Do you know about identity politics? Have you never heard the phrase? Could you give a damn?
If I were to sit down to dinner with Paul Kelly of The Australian, I suspect we could agree on a lot of political issues. But I don’t think that we could agree on how to write about them. Most of what Mr Kelly writes sounds to me like waffle – or bullshit.
Here are extracts from a piece on Saturday under the heading Race, gender: the risk of identity politics; Political correctness is stifling debate and dissent.
Identity politics, pursued in the U S and on display within university campuses and at the recent Democratic National Convention, is about laws, norms and etiquette to protect and advance identity causes.
A powerful movement with deep cultural roots, it testifies to the revolution within leftist and progressive politics since the failure of Soviet communism and the supplementation of class consciousness with identity based on race, sex, gender and ethnicity. This is fused by historic grievance suffered by such identities and their contemporary demand for redress.
The rise of politics based on the question ‘who am I?’ poses further problems of voter fragmentation for both the Coalition and Labor, though Labor has proved astute in channelling some of this sentiment.
This movement proves the ideological creativity of the Left, the manipulative power of human rights law and the perversion of the idea of justice – seen in this country in section 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act where individuals can initiate legal action because they are ‘offended’ by others.
The politics of identity speaks to deep human need. Yet its application veers towards narcissism, censoring of public debate, vicious campaigns of intimidation and a diminished public square. It is extraordinary to see how many institutions and prominent figures buckle before the campaigns of identity politics, too weak to stand on principle.
The author then refers to the Four Corners program on the shocking abuses of indigenous children in the Northern Territory and says that politicians and the media were reluctant…
….to mention, let alone canvas, the underlying causes – the breakdown of the indigenous social and family order through a range of issues including family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness.
The author then refers to an aboriginal commentator who referred of ‘the politically correct ‘selective outrage’ and [who] told the ABC that ‘Blackfellas’ had ‘to take responsibility for their own children,’ and another indigenous commentator who told the newspaper that ‘this was primarily about children who had been failed by their families rather than race’. After those disclosures, the author says that ‘then an honest debate had been sanctioned.’
Australia, once famous for its straight talking, seems a frightened country.
The author then referred to the cartoon by Bill Leak ‘depicting an irresponsible indigenous father who could not recall the name of his son.’ The author refers to the outrage this cartoon provoked, including that of one Minister who said that it was racist, and said that the cartoonist had pointed out the purpose of the cartoon:
… If you think things are pretty crook for children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, you should have a look at the homes they came from. It wasn’t hard to get. But the fascinating thing about Leak’s piece was the feedback he got that people couldn’t understand his cartoon.
That’s right, they didn’t get it – surely a victory for a politically correct, dumbed down education system and the spread of identity politics culture where such images turn the brain into a non—functioning, non—computing defence mechanism.
Is this Australia’s future? It is certainly the future the progressives want…
…The essence of identity politics runs as follows: because you haven’t shared my identity, you haven’t shared my own oppression and you cannot understand my pain and if you cannot understand my pain you have no right to tell my group how to behave. Identity politics, therefore, is hostile to ideas and debate. Indeed, it mobilises the argument of ‘offence’ as a disincentive to debate and to challenge the right of others to engage in vigorous or provocative public discussion.… Yet it is driven by powerful idea whose essence is ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me.’
….The parallel mechanism is social media – used to brand institutions and people as racist and sexist as a means of destroying them by mass hysteria. In this climate the spirit of Orwell and Voltaire face a slow but sure death. Let’s hope there is still sufficient left of the old Australian character and courage to turn back the tide.
What is going on here?
- There is hardly one assertion of verifiable fact in this piece.
- What we get are general comments on the kinds of behaviour of kinds of people. There are two levels of abstraction – the kinds of groups of various people, and the different ways in which membership of such groups are said to affect their behaviour. In effect, Mr Kelly is applying labels to groups of people and then more labels to their perceived behaviours. There is no room for you or me as individuals – we only get verbal constructs – that represent phantasms from the fear zone of the author.
- What are the criteria for the author’s groups? ‘Race, sex, gender, and ethnicity.’ The first and last look to be identical. The author also mentions class. For reasons we are not told of, any distinctions between groups of people based on caste, class, creed, wealth, sexuality, health, education or age do not qualify for creating issues of ‘identity politics’. Why not? Each of them has been or is poisonous in Australia as setting up barriers between people. Each label has been invoked to deny the individual dignity of real people and not just that of pictured groups.
- What is the alleged problem with the behaviour of these groups? People inside the group say that people outside it do not and cannot understand them and are therefore precluded from commenting on them. This is the broadest generalization of all. Many French historians get very close to this precipice when discussing ‘their’ revolution’, but any Chinese, Jewish, gay, Muslem, aged or poor person who made such a claim in Australia would be plain bloody silly. Would they accept the apparent converse – that they might be incapable of understanding or commenting on their estranged critic? Of course white people have trouble following what is happening with blackfellas in the Northern Territory. Most white people in Australia don’t have the faintest idea of how blackfellas live – and most of them are desperately keen to keep it that way. It is the same with refugees. But is absurd to suggest that as a result, white people are not qualified to discuss either. If you want to attach a label to that kind of silly suggestion, one would be ‘racist’.
- Mr Kelly does not claim to be standing in the middle on all this. He has a position, or, if you prefer, an agenda. He names his opponents – leftists, progressives, the Left, perverted views on human rights and justice, and the politically correct. The reader is taken to understand what those terms connote. My understanding of them, which is limited, is that these terms have no intellectual content at all, but are code for the labels applied to those who follow Fairfax or the ABC. I gather that the label for the conflict as a whole is ‘culture wars.’ I find it hard to imagine anything more sterile or unbecoming.
- May I say something for the term ‘politically correct’, the Antichrist of Mr Kelly? Most people are conscious of differences between themselves and people of a different race; very few think that their group is inferior; most proceed on the contrary basis; there is therefore the basis for conflict between people of different races. We tend to describe such conflict as ‘racist’ or ‘racial’. To take a religious example, it would seem safe to posit that very few Muslems think that their Islam is inferior to the religion of Judaism, Hinduism, Voodoo, or Christianity. The best that we can hope is that people are brought up well enough to avoid showing their feelings to people of a different race in a way that will offend them.
- Now, what good manners or courtesy may require are matters of degree in time and space. They are matters on which reasonable people may differ. The phrase ‘politically correct’ is I think too often a label used to obscure if not smear the role of courtesy in discussing sensitive issues like differences in colour or creed or sexuality. We might think that some people go too far and get too precious, but that is no reason to discard courtesy altogether. Courtesy and cutlery are what separate us from the apes. I can well remember a gentle Catholic man at Blackwood telling me he thought a black footballer had gone too far in complaining of being called a black cunt, and I nearly fell over when I read that a former federal minister (Amanda Vanstone) could not understand why Adam Goodes objected to being called an ape, because we are all descended from them! (It is I suspect reactions like these, which I regard as absurd, that cause some blackfellas to say that you have to at least have lived like a blackfella before you can understand how wounding white people might be to them.) But debates at the edge do not warrant the abolition of the centre.
- Mr Kelly does not need to explain a lot of his terms because he is using language familiar to most of his readers – who are expected to share his assumptions and to adopt his values. We are then talking in club. At a guess, could that group exceed one in twenty of the adult population? Put differently, could say ninety-five per cent of adult Australians give a bugger about any of these plays on words? What do these questions tell us about the relevance of the Australian press to our politics? Is this a perfect example of the kind of intellectual elitism the wholesale rejection of which has led to the uncomely rise of people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine le Pen, and Pauline Hanson?
- Some of Mr Kelly’s judgment, and it does read a little like a judgment, is not without condescension. We get references to the failure of Soviet communism, the fusion of historic grievances, and the ideological creativity of the Left. We are told ‘the politics of identity speaks to deep human need.’ Well, survivors of the holocaust, or any other genocide, would agree. But would they then ‘veer towards narcissism’? Is this sweep not a bit large? If, as we are, told the question is ‘who am I?’, may not the enquirer face the question put by Snow White when she looked at their mirror? And what is wrong with ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me’? Is that not just to put as a prayer in the first person an injunction normally expressed in the second? How many people walk about asserting the contrary – ‘just walk all over me and get right up my nose?’
- And as for the invocation of Orwell and Voltaire, could we have done a bit better with the Enlightenment than Voltaire? What about Kant, who said that each of us has a dignity that derives solely from our humanity? Or are human rights inexcusably suspect? As for Orwell, he said this about political language.
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
And if you are looking for snobbery, we may put to one side ‘the mass hysteria’ of social media – of which I am blessedly ignorant – but it is hard to overlook ‘the politically correct dumbed down education system.’ Dear, dear, dear – a slogan and a cliché, and some of the poor buggers may have been exposed to government schools.
- That is enough for this post. What we have so far is, I suggest, pompous drivel, or, in the style of Mr Kelly, a rant from the Right. I will come back later to deal with the cartoon, the references to the alleged failures of parenthood within the indigenous community, the complaints about s 18C, and Mr Kelly’s invocation of a Golden Age.
- May I just mention a piece in The Saturday Paper that made verifiable allegations of fact about aboriginals in the N T? We are told that the Territory has the population of Geelong but that they at Geelong don’t face the same problems – thirty per cent of the population are indigenous, not literate, speak another language, and suffer from various disadvantages. It is then alleged that the government spends more on white people in Darwin than on black people in the sticks. It then offers other critiques of government based on evidence that at least leave me better informed.
- Finally, surely the big lesson from recent events in the U K and the U S is not that white people do not know enough about coloured people, but that they don’t understand enough about their own white people outside the current version of the Pale. In short, the complaint is the old one – people who live in Mr Kelly’s bubble don’t know how real people live. They haven’t got the foggiest idea.
Since writing the above, I have watched the Four Corners program. The brutality is horrifying. Authorities gassed children held in close detention; two who thought they were being killed, huddled under a sheet and said good bye to each other; this was just one of the reminders of the hell of prisons described in For the Term of His Natural Life. We have gone backwards since this country started as a barbarous jail. We committed crimes against humanity against children. We now stand further indicted of dismissing those crimes with the claptrap pf Mr Kelly and his colleagues about political correctness and identity politics.
Poet of the Month: Kenneth Slessor
Chafing on flags of ebony and pearl,
My paladins are waiting. Loops of smoke
Stoop slowly from the coffey-cups, and curl
In this fantastic patterns down the room
By cabinets of chinaware, to whirl
With milky-blue tobacco-steam, and fume
Together past our pipes, outside the door.
Soon may we lounge in silence, O my friend?
Behind those carven men-at-arms of chess
Dyed coral-red with dragon’s blood, and spend
The night with noiseless warfare. Queens and rooks
With chiselled ivory warriors must contend
And counter-plots from old Arabian books
Be conjured to the march of knights and pawns.