Tag: Identity

Disability protest outside County Hall Norwich

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?

Of course, they’re not bad very often. People organise, campaign, volunteer and donate to reduce the inequality endured by particular identity groups all the time. Much civic action like this is identity-based, whether focused on ethnic minorities, people who are disabled in particular ways, or various genders. We tend to support issues that are close to our hearts, that we can relate to or that affect us personally in some way. We have created charities to ensure the rights of particular groups are championed.

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

Does civil society unite us more than it divides us?

Part of the purpose of this inquiry is to provide a space for conversation about difficult and controversial subjects which either ignite strong feelings, or get ignored through fear and embarrassment. This article is intended to stimulate an open and respectful conversation about some of these issues, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Inquiry.

Arts and culture are important to us here in Oldham both in terms of our heritage and our future.

So we were thrilled to celebrate with our Arts Development Officer recently when her fantastic work was recognised through the Hearts for the Arts scheme. In presenting (the extremely pink!) award, actor Sam West praised her great work using arts and creativity to reach across communities. Work, he emphasised, that was increasingly important in “these times of ‘othering’ and polarisation”. A short speech. A snapshot. But it brought home to me sharply how concerns and discussions about difference, about the dangers of isolation and exclusion, of broken trust between citizens and state, of extremism, are running through so much of what we do, and what we talk about. Not at all surprising given the many terrible events we have experienced over the last 12 months or so. Events with tragic consequences for individuals, for families, and also for wider communities.

These events have brought to the fore issues of increasing inequalities and marginalisation within and between communities and regions, surfacing clear feelings of anger and alienation. But importantly, some of these events have also shown the amazing things that can be achieved when we do the opposite of ‘othering’ – when we focus on what we have in common and where we’re stronger together.

So against the background of these two narratives, of ‘polarisation’ and ‘more in common’ what is or could be the contribution and role of civil society?

An important contribution may well be challenging narratives themselves. In her fascinatingTED talk Chimanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us of the dangers of a single story. The problem, she says, in showing someone as only one thing over and over again, to create a single story, means that this is what they become. And a single story creates stereotypes. The difficulty with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Civil society already speaks out. It already acts to highlight where else our collective attention needs to be drawn. But in an increasing noisy world, where traditional media channels are themselves disrupted, focusing on ways that dominant or simplistic narratives may need to be challenged so serious issues or alternative views aren’t masked or underplayed will be even more important. Civil society can help change the narrative, to enable different stories to be told and to be heard. The impact of who, and how, civil society is funded and structured is likely to be a key consideration in this role.

Much of the civil society landscape is made up of clubs, organisations, groups, networks and campaigns that provide spaces and opportunities to connect, to build bonds and relationships. Identity and experience are core to this. Personal identity certainty, but also identities of place. We join, and see ourselves as part of communities because in some way they speak to us, we feel they fit us and we fit them. I might connect through gender, age, sexuality, religion; but also through work or education; through sport or hobbies, issues I feel strongly about; my health or that of family and friends. Few of us see ourselves as having a single identity or a single story. Yet it often seems as though we have a simplistic or one-dimensional view of others.

Civil society has achieved much, driven huge changes through the collective impact of people coming together on shared issues. But you don’t have to be a woman to believe in universal suffrage. You don’t have to be gay to believe the LGBT community should be able to hold safe, peaceful, celebratory Pride events. The strength of civil society in supporting strong bonds can also, at times, be problematic. The very things that connect me to some things may stop me feeling connected to others – perhaps even creating a barrier to understanding or involvement. That group is not for people like me. That building, or that place is for others. Or I may be actively prevented from some things or places because I’m not seen as belonging. I may even be persecuted or harmed.

The recent State of the Sector report on the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector in Greater Manchester (GM) describes active and vibrant communities and a strong base for community action, with an estimated 15,890 VCSE groups identified. The report shows an interesting profile, with 33% of groups identifying as their users and beneficiaries as ‘everyone’. And 54% saw themselves as making a difference by helping people from different backgrounds to get on well together. It would be really interesting to explore in more detail what this means in practice as this phrase covers very wide territory – from building increased familiarity and awareness, developing deeper understandings, through to strong relationships and friendships. All of which are important.

It would also be fascinating to have deeper insight into who is involved in the groups and organisations themselves – who is employed, who volunteers? How do they reflect the communities they are based in, and who they connect with? In Greater Manchester, 77% of VCSE bodies were classed as small or micro, many of them neighbourhood or local community groups. If their composition reflects the very local community does this in itself support connectedness or work against it? As part of our work in GM to support leadership development we have recognised that the way we structure our learning can actually work against the outcome we are aiming for. For example, many existing leadership programmes are based within professions or institutions. We are working with people from our own organisation and sector, being reminded of this identity at the very point we’re trying to develop our skills in collaboration! So we’re trying to develop approaches that start from the outcome – collaboration and community. If part of the purpose of the VCSE community in GM is helping people from different backgrounds get on well, how does the structure and governance of the sector itself contribute towards this? And how can this extend to wider civil society?

As much as there isn’t is a single story, there isn’t a single answer for the role and contribution of civil society to these issues. There is incredible value in bonding and connecting on things we share, as well as immense benefits for bridging across differences. We need to be better at recognising when focusing on what we have in common is creating barriers to others that may be harmful or even dangerous. To acknowledge that sometimes the cost of building trust with some is actively building distrust with others. But it’s not enough to simply recognise this. We need to be able to challenge and to drive change so that civil society makes the positive contribution to thriving communities where everyone can play their part.

7th September 2017