17 May 2022 15:31:33 GMT

The Third Rock Forum - Ethics


Latest Article

Title : Individualism and Identity Politics

Item is Approved.

Date Submitted : 02-05-2022 15:35
Author : Paul G

Individualism encourages individuals to give precedence to their own goals and desires irrespective of, and if need be over, the goals and desires of their society.  Where their goals and desires are coincident with those of society, there is, of course, no problem but given that each individual has a unique genetic code and a unique collection of "lived experiences", such a perfect coincidence is likely to be rare.

Of course both the individual and society have to show some flexibility.  In general, Individuals must accept the legal framework that maintains and protects their society; and society must allow some latitude in terms of the individual's self expression.

In the 21st century, we see the most extreme expression of the tension between society and the individual.  With identity politics, the importance of individual identity has been elevated to unprecedented heights.  The individual's perception of their identity takes precedence over almost everything else, including what most people would agree is reality and certainly over any concept of normality.  

Having identified themselves as "special" these “special people” seek out others with whom they share their specialness (often a very small group as a proportion of the population of the society in which they live) and demand that their importance should be recognised by society. This demand is generally articulated as a call for equality but often it turns into a demand for privilege. A political agenda is developed based on this sense of a particular identity in order to promote the uniqueness and validity of the identity - uniqueness because the identity is peculiar to a relatively small number of people; validity in the sense that it has to be recognised as genuine, important, and equal to any other identity in society, including the society's own sense of identity.

This creates a very real problem for society.  The strength of a society depends upon its cohesion - the extent to which the values it holds dear are accepted and approved by the vast majority of the members of that society.  The current focus on the views of minority groups can be seen as a sign of a healthy society that is open to the demands of those who feel undervalued. But equally it can be criticised as socially divisive, persistently emphasising differences at the expense of communality.

More than that, it has a tendency to deny any centrality in society. The concept of the norm is challenged and rejected. In most aspects of society, whether it is opinions about political, economic or social issues, we find there is a “normal distribution”; i.e. there is a spectrum of opinion in which the vast majority are in the middle with vanishingly small numbers at either end.  For example, in politics, the vast majority of the electorate occupy the centre ground, perhaps a little to the left or a little to the right but close to the centre,  As we look at the numbers who hold more extreme political views, whether to the left or right, they decline in numerical strength. Identity politics disrupts this model, demanding that the views anywhere along the spectrum, irrespective of their numerical strength, should be given equal weight, Those who think there are 185 different genders demand equality with those who are pretty much convinced that basically there are two. The effect is to diminish the importance of the views of the bulk of the population as minority views and interests demand equality with a disrespected norm.

So the fragmentation of society into groups, often based on religion, race, social class or gender militates against social cohesion.  Perhaps more importantly, the demands of one group can easily conflict with the rights of others.

The transgender issue is an extreme example of the problems that identity politics can create. Some representatives of the transgender group have demanded the right to self-identification - i.e. the freedom for a man to identify himself as a woman or a for a woman to identify herself as a man - without any medical requirements and without reference to the opinion of anyone else.

Many would object that gender self-identiciation is a nonsense. There are only two sexes, male and female. They would claim that this is objectively true in the sense that the survival of the species depends upon the union of the two sexes, one male and one female.  If there is one distinction which is as objective as can be, it is this distinction between those with male genitalia and those with a female reproductive system.

But it’s not as simple as that.  Leaving aside the tiny minority who have some of the physical characteristics of both sexes or of neither, some people who are clearly biologically male or female are convinced that have been born in a body with the wrong genitalia. Sceptics would argue that such people have a mental rather than a physical problem. That for a man to self-declare himself to be a woman is no more reasonable or plausible than for a man to declare himself Napoleon, or an angel or a gorilla.  They would argue that providing hormonal and surgical interventions to turn a fully functioning male into a female is as absurd as bringing in a team of plastic surgeons to turn our Napoleonic aspirant into the Corsican Emperor by reducing his height and surgically engendering piles.  Nevertheless, believing you have been born in a body with the wrong genitalia is a very real problem for the individual concerned and our society takes individuals' problems very seriously.  

The real difficulty arises with self-identification.   Self-identification without medical procedures or any third-party authentication is fairly obviously open to gross abuse.  It brings the self-identification lobby into conflict with a much larger group: i.e.women. This is clearly true in sport where men who have been mediocre in their chosen sport become gold medalists when they decide to designate themselves as female.

Even more importantly, there is truth in the aphorism that says what men most fear from women is being ridiculed; while what women most fear from men is being murdered. In April 2018 to March 2019, each week one or two women were murdered in the UK by their current or ex-partners. There are also instances when male criminals who have self-identified themselves as female have then raped women in the female prison to which they have been sent. To many women, self-identification is seen as a Trojan horse, allowing males access to safe spaces which society has given women to protect them from men.

This example reveals the heart of the problem. You can have a coherent society in which, whatever the differences, pre-eminence is given to a core identity and a set of core values to which everyone subscribes. Or you can have a society in which distinct competing  groups of diverse political, religious, sexual, ethnic identities compete with each other to achieve a notional equality and any idea of a core, or of a norm, is degraded and in the end extinguished.

There are arguments for and against each model but one thing is sure - the identity politics model leads to the breakdown of cohesion in society and undermines the security (both social and mental) that concepts of the norm and normality have afforded people throughout history. After all, the norm is, by definition, the place where the vast majority of people feel comfortable.  

Does the norm ever change?  Yes, of course it does,  It evolves organically over time.  But in demanding changes that challenge or contradict the current consensus, identity politics poses three problems. First, it tries to change the norm abruptly; it is therefore socially disturbing and disruptive. Secondly, because the change it demands is abrupt, there is no chance to see whether the change will be good or bad for society as a whole. Thirdly, as set out above, almost inevitably identity politics leads to social unease and confusion as various identity politics agendas compete and sometimes conflict with each other.

Politicians and the media allocate time and publicity to identity politics (particularly about gender and ethnicity) which is entirely disproportionate to the numerical strength of those who support any particular cause. Given the prevalence of mental illnesses in our first world bubble, perhaps we should take another look at identity politics and revive a sense of proportion.