Archbishop Rowan Williams, an advocate of the Robin Hood tax, is often regarded as a progressive public voice. His latest comments recognise the importance of identity, but veer towards the dismissal of marginalised voices. Williams says we need to find a way of “putting it all back together again and discovering what is good for all of us”. We can, and should move towards a common good, but only when every voice is taken into account – and not a second before.
Until then, we are not done. Too often the common good is identified and advanced by white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class men.
In a world where the goings on of the average woman’s uterus is the subject of political debate, where Trayvon Martin can be shot dead for the crime of being black and wearing a hoodie, we must not put our basic human rights aside for the common good. Marginalised voices matter. It’s time to reject the language of the “minority” – phrasing that takes liberation and deems it small, insignificant and inconsequential. Women are 52% of the population. Black and ethnic minority people are a global majority.
When you understand liberation, you understand privilege. Williams’s comments don’t acknowledge this, and his language is divisive.
Liberation doesn’t damage society. Privilege denying does. People of every sexuality, gender, race and creed need to recognise that the fight for equality is one we all have to take responsibility for. The politics of the people is nothing if it doesn’t include all the people.
Sunny Hundal: ‘The process is not only one way’
Rowan Williams has always been a thoughtful and useful commentator on Britain’s politics, but I do have a bone to pick with his warning shot on identity politics and Britain.
We always assume that “identity politics” is short-hand for ethnic and racial diversity. It isn’t. Identity politics has been around in societies as long as identity itself has been around; Britain’s oldest divide – the class divide – is also a form of identity politics. It’s more that until recently the political culture ignored the importance of other identities such as gender, race and sexual orientation.
Is that a good thing or bad thing? I suppose that depends on where you come from. But the mistake I think Rowan Williams makes is assuming that the process is only one way.
A few years ago I met a wealthy gay businessman. He said over dinner that he’d never felt more Muslim until after 9/11 because people kept attacking his heritage, even though he had never previously felt much affinity to it.
When Anjem Choudary and his band of provocateurs burn the poppy on Rememberance Day, people are naturally outraged because they feel a part of their identity has been attacked.
Not that dissimilarly, some women become feminists because they’re angry at the casual sexism and institutional indifference they’re asked to put up with every day.
What many who attack diversity and equality rarely acknowledge is that sometimes their criticism and indifference fuels the antagonism that leads to even more divides.
I’d hoped that Archbishop Williams would have explored the other side to the debate, but perhaps that will be left to another time.
Peter Tatchell: ‘Prioritising diversity weakens social solidarity’
Archbishop Williams is right to acknowledge that identity politics evolved as a much-needed antidote to the exclusion and discrimination experienced by women and by ethnic and sexual minorities. Old-style 1950s class and ideological politics sustained a narrow-minded, suffocating, monocultural uniformity; often ignoring and devaluing marginalised peoples and communities. It was vital to defend the right to be different and the human rights of the outcast and neglected. This has been the great strength of identity politics. It has moved us towards a more inclusive and equal society.
However, when the archbishop queries whether identity politics has gone too far he is both right and wrong. While identity politics has made great progress in overturning misogyny, racism, homophobia, ageism and disableism, prejudice and inequality still remain, decades after the first laws against sex and race discrimination. The battle for mutual respect, inclusion and equality is still not won.
Where the archbishop is right is when he suggests that a one-sided, narrow-focused identity politics can divide people; fragmenting society into separate and often competing identities, values and traditions, each loyal primarily to themselves and with little interest in the wider public good. When diversity is prioritised to the exclusion of shared experiences and interests it subverts our common humanity and weakens social solidarity. We all lose out.