The illiberal left strikes again

BY Keith Johnston   /  2 January 2018

The Italian designer Stefano Gabbana, of Dolce & Gabbana fame, is tired of being defined by his sexuality. “I don’t want to be called gay, because I’m simply a man … full stop.” said Gabbana last month. But writing in the Guardian, the poster boy of the illiberal left, Owen Jones, disagreed: “Gabbana can’t escape his identity, whether he likes it or not.”

The far left’s embrace of identity politics is a progressive dead end. Once proud to argue that sexuality, colour or creed ‘didn’t matter’, the regressive left have pivoted. Now the left insists your sexuality, gender, or colour are the most important thing about you. Naturally, like Stefano Gabanna, you don’t have a say in this.

But the idea that individuality is trumped by group identity is fundamentally illiberal. Its means your personality is prescribed and is unalterable. Born gay, black or Muslim and you are a victim. Born white and heterosexual and you are an oppressor. Individual circumstances are ephemeral, your choices irrelevant: it’s the group that matters.

As Professor Stephen Hicks points out in Explaining Postmodernism, the left are making the same historic mistake as their Marxist progenitors. They have simply replaced the narrative of proletariat versus bourgeoisie with one of oppressor versus victim.

Thus we see incidences such as Owen Jones self-righteously storming out of a Sky News broadcast in June last year. He did so because the presenter said the Orlando gunman who attacked the Pulse LGBT nightclub had targeted “human beings”. Jones vehemently disagreed, stating with moral superiority: “You don’t understand this because you’re not gay”. Shocked fellow panellist Julia Hartley-Brewer said Jones had: “no ownership of horror”.

But what the panellists didn’t understand was that in the new regressive ideology, Jones did indeed have ownership: because he was gay and they were not. Common humanity was secondary to group identity. Only a gay person of Jones’s impeccable leftist pedigree could truly understand this horror. The role of the other members of the ‘hetero-normative’ panel was to be subservient “LGBT+ allies” who should know their place.

Elsewhere Jones’s extended the argument; objecting to “men lecturing women about feminism or white people lecturing black people about racism.”

The framework of identity politics may originally have been a useful way of empathising with others who didn’t share our experiences, or as a means of demonstrating good faith, but it is now being taken to an extreme.
It is being deployed rhetorically to dismiss the arguments of persons based on features of their personhood. The argument is “you’re not gay/black/female” so you need to check your privilege and shut up.

The regressive left has placed identity, based on immutable characteristics of race, gender and religion in a pecking order of social importance, where victimhood is the highest virtue to be had. In what US critic Dave Rubin calls the “Oppression Olympics”, groups compete for who is most oppressed, and thus the most virtuous. And if someone is not as oppressed as you then you are morally entitled to oppress them accordingly.

This wrong think led the UK’s National Union of Students to pass a motion stating that white gay men should not lead LGBT societies because: “Misogyny, transphobia, racism and biphobia are…more likely to occur when the society is dominated by white cis gay men.” Here the individual merits of an individual white gay man are secondary to the fact that he is white and male.

Sadly this ideology cannot even protect the minorities it claims to represent. This is because the interests of minorities clash. Alas if you’re Muslim, gay and oppressed, don’t expect support from the regressive left. As Julia Hartley-Brewer pointed out, Owen Jones is one of the many people on the left who are “intent on putting their heads in the sand about the unquestionable fact that Islam has a problem with homophobia”.

The true progressives on these issues, such as Maajiid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are abandoned by the left for speaking out against Islam. The influential US activists body, the Southern Law Poverty Center, has gone so far as to brand both ‘anti-Muslim extremists’. The fight for a more progressive Islam is dismissed as ‘Islamophobia’ and its protagonists as ‘porch monkeys’.

Now those on the left who remain liberal in outlook are drifting away from the regressives, redefining themselves as classical liberals.

The only thing that can replace the regressive decent of the left is a return to true liberalism. A liberalism which defends free speech, diversity of thought, equality of opportunity and which places the rights of the individual, not the group, at the centre. In 2018 liberals need to rally round the truly progressive principles that inspired Martin Luther King Junior over fifty years ago; a nation where children are not judged by the colour of their skin, their sexuality or their gender but by the content of their character.