions. Perhaps, like Germaine Greer, they think seriously trying to end this practice would be ‘culturally arrogant’, and in the moral universe of identity politics culture trumps all. Pity the poor girls, condemned to a life of pain, discomfort and incontinence.

This is appalling, but when it comes to ideologically mandated suffering inflicted on the putative beneficiaries of identity politics we should look in our own backyard.

 

Indigenous Australia and the Culture Cult

Australian policy towards its indigenous people provides a striking, and profoundly disturbing, example of what can happen when policy is based on premises grounded in ideology rather than reality.

For the apologists and advocates of identity politics, few identities are more oppressed – and more revered – than indigenous identities. We find scholarly articles that make patently absurd claims about the virtues of such cultures, effectively exempting them from the pathologies that, they allege, permeate ‘white’ Western cultures.

Take, for example, the entry on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy written by Canadian philosopher Cressida Heyes. She quotes approvingly this from another scholar:

Indigenous governance systems embody distinctive political values, radically different from those of the mainstream. Western notions of domination (human and natural) are noticeably absent; in their place we find harmony, autonomy, and respect. We have a responsibility to recover, understand, and preserve these values, not only because they represent a unique contribution to the history of ideas, but because renewal of respect for traditional values is the only lasting solution to the political, economic, and social problems that beset our people.

This is a prime example of what the late Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall referred to as the ‘culture cult’ in his book of the same name (The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, 2001).

What we have here is not an empirically grounded statement based on the careful study of indigenous societies (the business that anthropology used to be in, before the field was taken over by ideologues). It is a quasi-religious statement of ideological principle, that needs no justification of that kind. Sandall describes the pedestal culture is erected on this way:

Philosophers sometimes describe knowledge in modern society as rationally justified true belief. But in the definition of knowledge used by anthropologists rational justification is irrelevant. Belief of any kind is culturally justified and that suffices … What is called tribal ‘knowledge’ usually reflects the needs of group solidarity more than anything else: as such it often represents culturally justified false belief.

This idyllic version of pre-colonial life is just a fantasy. Whatever the virtues of traditional indigenous culture, to suggest that ‘notions of domination’ were absent and all was harmony, autonomy and respect is nonsense. In the words of indigenous Australian academic Marcia Langton, such sentiments are just ‘romantic, misinformed fabulations about Aborigines as a special kind of modern ‘noble savage’.

Langton was one of a group of three indigenous women, all well-known activists or scholars, who delivered a severe corrective to this kind of nonsense in a presentation to the National Press Club in 2016. These woman were exasperated by the lack of effective action to stop an epidemic of violence against vulnerable woman and children in aboriginal communities, inaction that they attributed to deluded notions about the nature of traditional culture.

Jacinta Price, an activist and local politician from Central Australia opened the proceedings with this powerful reality check drawn from her own lived experience:

Traditional culture is shrouded in secrecy, which allows perpetrators to control their victims. Culture is used as a tool by perpetrators as a defence of their violent crimes, or as an excuse or reason to perpetrate. It is not acceptable that any human being have their rights violated, denied and utterly disregarded in the name of culture.

In an earlier speech, Jacinta Price spelled it out even more clearly:

Growing up in and knowing my culture, I know that it is a culture that accepts violence and in many ways desensitizes those living the culture of violence.

She is scathing about the response from virtue-signalling brigade. Referring to a cultural practice that could potentially result in the killing of aboriginal women, she notes:

The public reaction was deathly silence… there was no reaction from the hypocrites in our southern cities. No complaint from anybody: no human rights lawyer, no feminist, no activist, no one made it into the media with a word of concern that women could be executed in the Northern Territory for even accidentally walking on to a ceremonial ground.

For the virtue signallers, nothing must be said or done that casts indigenous culture in a negative light. After all, they insist reversion to traditional culture as the key to solving the problem of aboriginal disadvantage. As Roger Sandall noted, under the ‘culture cult’ ideology indigenous people are required to remain imprisoned by their cultures, condemned to inhabit what he aptly termed ‘anthropological museums’.

Price pleads for a fundamentally different approach, one that acknowledges the right of indigenous people to escape their cultural prison:

Why is it that we should remain stifled and live by 40,000 year old laws when the rest of the world has had the privilege of evolution within their cultures, so that they may survive in a modern world?

Instead, Price and her colleagues were given the standard treatment reserved for ideological heretics: abuse, vilification, suggestions of dark treachery, with the added element of credible death threats.

The politics of suffering

What happens when ideological fantasy becomes the premise of policy? The impact of the change in indigenous policy since the revolution brought about since the late 1960s under the influence of former Reserve Bank chairman H.C. Coombs provides a tragic case study.

I had not realized the magnitude of this disaster until I read Peter Sutton’s book The Politics of Suffering, published in 2009. This is an extraordinarily important book that did not receive anything like the attention it deserved when published.

Sutton has had a close association with indigenous communities extending over thirty years. He was a key advocate and researcher supporting the aboriginal position in some of the most important native title cases. No-one can challenge Sutton’s bona fides as a committed friend of the aboriginal people and advocate of their causes, and as an outstanding scholar of aboriginal culture.

The book paints an horrific picture of what has happened over the past few decades. It describes how communities that forty years ago were poor but liveable have become disaster zones of violent conflict, rape, child and elder assault, with what he terms Fourth World health conditions.

Sutton is extremely distressed and angry about this, and derisive of the use of anodyne terms like ‘aboriginal disadvantage’ that are typically used to describe it. He prefers to talk of the ‘levels of sheer suffering’ of indigenous people today.

That this should have happened despite one well-intentioned policy initiative after another, the granting of land rights, the setting up of autonomous aboriginal governance and service delivery structures, and the spending of billions of dollars annually on both mainstream and indigenous-specific programs, is especially perplexing.

Sutton argues that the deterioration has occurred not just despite the policy shift but was in large part caused by it. His argument is complex and subtle but can be summed up by what he terms the Coombsian contradiction - a policy framework

Built on a willingness to publicly ignore the profound incompatibility between modernisation and cultural traditionalism in a situation where tradition was, originally at least, as far from modernisation as it was possible to be.

Here is what Sutton has to say about the relationship between violence and traditional culture:

My unqualified position is that a number of the serious problems indigenous people face in Australia today arise from a complex joining together of recent, that is post-conquest, historical factors of external impact, with a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today. The main way these factors are continued is through child-rearing. This issue is particularly important, and controversial, in the area of violent conflict.

How ‘racist’ of Sutton to say that cultural practices, especially those related to child-rearing, contribute significantly to the violent pathologies that afflict aboriginal communities! Doesn’t he realize how this could reinforce negative stereotypes?

At least, that would be the charge directed at Sutton if his credentials to speak on this issue were any less impeccable. No such latitude for Bill Leak, the late cartoonist for the Australian newspaper who was summoned to the Human Rights Commission for a cartoon highlighting the same points as Sutton using the satirical instrument of a cartoon rather than a scholarly book.

Defenders of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act may reply that Sutton was an informed scholar making a good faith contribution to an important public debate – the defence provided in Section 18D of the act.

The problem with this is that it is very difficult for someone making this sort of vital contribution to cut-through and make an impact on the wider public debate. The predominant response from supporters of the policy status quo was to ignore Sutton’s work, since they could not refute his account.

This is where cartoonists, satirists and other popularizers have a vital role to play. A well-crafted and provocative cartoon can have a greater impact on the wider public debate than a dozen academic papers. A robust debate needs a range of contributions, from academic treatises to cartoons and other works of satire.

 

Conclusion: Breaking the silence

Sutton refers to a blanket of silence ‘promoted and policed by the Left and a number of indigenous activists’ that has constrained honest debate on these matters from the 1970s until relatively recently.

We saw an example of how this blanket of silence operates with the treatment of cartoonist Bill Leak, described above. But who is the real racist here? Is it possible that those who delight in signalling their anti-racist virtue might be guilty of racism themselves?

To clarify matters, consider the following proposition, that all genuine anti-racists should surely agree on:

An aboriginal child has every bit as much right to a decent start in life as any other child. The same right to be protected from serious harms like violence, sexual predation and exposure to substance abuse. The same right to a healthy and sanitary environment, good nutrition, and decent educational opportunities. And the same right to be protected from influences that would draw them inexorably into a nasty, brutish and short life of crime.

By insisting on this cone of silence about traditional aboriginal culture and its effect on indigenous life to the present day, the virtue signallers of identity politics effectively deny this right of equal protection to aboriginal children.

But increasingly indigenous people such as the three women who addressed the National Press Club are prepared to speak out and acknowledge difficult realities. Another prominent indigenous Australian, former ALP President Warren Mundine has defended Leak’s cartoon thus:

I think what he was saying is that a lot of people are ignoring or avoiding the bleeding obvious in this space

Mundine has stressed that the nightmare described by Sutton and the three women continues to the present day. On the ninth anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generation he penned an article warning of a failure to protect aboriginal children in utterly dire circumstances:

The fact is there are indigenous children living in the grip of dysfunction, abuse, family violence and addiction. Report after report has found children exposed to some of the worst forms of violence, sexual assaults, psychological abuse and neglect imaginable. Last year the Northern Territory's Coroner described family violence there as out of control with one child subjected to domestic violence and three witnessing it every day.

There is no greater moral challenge that confronts this nation than ending this state of affairs, and defeating the malign ideology that stands in the way of achieving this.

 

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