Identity Politics Reconsidered

by Scott Morrice on 04/03/2012

I recently came across an article about Dr. Rowan Williams, originally written by John Bingham of the Daily Telegraph, and published in the National Post.

It is about a concept that is new to me (but probably not to you) called Identity Politics. And it is really about identity politics reconsidered.

Dr. Rowan Williams recently resigned as Archbishop of Canterbury and as the leader of 77 million Anglicans worldwide.

I haven’t been following the public controversies that have consumed the Anglican Church over the last several years, and I am not familiar with Dr. Williams, other than by name.

But lately I confess that I have been drawn to some of the public commentary that has been centered on reporting on what Dr. Williams has been speaking about recently. And I am starting to quite like the man. So far.

I’m not sure what Dr. Williams was doing in respect of his public comments up until now, but he obviously has no plans to shy away from controversy in his final months in office. In fact, for one reason or another, I have been bumping into many such controversial remarks of his.

But the remarks that caught my eye recently, and that I thought were worthy of commenting on in my Blog (even though they aren’t, strictly speaking, of a topic that you would expect to find here), have to do with, in a sense, the danger of being “politically correct” merely for the sake of being “politically correct”. It is not that the pendulum has swung too far, it is more that perhaps we need to entertain the possibility that in some cases there now has to be a change in emphasis.

Dr. Williams is saying that our commendable, and much needed,  focus on insuring that the rights of the under-privileged, homosexuals, women, and racial minorities are, firstly, recognized, and secondly, are protected, is now perhaps setting the stage for another kind of problem.

He is not saying (nor am I) that this was not valuable, and even absolutely necessary, work that has been done—for it was. And in many cases this work is far from over, and needs to be continued–even robustly. But he is warning about getting “stuck” in this position.

He is suggesting that this focus on recognizing the rights of these, and other, minorities has led to a kind of “identity politics” which, taken too far, has the ability to destabilize our society through a fragmentation that gets locked in. He argues that it now time to start looking at where we can reprioritize our emphasis, and in those situations to start re-focusing on the common good. The article quotes him as saying:

And so minorities of various kinds and women began to say, ‘Actually we need to say who we are in our terms not yours’ and that led to identity politics of a very strong kind and legislation that followed it.

We are now, I think, beginning to see the pendulum swinging back and saying identity politics is all very well but we have to have some way of putting it all back together again and discovering what is good for all of us and share something of who we are with each other so as to discover more about who we are.

I haven’t thought about this whole issue enough yet to know where I am going to end up, but let me say that, firstly, I think it is an issue that is worthy of a lot of thought and consideration, and secondly, I attach a lot of credibility to the position taken by Dr. Williams just because of who he is.

Read John Bingham’s whole article here.

I’ll keep you posted.

  • Dnhiggins

    Without any investigation/thought on this, I whole-heartedly agree with this position!!! The balance of “power” is way off kilter in that the INDIVIDUAL rights take precedence over GROUP/Societal rights in all cases if the individual raises an objection on their treatment!!! I believe in Canada the INTENT of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was with good intentions…unfortunately the “unintended consequences” has been what Dr. Williams is stating. It is causing chaos in our courts and within our workplace with policies being devised which hinder/hamper progress of the larger groups. It is absolutely crazy!!! The result is the common phrase we hear of “what happened to common sense?” Unfortunately Scott, if you question decisions where the individual’s rights are considered BEFORE the rights of society at large, you are questioned for being “mean-spirited”!!!! Seriously, all you need to do is look at the case this week where an Aboriginal youth beat the crap out of a public service employee (a bus driver) and it appears on the surface (without me knowing all sides of the story which the judge needed to consider) that this individual’s rights took precedence over the rights of all transit workers in general!!! CRAZY!!!!!!

    • scottmorrice

      I could be wrong, but I actually think Dr. Williams is making a different point. I don’t think he is addressing the issue of individual vs. collective rights. I think he is merely (actually, I think it is rather aggressive stuff) suggesting that the rights of certain minority groups need to be recognized and respected, and perhaps for awhile (and for a number of different reasons) this means at the expense of collective rights. But he is saying that once we have reached a certain point on that front then we need to start to move forward with a little more balance. In other words, as some point the collective rights regain their imperative. Good to hear from you.


  • Lawrence D.

    Three cheers for the Archbishop of Canterbury. And for Scott Morrice and Dnhiggins as well. Three cheers for the lot of you! Political correctness can & does sabotage the free exchange of ideas, imperil generosity in human interplay ,& jeopardize heartfelt interaction among the peoples of our planet. All of us would do well to celebrate & to welcome good will, regardless of the “packaging” that attends it. More often than not the donor of a leather birthday present to an Indian neighbour is not being malevolent, but rather is showing generosity; the sender of an object in white gift wrapping to a Chinese child down the street is not intending to insult the recipient so much as she is intending to delight him; and the store clerk who wishes “Merry Christmas” to one & all of the shop’s clientele has no desire to launch an attack thereby against the religious underpinnings of anyone within earshot.
    Nor ought we see evidence of conspiracies or ill will every time we are confronted by a dominant counter-culture long imbedded in the social milieux that we visit or in which we settle. Regardless of our geographical or cultural roots, we cannot legitimately demand to be served in French in a restaurant located in central Alberta; there being no ‘Gay Pride Parade’ in Saskatoon this year ought to surprise noone; and your being an advocate for animal rights does not entitle you to make unreasonable demands upon those among your friends who are less tolerant of the uncontrolled behaviour of our four-footed friends. You are not entitled, for example, to prevail upon me to fake an orgasm each time your pet is humping against my pant leg.
    I can easily appreciate the concern of the archbishop emeritus for his flock. On the one hand, his Christian brethren are pressed by the dictates of political correctness for inclusive language and cultural/religious sensitivity; on the other hand they seem to be easy targets for mockery, taunting, and even murderous attacks at the hands of those “less privileged” or less numerous on the planet. If all the racists are white and all the bigots are Christian, then the future of our world is at risk. There can be little doubt, identity politics are indeed dangerous . Even sinister.

    • scottmorrice

      Yes, I agree (of course I would, you just congratulated me!). But I agree that political correctness is a manifestation of the pendulum swinging too far. What often times starts out as the correct direction to be taking, can, if we are not careful, take us to the exact destination we would most not want to be visiting. Good to hear from you.


Previous post:

Next post: