...free to think freely


20th November 2019

Reflecting on Cultural Groups and Identities

I began working on this reflection around three weeks ago, but refrained from publishing it because I was unsure how relevant it was to our current situation. This morning, listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 I became convinced it is highly relevant and something needs to be said, however poorly written it might be.

First, I heard for the first time about the case of Harry Miller, who has taken the College of Policing and Humberside Police to court over the allegation he has been involved in a “Hate Incident” over tweets he made questioning the reality of Transgender identities. Shortly afterwards I heard political commentators talking about other issues bemoaning the lack of political engagement and increasing polarisation in British politics. It seems to me the two are linked, as I had begun to express below.

To be clear, I do not intend to address the Miller case, which is currently before the court. The court will have to apply the law and I am not in possession of all the facts, so it would be foolish of me to offer an opinion on the case itself, but there is a broader issue here about whether it is in the Public Interest to encourage or discourage criticism of ideas. For those identified as suspects of Hate Incidents (not to be confused with “Hate Crimes”) lose their clean DBS status, which means for practical purposes they are excluded from work which would bring them into contact with vulnerable people, whether paid or voluntary, and cease to be a “Fit-and-proper Person” to act as a charitable trustee. It could also disrupt family life, because such a person would not be regarded as safe in charge of children or elderly relatives. It is therefore a very serious loss of social legitimacy and ability to participate in useful community activity. That, of course, might well be necessary for those suspected of constituting a serious threat by acting in a threatening manner, but it would be worrying if the mere expression of a controversial opinion becomes regarded as important enough to instigate such a ban. That would put us on the road to a totalitarian state where failing to support the current political orthodoxy would have serious personal consequences. That is, of course, exactly where Pseudo-liberalism leads.

Ideas can, of course, be escalated into actions which cause harm and a civilised society needs some means of preventing that, but banning ideas is also something a civilised society should never allow. Rather, we need to intercept and disrupt the process of escalation.

There are facts and there are opinions, but the existence of an opinion is itself a fact. This is important, because it is easy to be confused, to confuse the two, or to neglect the fact that an opinion has factual implications.

One aspect of this confusion is that those who hold opinions are tempted to deny the legitimacy of those who contradict them, and even to regard them as evil or as enemies. In extremis that can lead to oppression (by those who have power) or violent rebellion (by those who have not). In more moderate terms it leads us to ignore people with whom we disagree or to regard their engagement as less important than our own. That’s a natural tendency, but not necessarily a helpful one.

Human culture is a fact inasmuch no one could deny it exists (or is that just my opinion? Yet the fact I and others hold that opinion seems undeniable). It is a practical reality that identities and cultures exist, and society needs to relate to them.

Identity can be both individual and collective. Individual identity is internal; it is how one person sees the self. As such, it rarely affects others directly and might even remain undisclosed unless the individual chooses to raise it. Collective identities, on the other hand, are cultural. They bind together an identifiable (at least to its members) group. Individual identities are held, but collective identities are claimed. Moreover, collective identities exist in, and thus interact with, public space. It is in this public space that contact with and friction between identities can occur.

The question that then arises for society is how to ensure such contact is benign, and this is where Diverse Diversity differs from previous approaches.

The contemporary approach is that one dominant ideology, the holders of which constitute an identity which considers itself superior to others and therefore entitled to control them, sets criteria by which other identity groups are to be judged. If they violate these criteria they are deemed antisocial and laws can be passed to ban them or aspects of their beliefs. This is justified by the claim these groups constitute a threat to the freedom of others. However, oppressing opinions and identities which rely on them, leads to increased friction and fragmentation of the public space, and an increased, rather than reduced, risk of conflict. Oppression drives people to desperate measures. It does not persuade people to change their minds; it just makes them more dangerous as they react to the perceived threat. Ultimately it leads to a society where the predominant public response is hatred and people are afraid to take part unless they actually seek trouble. That is not a society I want to see, but it is one I already see for, in one form or another, it has existed for centuries. There was a brief window in the mid 20th century when it seemed to be going away, but that was only in the UK and some other Western democracies, and it’s back with a vengeance now.

There is another way, and that is to regulate the way in which identities engage and interact, so as to ensure they do so with a humility which, without denying any claims to truth they might hold, prevents them interacting in ways which generate fear or aggression toward others. Regulating the manner of public discourse would enable all opinions to be heard and put into an overall context. Preventing intimidation, threats or vilification and keeping everything polite could neutralise threats to public order and safety, whilst allowing everyone to feel valued and able to offer an opinion without fear. That is Diverse Diversity in action. That is what it’s all about.

Throughout this piece I have referred to identities. I have not addressed the truth claims or legitimacy of any identity. Identities can be claimed or imposed, but I have only so far addressed the claimed type. Before turning to the imposed type it might be helpful to distinguish between the two.

A claimed identity is a collective identity claimed by its adherents, who might be the only people who recognise it, at least initially. By contrast, an imposed identity is one others apply to a group of people, which that group might not even recognise themselves. As an example, the Nazis defined Jews according to their own criteria, and then treated people differently (and badly) on the basis of those criteria. It mattered not whether people practised the Jewish religion or considered themselves Jewish, secular or otherwise. The Nazis decided whom they deemed Jews and oppressed them accordingly. They held these people to constitute a “race” on the basis of their grandparents’ religion and imposed that identity on them. Thus, an imposed identity is one others apply to an arbitrary group of people, irrespective of whether that group would see themselves that way, or even recognise its existence.

Imposed identities are almost always instruments of oppression, forced on people to identify them as a threat or a target. So one way to protect people from this form of abuse might be to condemn and prevent the imposition of identity labels by people other than those who claim them. However, that would not work; the term Pseudo-Liberal is an imposed identity. It is unlikely anyone would use it to describe themselves. They would be more likely to claim they were liberal, even though their intolerance might show them otherwise. Yet, without such labels it becomes much harder to describe the problem with their position.

It also follows from that analysis that a claimed identity is not necessarily correct or indisputable. Just because people put themselves in a category does not mean that category is real to anyone other than those who claim it. It is possible for people to be mistaken on either side of an argument.

The foregoing illustrates a serious shortcoming of identity as a basis for politics. Identities are, to some extent, a distraction from reality, creating a false distorted view of how the world really is. To that extent, they are illusory and potentially dangerous if laws are based around them.

What matters is not how people identify themselves or each other, but their intentions in doing so. Are they trying to claim power over others? Are they trying to persecute or vilify anyone? Are they trying to highlight an issue? Are they trying to mislead or constrain the vulnerable?

We need to get beyond the labels if we're to have a meaningful public space where genuine debate can occur. We need to allow all to speak without fear, and no one should find themselves in jeopardy for taking part with a constructive intent. Being on the wrong side of an argument should not be a reason for censure unless it is obviously inconsisent with the speaker’s declared position. No one should be intimidated or coerced, whichever side of a debate they are on.

Rather, there is a need to encourage dissent and debate, but to limit the means by which such debate can be expressed, so as to protect the freedom of opponents to disagree without fear. It is harmful behaviour, including incitement or intimidation we should outlaw, not on the basis of categories or identities, but just on the basis of normal civilised behaviour. That is what we need, not censorship of debatable opinions.