By Adil Rasheed
29 October 2018
One of the sterling concepts of liberalism that helped usher in the modern age of scientific progress and socio-political change is individualism.
According to this concept, the rights and needs of an individual are superior to those of any group or social organization and an individual’s worth cannot be judged based on his or her ethnicity, race, gender, religion or economic background.
The liberal idea
The proponents of individualism argue that bright ideas and epiphanies come to individuals and not to groups. They contend that the act of thinking is a singular and not a collaborative exercise.
Thus spiritual awakening or intellectual enlightenment issue from an individual’s personal inspiration and motivation and is not the preserve of collective consciousness or of any specific group of people.
Collectivist institutions or polities are often crippled by hierarchical structures and promote trite ideas to ensure internal cohesion, often at the expense of innovation and reform. Therefore, societies and polities that embrace individualism have proven to be at the forefront of social development and technological breakthroughs as opposed to those led by collectivist diktats or group think.
Again, it is suggested that by emphasizing the dignity and worth of the individual above the superiority of any collectivist identity linked to race, religion, creed, gender etc., liberalism has successfully eliminated the historical ills of feudalism, slavery and imperialism, followed by its defeat of collectivist tyrannies of communism and fascism.
By pursuing ideas of free market enterprise and individual freedom, liberal states became prosperous and drew intelligent and innovative intellectuals, scientists and entrepreneurs from all over the world to reinvigorate their societies with creativity.
It is noteworthy that individualism does not undermine the role of society, religion or politics, but merely puts the primacy of individual rights above any totalitarian, collectivist order.
However, a new threat to individualism has risen in modern polities from what is being described as ‘identity politics’. In simple terms, identity politics seeks to rally special privileges for the “protection” of a particular race, ethnicity, religion, class or gender on the pretext of correcting a supposed historical wrong against it.
With the rise of this new brand of collectivism, individual identity and distinctiveness has been subsumed by the strident straitjacket of group consciousness, leading to uncompromising feuds and divisiveness in society. It is not how an individual thinks or acts, but which group one belongs to (in the collectivist scheme) which is gaining importance in politics.
Under the excuse of being historically deprived and victimized, certain minority and even majority groups in democracies (be they in the US, Iraq or India) are demanding special treatment to reverse the ‘cultural appropriation’ of their rights. This has led narrow group interests stymie broader national causes.
From US right-wing extremists causing a state of emergency in Charlottesville Virginia in 2017 to left-wing extremists shutting down the Evergreen State College near Seattle, vituperative exchanges between racial, religious and even gender groups are now dogging even the strongest bastions of liberalism, such as the US.
Thus, at a time when women are speaking out against sexual harassment and assault as part of the Me Too movement that has gone viral around the world, several men’s rights group like the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) in the US and the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF) in New Delhi are crying hoarse against the alleged violation of men’s rights.
The radical right
In order to better understand the rise of ‘identity politics’, it would be better to first understand the concept of identity. In his new book titled Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama explains identity as that part of the human personality that wants recognition of its dignity.
He likens identity to Plato’s idea of the soul’s spiritedness or “themos”, which causes a person to get angry for not being recognized. This idea of identity is often linked to one’s origins, often in a nation, race, religion or even gender. According to Fukuyama, the modern world has allowed repressed identities to express themselves politically, but now its distorted and abusive forms are harming the greater good.
Ironically, the rise of identity politics is often blamed on the ideology of the Left. It is claimed that after championing the cause of the economically deprived working class, socialist parties in Western states started championing the rights of racial and religious minorities as well as the feminist movement, for largely justifiable reasons. However, such politics eventually led to anomalies such as excessive support for certain Black extremist and radical Islamist groups.
This led to a majoritarian backlash with the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in the West, the Middle East and Asia. With growing economic challenges following the 2008 global recession, the appetite for special privileges for minorities as well as for punctilious political correctness withered away.
By switching from their original agenda of working for the economically deprived working class to identity groups, leftist parties in Europe have become weaker as their voter base is fast shifting to the radical right opposed to the liberal values of universal equality.
Perhaps the best way for resolving the present crisis is to follow the principles of the civil rights movement in the US led by Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s. This movement was not about identity politics, but about destroying it. It saw people as individuals and not as members of groups and wanted everybody to be given equal opportunity to work for the betterment of their respective country and the world.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).