Melbourne Writers Festival: Identity politics debate

On Sunday, 27 August 2017, I participated in a debate about identity politics for the Melbourne Writers Festival, as part of a day of human rights-focused programming curated by Right Now magazine. I was the first speaker debating against the proposition ‘Is identity politics a useful prism to discuss oppression?’ alongside writer Adolfo Aranjuez. (If you haven’t read Adolfo’s excellent essay on this subject, do it now.) The debate was packed and a lot of people couldn’t get in, so I thought I’d post the text of my debate speech in full. Although we didn’t win, it was a closer result than I was expecting.

I’m just going to put it out there, as the negative team in this debate I’m pretty sure we’re going to lose.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to have a crack, but Adolfo and I are here to argue against the liberal-left dogma that is identity politics, at a writers festival. In Melbourne.

It doesn’t help that although I’m queer, mentally ill and grew up poor in rural Australia, I am a white, university-educated, cisgendered man.

And to make matters even worse, when we actually get around to the question we’re debating, I don’t even disagree! I’d be crazy to stand up here and say identity politics has no value. Clearly, it does.

From feminism to Indigenous rights to disability advocacy, political movements organised around identity have made huge gains in Australia over the past half century in particular. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life working for LGBTIQ organisations, using queer identities as a way to examine and overcome oppression.


Despite the dogma identity politics has become, in fact, because of it, it is more important than ever that we are able to have open discussions about its problems and its limitations.

Identity politics as an all-encompassing political ideology is deeply flawed, and severely limited, both as a way to understand oppression, and to overcome it.

When identity politics becomes our primary tool for understanding oppression, then political change gets re-framed as simply a matter of representation, and political success becomes just a set of rules for what to say and how to act in order to be a “good person”.

Adolfo and I are going to lay out two main critiques of identity politics in our arguments here today: that identity politics limits the possibilities of our discourse; and that identity politics limits the political change we can achieve.

So first, discourse.

Identity politics encourages an individualistic search for the “politically perfect”. It replaces critical reflection on our own political positions with “good politics” and “bad politics”. Under these terms, anyone who doesn’t share our views is a “bad person”, while anyone who can at least perform what we expect from “good politics”—the right words, or better yet, the right oppressions—is a “good person”.

It’s a seductive idea. All we have to do is learn the right things to say, which terms to use for a given marginalised identity, and we can be “good people”.

Even better, if we know what a “bad person” looks like or acts like, we don’t have to think about our own participation in discourses of oppression.

If, for example, I know that a homophobe looks like Cory Bernardi, or Tony Abbott, or Betty down at the church who’s probably going to vote no in the postal plebiscite on marriage equality, then I’m safe. I’m let off the hook for having to think about the ways I can be homophobic.

Unless we can reflect on the ways we ourselves participate in ideologies of oppression, how can we change?

Even worse, this process excludes people who can’t perform whatever the current symbols of “good politics” are—the right name for a given group of people, the right terms for a specific form of oppression.

As we see time and again in social media pile-ons, a person who gets these things wrong, who makes a mistake, is rendered a “bad person” in the same category as the worst offenders.

When we exclude people in this way, when we shame them, we limit the reach and the power of our discourse.

This process of exclusion also favours a certain kind of privilege. That is, if you’re educated enough, if you’re in-the-know enough, then you’re in. You can be considered a “good person”.

I’m going to give another example and I should say here that given my background and the communities I belong to, most of my examples are going to be queer. Which is helpful, actually—the alphabet soup LGBTIQ communities have embraced puts us at the forefront of the kind of identity politics we’re critiquing.

These communities are particularly good at experimenting with new linguistic forms, new terms, new identities, in ways that can be novel and exciting. But time and again I have seen those words become ways to gate-keep who can participate in queer spaces, with the onus placed entirely on individuals to “educate themselves”.

As long as identity politics continues to be a way to locate what it means to be “good” within certain kinds of people, and within certain political positions, we have no hope of changing the hearts and minds of people who do not think like us.

This approach is also appallingly individualistic. When our focus is always on determining the moral status of individuals through their actions, we miss the ways oppression plays out on a structural level, in government, in our institutions, and in our ideologies.

Now let’s take a look at probably the more damning critique of identity politics: that it limits the political outcomes we can achieve.

At the heart of identity politics is an implied essentialism. It is a politics that frames identity categories as somehow inherently a part of us, and somehow essentially a part of us, rather than, for example, socially constructed, mutable, changing or performed.

By seeing identities as essential, it codifies them rather than providing space for them to potentially grow and change. Identity politics is about identifying existing ways of being and building political frameworks around those ways of being rather than seeking a transformation of ourselves and of our societies.

Under those terms, the goals of movements built from identity politics often become about diversity and recognition of existing identities—nothing has to materially change for those goals to be achieved.

And what’s awful, what I find so upsetting is that it’s so limiting!

We reach for political achievements like minorities on boards and in parliaments, even when those representatives go on to enact the same policies that keep our communities oppressed.

We spend more time talking about why it matters there was a gay character in Beauty and the Beast than we do about the fact that religious employers in Australia can legally fire someone for being gay.

Our horizons have become so small!

A perfect example of this, just two weeks ago, days after the postal plebiscite on marriage equality was announced, the NSW government introduced a bill into state parliament that if passed would mean people could face up to six months in prison—in prison!—for not taking “reasonable precautions” to protect a partner from contracting an STI if they know they have it, even during completely consensual sex.

A law like that would be a direct attack on the already marginalised communities in Australia disproportionately affected by HIV. Gay men. Trans women. Drug users. Sex workers. Jail time.

But while HIV advocates were frantically trying to get anyone to pay attention, the country’s queer communities were transfixed by marriage, this thing that has become the ur-symbol for “progress”, a marker that would mean we are finally recognised by our government.

Under the terms of identity politics, marriage would mean we’ve won.

And if that’s the case, then we don’t have to engage with the ways structural oppression is built into the fabric of society.

We don’t have to think about the ways that our legal system disadvantages people without the financial or educational resources to access it.

We don’t have to think about the systemic barriers many people face to accessing housing and employment.

We certainly don’t have to think about the fact that these people often also belong to marginalised identities.

Now of course, the response to criticisms like this is always that we can care about more than one thing at the same time. And while maybe that’s true in theory, in practice, no we can’t. Or rather, we don’t.

And when public and political attention is a finite resource it is always going to be easier to care about symbols, because changing our symbols means we don’t have to change much else. We certainly don’t have to change ourselves.

This NSW law is a particularly on-the-nose example, and it’s one that’s still fresh in my mind and in my heart.

But it is telling.

By adopting identity politics as an all-encompassing ideology for effecting political change, the left, those of us who are interested in dismantling structures of oppression, we are selling ourselves short.

We are setting the bar so low that all we are doing is helping to legitimise the very same structures we claim to stand against.

I for one think we deserve better.

Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival: Identity politics debate

  1. Jenny Vittorelli says:

    Identity politics has the serious effect of issuing political priorities in a system that has not been able to pass useful legislature, and has created rainbow values for consumers who may think that costs are contain-er-ed.


    1. Benjamin Riley says:

      Hi Jenny, thanks for commenting. I’d agree that identity politics has been a useful organising principle for lobbying for specific legislative change, though I’d argue it is only really useful in that respect for very specific areas of legislation (and those tend to be symbolic or “rights-based”, like marriage equality). I don’t think it has generally been effective at achieving more transformational change.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by the second point though. Could you expand on that? What do you mean by “may think that costs are contain-er-ed”?


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