ARTICLES Identity-based forms of organising in civil society: good or bad?

Disability protest outside County Hall Norwich
Image: Disability protest outside County Hall Norwich by Roger Blackwell licensed under CC BY 2.0

Identity-based forms of organising in civil society: good or bad?

Gay, lesbian, old, young, black, white, disabled… we often organise around distinct identities. But are these really helping us – or will they hold us back unless we adapt?

Identity is a powerful force. It can give us a purpose, a sense of self. It can provide us with a shared sense of affiliation and belonging with others and a shared sense of injustice if people from that group are treated unfairly. With such systemic and damaging inequalities in society faced by particular groups it’s hardly surprising that we would want to protect particular identity groups and stand up for their rights.
But there are also risks and downsides to identity-based forms of organising in civil society. Civil Society Futures has set itself a task to explore which aspects of civil society we need to nurture to create a healthy future. As inequalities and divisions within English society continue to grow, now is a good time to ask if organising along identity-based lines in civil society is helping us to respond effectively to inequality.

For me, there are three important limitations often associated with identity-based forms of civic organising that we need to confront in the future if we can.

Firstly, there is the issue of choice. We regularly talk about and campaign for the black ‘community’, the Muslim ‘community’, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans ‘community’. Yet the challenges associated with these sorts of communitarian forms of politics (where ‘community leaders’ often speak on behalf of their community) are becoming more visible as our society becomes more diverse. In particular, there is often an underlying assumption in civil society that community representatives’ judgments are informed by the prevailing norms and values of the ‘community’ they are from. Perhaps this is true sometimes, but we shouldn’t rule out the claims of competing norms and values on somebody’s priorities and affections. When we think that a group’s preferences are predestined by their affiliation with a particular identity, we can rule out choice.

Why is this choice important? It’s mainly important because we can have many affiliations at different parts of our lives. I can be a father, a British-Pakistani, a man pushing 40 and so on. I hold these identities simultaneously and I’d like to think I could choose what priority I give to these various identities at different points – I don’t need somebody else to do that for me. There are lots of things that influence the choices I make, I don’t automatically lose the ability to do that just because I identify with or see myself as a member of a certain group. This is really important in the context of civil society because having a choice about what priority we give to our various identities could help us to develop more shared understandings of our priorities and more collective forms of action on topics like inequality and human rights.

Secondly, there is the issue of voice. In my work I’ve seen many examples of civic engagement about equality. Local ward committees, national policy consultations, direct lobbying of politicians by charities and so on. The vast majority of engagement and lobbying I have seen relies heavily on making representative claims about the needs of particular identity groups. This is a politics of recognition. Charities, members of the public, community leaders typically emphasise the level of inequality particular groups face and explain why it is important that the needs of their particular group are recognised. But this pattern of representative claim-making can carry with it a repertoire that is hard to break. When I say that my group (let’s say British-Pakistanis) is experiencing inequality and in need of support and I am the only British Pakistani in the room, it is rare for others to challenge me or critically discuss my claims. My legitimacy to make these claims is seen as tied to my identity. If I were a White British person, who would I be to challenge this claim or discuss its importance in relation to other claims made about inequality?

This politeness or lack of confidence to critically discuss what other people say about equality can lead to problems. When we tie legitimacy to make and challenge a claim solely to ‘identity’ we narrow the space for critical, reasoned debate and dialogue about what is most important for us to do to address inequality in society. We can also limit the scope for compromise and accommodation. We may sometimes hear about inequalities that are more pressing to address in society than those we, ourselves are campaigning to address. But the political culture of civil society rarely allows us to have conversations that would help us to prioritise and ‘give up’ our own interests for the greater good. Civil society groups shouldn’t have to rely on funders or the State to tell us what is most important and needs to be tackled first. We should be able to have that conversation within civil society ourselves, too.

This leads me to my third and final point. Identity-based forms of organising can limit the scope of equality we imagine and work towards as a society. As Nancy Fraser was saying in the 1990s, group identity and a struggle for recognition (based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and so on) has replaced social class as the key mobiliser in civil society. Civil society has moved from a ‘politics of redistribution’ to a ‘politics of recognition’. Cultural recognition has replaced socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. Recent debate about the ‘culture wars’ in America are a good example of this. In English civil society too we struggle to convincingly incorporate discussions about social class, distribution of wealth and poverty in parts of civil society that are concerned with lobbying around topics of ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’. When we do talk about these issues, it tends to only be in relation to one particular identity group. We can miss opportunities to respond to bigger, structural challenges that affect many more of us. We miss opportunities to improve the things that could make us all most happy as a society when civil society only follows well-trodden routes to decision-making and reasoning associated with politics of identity and recognition.

So what can we do in the future to reduce some of these risks associated with identity-based forms of organising in civil society? I’m going to suggest three things that might help.

Firstly, we need to recognise the many identities we all hold simultaneously and to create routes to civic engagement and representation that can cope with that complexity. I can choose the identities and the interpretations of those identities I wish to affiliate with and draw upon. When that is chosen for me I am put into a box not of my choosing and my opportunities to understand and collaborate with people from other identity groups is reduced. Sometimes I may choose to affiliate with my identity as a ‘human’ (over and above my religion, sexual orientation, gender and so on). That is ok too.

Secondly, we need to nurture our ability and our willingness to hear what people from other ‘identity groups’ are saying about the inequalities they are facing and the effect this is having on their lives. Sometimes I may need to compromise and ‘give up’ my own interests as an organisation, or the interests of my ‘identity group’ in order to respond to a bigger threat to inequality or human rights faced by others in society. This is a mind-set that we should try to cultivate in the politics of civil society.

Finally, to achieve this type of compromise, we need to do what we can to spot when ‘identity’ limits good, critical conversations. In particular, we should acknowledge when ‘identity’ gives somebody presumed legitimacy to speak on behalf of a group and recognise when this prevents others from engaging in critical discussion with them about priorities for addressing inequality and improving our society.

24th November 2017