Who are we? Identity politics dissected

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On Sunday the 23rd October, the Institute of Ideas and the Times Higher Education held a debate on identity, looking what role the categorisation of people plays in self-identification, society and debate.

Topic / Speakers / Battle of Ideas 2016

About the debate:

Over recent decades, identity politics has become ubiquitous. The content of what one says, the convictions one articulates, the universal principles one espouses are turned to dust by those dread phrases “as a black woman”, “as a gay man” or “as a Muslim”. Western university campuses are just the most visible locations of where left/right political battles or material interests have been usurped by internecine warfare between competitive personalised identities, jostling for recognition and checking each other’s privileges. People increasingly categorise themselves by race, gender, sexuality, religion and culture. In his book, Humanism Betrayed, Professor Graham Good calls it “the new sectarianism”.

Of course, there is nothing new in seeing identity as important. Yet, historically, progressive political movements have fought for people not to be defined by their race, religion, gender or sexuality. Modernity has been the story of forging one’s identity in defiance of birth or biology, through what you can achieve by engaging with the world beyond yourself. Increasingly, though, radicals seem to be rediscovering the lure of essentialism. Privileged millennial activists claim that historical injustices, such as slavery, continue to cause them pain and suffering because of their colour and Western-born wannabe jihadis claim they are motivated by assaults on the global ummah. After the massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, some LGBT activists fought for exclusive “ownership” of any solidarity. Self-conscious identitarians retreat into segregated safe spaces at universities, with increasing demands for LGBT only accommodation in the UK and “racially-themed dorms” in the US. There are spasmodic backlashes: American columnist Michael Tomasky decried the “million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics”. The splintering of identities can also be easy to lampoon – which of the 71 Facebook gender identities will you choose from? However, identity politics seems remarkably resilient. Ironically, while support for Donald Trump is understood partly as a backlash against political correctness, Trumpian new nationalism has recently been described as “a brand name for generic white identity politics”.  Meanwhile, in France, clampdowns on the assertion of religious identity (fought over the summer through the state’s ban on the burkini) take the form of an assertion of French secular identity.

What is it about our society that is so hospitable to new identities yet seems unable to affirm any more universal political ideals such as democracy and equality? Can the historical, more humanistic identities which once gave meaning to people’s lives – from institutions such as the family, class and nation to political movements for change – be reconstituted? Or were these concepts too broad to represent everyone? Philosophically, how should we seek to construct a sense of ourselves today?

This debate formed part of the 2016 edition of the Institute of Ideas‘ Battle of Ideas festival. To find out more about the Battle of Ideas, visit the event page by clicking here.

More recordings from the Battle of Ideas 2015 will continue to be uploaded in the coming days and weeks. To receive up-to-date information about recordings from the Battle of Ideas and other Time to Talk events, you can follow us on our Facebook and/or Twitter accounts, where we regularly publish information about new material.


Julian Baggini – Founding Editor, the Philosophers’ Magazine; Author, Freedom Regained: the possibility of free will and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Sceptic in an Irrational World

Ivan Hewett – Chief Music Critic, Daily Telegraph; Professor, Royal College of Music; Broadcaster; Author, Music: healing the rift

Sunder Katwala – Director, British Future; former General Secretary, Fabian Society

Michele Moody-Adams – Joseph Strauss Professor of political philosophy and legal theory, Columbia University; Author, Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, culture and philosophy

Brendan O’Neill – Editor, sp!ked; Columnist, Big Issue; Contributor, Spectator; Author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays


Claire Fox – Director, Institute of Ideas; Panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; Author, I Find That Offensive