Let’s put an end to the di­vi­sive pub­lic nar­cis­sism of iden­tity pol­i­tics

Ob­ses­sions over gen­der, race and sex­u­al­ity are a self-in­dul­gent dis­trac­tion from global crises

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday coment - JANET DA­LEY READ MORE

as a def­i­ni­tion of my pro­fes­sional iden­tity.

So this is the col­umn I swore I would never write – be­cause I didn’t want to write about “Women” even for the pur­pose of say­ing that I never wrote about “Women”. But the mo­ment has come when it can be avoided no longer.

Iden­tity pol­i­tics is now such a se­ri­ous threat to per­sonal free­dom and demo­cratic dis­course, that it must be ad­dressed head-on. If we go on like this, some of the most fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and pri­vate con­science will be un­der­mined. It’s time to speak up.

When a Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment pro­poses to en­force the re­port­ing not only of gen­der but of eth­nic pay dif­fer­en­tials as well, thus re­quir­ing all em­ploy­ees of large firms to cat­e­gorise them­selves by their racial ori­gins – that is, to self-iden­tify as mem­bers of mi­nori­ties whether they wish to or not, or whether they re­gard this as clear-cut (as in the case of mixed-race peo­ple) or not – we are very close to a tip­ping point. What will be done about em­ploy­ees who refuse to be clas­si­fied by their eth­nic ori­gins? Will their em­ploy­ers be fined be­cause what­ever govern­ment depart­ment is in charge of this ag­gres­sively in­tru­sive pol­icy will as­sume that a lack of com­plete in­for­ma­tion on their work­force is an at­tempt to evade the rules?

Sup­pose you – or your par­ents or grand­par­ents – are of Ja­maican or In­dian ori­gin, but you now con­sider your­self to be as Bri­tish as your white work­mates? Surely the right to de­cide how to de­scribe your­self is a ba­sic free­dom in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety and no one should have the power to in­ter­ro­gate you on this mat­ter un­less you are sus­pected of some sort of crim­i­nal de­ceit. The govern­ment does not gen­er­ally as­sume it can legally de­mand to know your racial his­tory.

The ques­tion of whether eth­nic ori­gin would be re­quired on cen­sus forms has long been a con­tentious mat­ter and ques­tions about eth­nic­ity on NHS forms are al­ways op­tional.

This is more than a vi­o­la­tion of pri­vacy: it is a dan­ger­ous in­fringe­ment by the state of our right to de­cide who we are. The word “de­fine” means lit­er­ally to set lim­its, to iden­tify and es­tab­lish the dif­fer­ence be­tween this thing and the things that sur­round it.

To in­sist that peo­ple be iden­ti­fied, and thus de­fined, by their gen­der, their eth­nic­ity, their sex­ual pref­er­ences, their place of birth or what­ever other rar­efied spe­cial­i­ties the iden­tity po­lice can con­trive is per­force to limit them: to de­ter­mine in ad­vance their re­la­tion­ship to the com­mu­nity and to the coun­try.

Such en­forced iden­ti­fi­ca­tion has a long and un­pleas­ant his­tory, from Nazi yel­low stars to Soviet re­stricted pass­ports. It is il­lib­eral, di­vi­sive and alien to the val­ues of merit and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion on which so­cial mo­bil­ity de­pends.

Ah yes – so­cial mo­bil­ity. That is what this ini­tia­tive is sup­posed to be about. For women and eth­nic mi­nori­ties are thought to be dis­ad­van­taged in the pur­suit of equal at­tain­ment and pay. In fact, this as­ser­tion it­self is deeply con­tro­ver­sial: vir­tu­ally all eth­nic mi­nor­ity chil­dren of both sexes do bet­ter in the state ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem than white work­ing class boys, and girls cur­rently achieve more univer­sity places than boys.

What hap­pens af­ter that in em­ploy­ment is more am­bigu­ous. The rea­son that women and (per­haps) eth­nic mi­nor­ity men earn less than

at tele­graph.co.uk/ opin­ion (white) men may be be­cause they are less likely to be pro­moted to the higher lev­els of pro­fes­sional life. For women, we know that this is to some ex­tent by choice – be­cause they give pri­or­ity to fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. But the ques­tion of pref­er­en­tial pro­mo­tion for mi­nori­ties or women is quite a dif­fer­ent and less quan­tifi­able mat­ter than un­equal pay (which im­plies that peo­ple are be­ing paid less for do­ing the same work – and this would be il­le­gal) and it is hugely prob­lem­atic.

I per­son­ally be­lieve that there is only one rea­son why any­one should be con­sid­ered for pro­mo­tion to the high­est lev­els of their oc­cu­pa­tion: be­cause they are the most com­pe­tent, tal­ented can­di­date avail­able. I don’t care whether they are male, fe­male, both or nei­ther and I cer­tainly don’t care about their (or their an­ces­tors’) racial ori­gins.

To ig­nore merit – or down­grade it – as the chief cri­te­rion of pro­fes­sional and so­cial progress is to make non­sense of what aspi­ra­tion and ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment are sup­posed to be about. And it cre­ates bit­ter­ness and re­sent­ment in places that might sur­prise the mil­i­tant pay equal­ity cam­paign­ers. Just ask any woman who believes that her hus­band or part­ner, son or son-in-law, has lost out pro­fes­sion­ally to a less able fe­male con­tender.

The worst of it is that this ob­ses­sion with iden­tity – which is a kind of pub­lic nar­cis­sism, an ex­ten­sion of the cult of the Self as the mea­sure of all things – is tak­ing at­ten­tion away from the real so­cial cri­sis of our time: glob­al­i­sa­tion and its con­se­quences for demo­cratic na­tion states and their pop­u­la­tions. Per­haps that’s the whole point. Iden­tity pol­i­tics is what hap­pens when real pol­i­tics runs out of ideas.

Such en­forced iden­ti­fi­ca­tion has a long and un­pleas­ant his­tory, from Nazi yel­low stars to Soviet re­stricted pass­ports

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