Exclusionary Identity Politics Poses a Danger to us all. And yes, Feminism is At Risk too.
Feminism has often been upheld as a successful identity politics movement, in the ongoing debate about the constructiveness or otherwise of identity politics. After all, feminism is a successful identity politics movement that has changed the world for the better, and not just for women. Although women have been the main beneficiaries of this women, men have also been lifted out of their rigid gender roles and expectations. Liberal feminism has also given society many great voices, great minds, and great ideas, through the increasing participation of women in the public sphere. Mainstream, liberal feminism is also generally agreed to be not too divisive, and has not threatened the cohesiveness of society while successfully delivering much needed social change.
Feminism and other identity politics movements have traditionally been associated with liberal or left-wing politics. However, recently some have observed that a new, right wing type of identity politics has emerged, around the identities of conservative white, heterosexual men. This kind of identity politics has been fuelling nationalist movements around the Western world. Nationalist movements, by definition, are at least partially about exclusion. Nationalist movements throughout history have often had a racist undertone to them, and sexism and homophobia were often fellow travellers too. As a result, many feel that this kind of identity politics is working to make our societies more authoritarian, and less liberal. This has made many on the left re-evaluate the usefulness of identity politics.
In any re-evaluation of identity politics in the era of the rising alt-right, the most important (and most feared) question would naturally be, are all identity politics movements capable of turning over to the ‘dark side’, i.e. becoming illiberal and exclusionary like the alt-right? And I am afraid that the answer is yes. There is no logical reason why the exclusionary attitudes of the identity politics of white, heterosexual men cannot also apply to the identity politics of any other group, given the right circumstances. And yes, feminism is potentially vulnerable too.
If we want to prevent feminism and our other beloved identity politics movements slide towards the dark side, we need to first understand the difference between liberal and illiberal identity politics. So what’s so different between xenophobic nationalism and liberal feminism?
The most important difference is perhaps in the core intention of these movements. While liberal feminism seeks equality of opportunity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to enshrine the superiority of some. While liberal feminism seeks freedom for all regardless of identity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to tighten societal norms and restrictions based around identity. While liberal feminism seeks to break the boundaries dictated by identity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to build unbreakable walls to keep identity groups rigidly separate. From these examples, we can see that there are actually two very different types of identity politics. One type of identity politics seeks to use shared identity and shared lived experience to inform how society can be more liberal and less discriminatory. The other type seeks to use shared identity and shared lived experience to build walls and keep outsiders firmly out. It is just natural that the former would make society more liberal, and the latter would make society less liberal.
While xenophobic nationalist identity politics is almost always right-wing, it would be a dangerous mistake to assume the identity politics movements of the left are always the liberal type. Leftist identity politics has at times been almost as exclusionary as right-wing nationalism. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) is a good example. Identity politics around minority and historically disadvantaged minorities are not immune to being illiberal, especially towards even more disadvantaged minorities, or minorities within minorities. The very existence of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) is conclusive proof that feminism is very much vulnerable to the force of the dark side.
So how can we help keep feminism liberal, and prevent its slide into the dark side?
We need to be true to the ideals of liberalism itself, liberty and equality. We need to strive for the liberty and equality of all. We need to use our shared experience to inform society on how it can become more liberal and equal, rather than to build walls and cliques. We need to be open-minded and welcoming to those with different backgrounds and lived experiences, and therefore potentially very different views on various matters than what we are used to. We need to be non-judgemental and inclusive, and develop strategies for the inclusion of people who may otherwise have conflicting views. We need to welcome the rational debate of any issue, and be prepared to participate in those debates with well developed arguments, rather than just shutting our opponents down. In short, we need to live up to the grand ideals of the liberal cannon. Anything else would be inadequate.