Playing around with identity


by Sunny
29th November, 2006 at 8:09 am    

The problem with a lot of discussion around current affairs is a misunderstanding of identity politics. Identity trumps everything – it covers religion, race, culture, nationality, citizenship and a whole lot more. Understanding it not only makes us better at understanding the context of people’s actions, but also predicting their behaviour.

It is also a given that people have multiple identities and each matters more in different situations. Sometimes it is important to be able to transcend those identities and join with others on a common cause, without necessarily compromising your morals. For some a particular form of identity becomes so important (their race/religion usually) that they not only see everything through that prism but it becomes a mark of separation.

In February 2003 I marched in London against the Iraq war in fear that George Bush would royally screw it up (and make terrorism worse), because he previously showed little regard for the lives of non-Americans. I marched because I was against the death of innocent people, thinking that he would ultimately lead to more deaths in the Middle East than Saddam Hussain could get away with killing. The fact that I was marching to protect Muslims was immaterial to me or, I suspect, most of the approx 2 million others.

Of course many Muslims (and Muslim organisations) were there only because other Muslims were involved, and to many it didn’t matter. (I was there with Arif who is a pacifist anyway and in the latter camp). This is understandable – there was blanket coverage of 9/11 but little mention of the millions of Congolese who have died in recent years. Identity matters to journalists too.

But the primary point of the New Generation Network agenda was to say we need to go back to the basics of anti-prejudice – pushing universal progressive values instead of getting caught up in identity politics.

That meant not tolerating prejudice against black or white people; not accepting the demonisation of Muslims en-masse, and not turning a blind eye to the demonisation of Christians, Hindus or homosexuals; standing up against violence against women regardless of their race or religion.

People who want to oppose this agenda, on the left funnily enough, do so because they are so caught up in identity politics that they only want to promote their ‘tribe’ at the expense of others. The others don’t matter, only their own personal agendas do.

That, as I’ve said earlier, is a fool’s game in our current climate. Most of the big issues: institutional racism, terrorism, economic inequality, women’s rights, immoral foreign policy, the demonisation of Muslims en-masse, the assault on our civil liberties and free speech – require broad alliances and mass movements if they need to be tackled. They cannot be tackled with people following narrow agendas.

There were two good examples yesterday when people got this, beautifully. 1) Conor Foley, writing on Comment is free, and 2) Dave Hill, writing on Temperama, got it too. Both short articles are highly recommended.

Let’s all celebrate multiple identities. But we should not let them limit the extent of our compassion.


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  1. El Cid — on 29th November, 2006 at 8:22 am  

    The more people are weened off me-me tribalism, the better we will all be.
    That’s not to say that the poor performance of AC boys in school should not be the focus of debate and action, it just means that the poor performance of WWC boys should be too, and so on.

  2. Douglas Clark — on 29th November, 2006 at 9:48 am  

    Sue Blackmores piece on CiF is interesting in the above context.

    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/sue_blackmore/2006/11/a_nation_of_humanists.html

    We are indeed a crazy mixed up bunch of individuals ;)

  3. DavidMWW — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:10 am  

    Pastor Ade Amooba from Brixton, talking about the proposed new laws which would prohibit him from discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation says:

    Christianity is our identity. We will not surrender it. People will not obey these rules, no matter that they are taken to court.

    Some people need to ditch their identities and get new, better ones.

  4. Chairwoman — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:12 am  

    Let’s be really radical and look at the poor performance of all children in school. We might discover something sensational, that not everyone’s academic for example. Or that the National Curriculum is not geared to those who want hands-on industrial work.

  5. Jagdeep — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:37 am  
  6. Jagdeep — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:38 am  

    That’s a good article and relevant to Sunny’s point.

  7. Jagdeep — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:39 am  

    Where are Kismet Hardy and Sid.

  8. zahed — on 29th November, 2006 at 11:52 am  

    I have to say, paragraphs 5-8 of what you just wrote clarify what the NGN is all about better than a lot of what has already been said (hence, perhaps, the confusion and CiF debates).

    Keep pushing these points and I think there’ll be traction. Good luck!

  9. Kismet Hardy — on 29th November, 2006 at 12:30 pm  

    “Let’s all celebrate multiple identities”

    That’s what I keep telling my evil twin george who wants to kill mother but when I try to warn mother she says there’s no george.

    Jagdeep,

    Nice link. I’ve often felt sad that Islamic art (from the scriptures to the glorious architecture) was built on such powerful artistic leanings, twinned with the glory of bauls and qawwalis, that it’s nigh on depressing that the modern version of the religion looks upon art and music with such moronic disdain

  10. Sid — on 29th November, 2006 at 12:57 pm  

    Big shout to Madam Maddy for bringing this up. I’m not sure I like the word “syncreticism” that is often used for Bengalis who revere Muslim and Hindu historic/religious/political/artistic figures irrespective of their religion. This has always been the case, in spite of the “purification” movements – which have developed in the West.

    There are plenty of precedents of individuals (both Hindu and Muslim) who have bridged religious and communal divisions in Bengal. Historically Bengalis have been perceived as Hindu-fied Muslims by Muslims and/or Arabised-Hindus by Hindus.

    Its telling that the NGN is a no-brainer for Bengali Muslims and Sikhs. Could it be they have benefited from the osmosis of syncreticiism?

  11. Nyrone — on 29th November, 2006 at 6:20 pm  

    Great piece Sunny…. seems like you have been soaking up Tariq ‘multiple-identity’ Ramadan and his universalistic approach as much as I have.

    I seriously can’t work out the friction parts of the NGN manifesto are making…it’s quite broad from its inception anyway…I would say that a lot of people are going out of their way to pick at scabs on it, when they are in agreement with the main body of its text.

  12. William — on 29th November, 2006 at 6:29 pm  

    Jagdeep

    Interesting article. Yes the Bauls are a fascinating bunch. There was a feature on them in the Guardian a while back. I have still got it. I agree about Bengal. It has also produced many good authors and film makers including of course Satjayit Ray who regarded himself as spanning two cultures. Bengali, English.

    There is a woman who was from Wolverhampton who was a friend of Tagore’s, Evelyn Underhill. Apparently she also had some hand in getting some of his stuff published.

    Oh! as well, unknown to some their is/was a muslim community from Tibet. They were given rights etc by the Dalai Lama. Some claim that they were even worse treated by the Chinese after the invasion. Many have fled to Indian along with the Buddhists. Some of them want the Dalai Lama back as their leader.

  13. William — on 29th November, 2006 at 6:45 pm  

    Sunny

    “Of course many Muslims (and Muslim organisations) were there only because other Muslims were involved, and to many it didn’t matter”

    I was against the war but I have noticed the above and it and I do have a bit of a reservation because of it as well as groups opposing America because of some class war stance. Thanks for saying what I have wanted to say. Again like others I am still opposed to Ismamophobia despite this.”

    “People who want to oppose this agenda, on the left funnily enough, do so because they are so caught up in identity politics that they only want to promote their ‘tribe’ at the expense of others. The others don’t matter, only their own personal agendas do.”

    I agree. I must admit I bit my lip on this last year. I was reading about the notion of the Umma etc. The idea of the one Islamic community therefore and attack on a country is an attack on the whole group.
    While I was thinking why is the Umma superior or better than the nation state etc I realised I have kind of done it myself in that I used to be very pro Tibet. This was because they were Buddhist. Of course there was still a distance as well (they are not my people). Even so I was still angry when Tibetans were stopped from protesting directly to the Chinese when they visited a couple of years ago. A kind of strange realisation that I can be like this.

    Basically yes it is humanity that matters and we should think beyong our narraw confines.

  14. Nyrone — on 29th November, 2006 at 7:49 pm  

    Satjayit Ray is something else…

    I still remember the first time I saw his Panther Panchali Apu Trilogy in the cinema.
    It still stirs indescribable emotions in me.

    There is a popular comment about him by Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa that states “untill one has seen the films of Satayjit Ray, one has not really been fully born”

    Now that’s a compliment.

  15. William — on 29th November, 2006 at 9:57 pm  

    The World of Apu is my favopurite of the trilogy.

    Also Martin Scorsese is a fan of Ray as are many other directors.

    Even just the composition of elements in a shot can have an emotive effect.

  16. Refresh — on 29th November, 2006 at 10:08 pm  

    Satayjit Ray’s films captured, for me, the true nature of my childhood. True art.

    My all time favourite scene is the steam train in the distance, I still see me in that shot.

  17. William — on 29th November, 2006 at 10:17 pm  

    I am not surprised by the Susan Blackmore article. I doubt that the 2001 census that 71% of England and Wales are Christian really means that they are died in the wool Christian. Many just say they are Christians by ritual (been Christened)or just believe in god a bit. People who believe that Jesus was the only begotten son of god and only by him can one be saved are rare. People are a lot more easy going on it.

    From my own discussion with humanists one does not have to be an atheist to be humanist. Humanist philosophy asks the question how do we define what it is to be human. In this it is hard to avoid the question that humans sometimes feel the need to find meaning in life. Sometimes this can be religion.

  18. Nyrone — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:43 am  

    Refresh…That particular shot was like a semi-awakening for me. There was something about the poverty and innocence explored in that first film that really gripped and astonished me.

    Interestingly, Satyajit Ray’s problems with initially moving into film and gaining funding are interesting stories within themselves.

    It’s been said that he shot the Apu trilogy with virtually zero funds, having been inspired by Renoir’s Bicycle Thieves which he saw in London.

    He is certainly the closest thing to a visual poet in my mind alongside Santosh Sivan, and perhaps one of the first ‘real’ documentary film-makers. He dared to show poverty without ever being judgemental, which is something rare in cinema these days.

    For any fans of the Apu Trilogy, I heartily recommend another masterpiece by the film demi-god Yasujiro Ozu called ‘tokyo story’.

    Beats the living shit out of most films released in the cinema these days….

  19. Nyrone — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:46 am  

    anyone but me wondering what the hell is going on at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/immigration/story/0,,1960301,00.html

  20. Anas — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:52 am  

    Ritwik Ghatak was an incredible Bengali film director too. There was a short season of his films on C4 recently, some of them real masterpieces.

  21. Refresh — on 30th November, 2006 at 1:16 am  

    Nyrone – I saw a film a week or so back. Had me in tears. I wish I could remember its name.

    Its in B&W: childhood sweethearts who couldn’t deal with the break-up. The lad pushed off to study elsewhere. She is from a different caste, and is married to someone older – against her wishes.

    He hates alcohol but finally takes to drink and a ‘courtesan’ falls in love with him, and is totally committed to him. But he decides he will die at the door of his childhood sweetheart.

    And he does, from drink. Love is everything.

    Apparently its recently been remade – can’t imagine why. The original is so masterful.

    I will look out for Tokyo Story.

  22. Refresh — on 30th November, 2006 at 1:36 am  

    As a rule I have avoided bollywood tripe for nearly all my life.

    The last one I saw was with my new brother-in-law, my sister and brother. We nearly got chucked out by the manager. We laughed, we sneered and finally we had to leave because we were in hysterics. The rest of the cinema seemed to be in mourning.

    We were in hysterics for the simple reason that in the film, the father-in-law who was an alcoholic was being implored by his daughter-in-law in that all so Indian way (on all fours and in tears) to give it up as it was ruining the family. He, the head of the household, decides to do just that – give up drinking. He is at the top of a sweeping stairway.

    He throws a bottle of Gordon’s Gin and it goes flying through the massive open doorway. He then chucks his last bottle of Johnny Walker Red and it hits one of those amazing Georgian pillars at the grand opening – and contrary to laws of nature it bounces back.

    Well apologies to all those cinemagoers who’s evening we may have ruined – but to this day that film has been the reason (and of course the earlier threat by the cinema manager) for me never going out to see a Bollywood production.

    Give me real films!

  23. Sunny — on 30th November, 2006 at 1:36 am  

    Zahid, and others, thanks!

  24. Desi Italiana — on 30th November, 2006 at 7:30 am  

    Sunny:

    “The fact that I was marching to protect Muslims was immaterial to me or, I suspect, most of the approx 2 million others.”

    Exactly. I recoil at those who try to “communalize” politics.

    “Let’s all celebrate multiple identities. But we should not let them limit the extent of our compassion.”

    Well put :)

  25. Jai — on 30th November, 2006 at 10:38 am  

    Refresh,

    Re: post #21

    I will put you out of your misery…..The film you speak of is extremely famous and is called “Devdas”. The most well-known B&W version starred Dilip Kumar. And yes there was a recent remake starring Shahrukh Khan, which was also very good but not as good as Dilip saab’s version.

    I’d recommend you see the remake too, just so you can compare & contrast etc. There are some differences in the style of the movies and the lead character’s portrayal; the new version is obviously much more extravagant and Shahrukh’s Devdas is more openly angry and frustrated at what happens in his life, whereas the previous version was more low-key and subtle, and Dilip Kumar’s Devdas is shown as more quietly falling apart inside. He doesn’t rant and rail against his fate as loudly as Shahrukh, but it’s still very effective in depicting his internal grief and feelings of thwarted helplessness.

  26. Refresh — on 30th November, 2006 at 11:22 am  

    Jai

    Yes that’s the one. Excellent. I even enjoyed the songs.

    Will look out for the remake.

    A long shot but do you know the name of the other one I mentioned? It was playing around 1977/78.

  27. Jai — on 30th November, 2006 at 11:25 am  

    Refresh,

    The remake is available on DVD. Very colourful, opulent, expensive costumes, nicely photographed, and, er, slightly over-the-top ;)

    =>”A long shot but do you know the name of the other one I mentioned? It was playing around 1977/78.”

    Which other one, the Satyajit Ray film ? Sorry mate, I haven’t seen any of his films (yet).

  28. Refresh — on 30th November, 2006 at 11:46 am  

    Jai, thanks.

    The other one is the one I mentioned in #22.

  29. Riz — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:14 pm  

    ‘For some a particular form of identity becomes so important (their race/religion usually) that they not only see everything through that prism but it becomes a mark of separation.’

    ‘Let’s all celebrate multiple identities. But we should not let them limit the extent of our compassion.’

    Very well put. This is a thoughtful, clear and much needed article.

  30. Jai — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:16 pm  

    Refresh, I’m afraid I don’t recognise that particular segment. I was only 5 years old in ’78 !

    …..Although I’m reasonably familiar with some of the more well-known Hindi films from that time. But I can’t remember any which had a drunk father-in-law, apart from numerous “arty non-mainstream” movies, ie. the kind that had Jeetendra, Farroukh Shaikh etc.

    The bit you wrote about the bottle of booze hitting the pillar and bouncing back at the guy made me laugh, though ;)

  31. Douglas Clark — on 30th November, 2006 at 12:47 pm  

    A Sivanandan comments, adversely, on the manifesto on CiF. Here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1960188,00.html

    The comments are worth reading. Last time I looked, it was 20 to 1 for the manifesto. Seems like the arguement is being won at the grass roots.

  32. Sid — on 30th November, 2006 at 1:27 pm  

    Looks like a rehash of the usual criticisms:
    That the government is more to blame than the “community groups” because they ‘anointed’ them and the NGN want to replace these unelected and self-appointed spokespeople with themselves. Nothing new there and both arguments have been roundly dealt with.

    Too bad – I quite like A Sivanandan.

  33. Refresh — on 30th November, 2006 at 1:50 pm  

    Douglas

    It would be a big mistake to consider CiF as grass roots.

    It was a good article and there is a lot there to be considered. Don’t perceive it as an outright rejection.

  34. Chairwoman — on 30th November, 2006 at 2:17 pm  

    I reluctantly put my toe in the cold waters of CIF, and was pleasantly surprised to find it warm and welcoming. There were actually a majority of commenters realising that the NGN was for all ethnic minorities, and not just about Islam and FP.

    If nothing further was achieved it would be its finest hour.

  35. Sid — on 30th November, 2006 at 2:25 pm  

    I can understand your trepidation esteemed CW auntyji. Its a bearpit.
    But the NGN articles have been largely well received mainly beacuse the criticisms against it have been weak or self-serving.

  36. Jagdeep — on 30th November, 2006 at 2:43 pm  

    Someone makes the point about Madeline Bunting being a little inconsistent, in that she praises this sycretic culture of Bengal, quotes admiringly Amartya Sen, but then considers it a major paap (sin!) for the MCB guy from Bangladesh who is good friends of the fanatic who describes Hindus in Bengal is human shit, and invites him to England to speak under his auspices! Madeline, sort yourself out!

  37. Jagdeep — on 30th November, 2006 at 2:45 pm  

    Correction — Madeline considers it as some kind of un-nuanced attack on Muslims in general to criticise the people who invite lunatics from Bangladesh to England, which is the kind of thing the NGN does, right?

  38. Chairwoman — on 30th November, 2006 at 2:47 pm  

    Jagdeep – You lost me round about Bangladesh.

  39. Douglas Clark — on 30th November, 2006 at 3:02 pm  

    Refresh,

    Point taken. Put it down to enthusiasm overcoming common sense. I am really looking forward to the day Sunny rolls NGN out in the Mail and the Sun!

    I do think he (A Sivanandan) has an interesting point about asylum seekers. Would you agree with me that their rights do not seem to be much of an issue for communalist groups rather, they seem to be the preserve of HR campaigning groups? He’s got a fair amount of material about them, but the MCB, for instance, does not.

  40. sonia — on 30th November, 2006 at 3:02 pm  

    Aren’t we just talking about the need to keep emphasizing the need for worldwide human rights. that’s how i’d frame this whole thing as anyway.

    and in any case, race/religion – yes – but missing the crucial further division and complication that tends to screw up equality of human rights around the world –> nationality – nation states and national borders.

  41. sonia — on 30th November, 2006 at 3:03 pm  

    nothing is ever really going to be ‘progressive’ without at least noting that dimension, i’m afraid.

  42. Leon — on 30th November, 2006 at 3:08 pm  

    I believe the words I’m looking for are:

    YAY! Sonia’s back!:)

  43. soru — on 30th November, 2006 at 4:01 pm  

    Bunting is kind of a strange one, the way I read her is that, as a leftish Catholic, she gets a lot of flack from other guardian-types over issues like abortion, gay rights and so on. There are certainly a lot of people on CiF who want to get rid of all faith schools, and have you ever seen anyone have a good word for Ruth Kelly?

    So she seems to interpret any criticism of religion or religiously-informed politics as if it was applicable to her, and so should be opposed, perhaps by supporting the person or position attacked.

  44. Sid — on 30th November, 2006 at 4:04 pm  

    Ruth Kelly: strong principles, highly intelligent, nice bum.

  45. Leon — on 30th November, 2006 at 4:08 pm  

    Ruth Kelly: strong principles, highly intelligent, nice bum.

    A lie, a joke and a worrying moment of madness?

  46. Jai — on 30th November, 2006 at 4:11 pm  

    =>”‘Let’s all celebrate multiple identities. But we should not let them limit the extent of our compassion.’ ”

    I think that Gandhiesque comment should be PP’s mission statement and part of the “blurb” underneath the main logo.

  47. Chairwoman — on 30th November, 2006 at 4:43 pm  

    Ruth Kelly: strong principles, highly intelligent, nice bum.

    And a nice little side-line in masochism.

  48. El Cid — on 30th November, 2006 at 11:32 pm  

    Soru, that’s interesting re Ruth Kelly.
    Maybe my position can offer a bridge between Bunting and her critics re faith schools. If I may be so bold.
    My kids go to a catholic primary. I’m glad they do. It’s a good school. Very multicultural. Colombians, Irish, Nigerians, West Indians, Sri Lankans, Itaians , English (actually everyone is English, in their own way). A nice sense of community. The parents seem to care, so it does well for voluntary support.
    There’s nothing they get taught that would offend anyone. OK, yes, they get taught that a God exists. True, that might affend some of you. But other than that, it’s all about right and wrong … like looking out for the poor, sharing, respect for parents, etc. The kind of stuff that non-Christians would relate to too. And this is where I feel wishy-washy liberal secularism has always let society down. Rather than offer a value-system securalists in education create moral vaccuums that kids are supposed to fill for themselves. It just doesn’t work.
    So come on give it to me. Except one thing I have yet to say: I don’t want my kids to go to a catholic secondary. By 11 I am confident they will have acquired a bare min of catholic traditions and culture. So you faith school banners; how about tweaking your arguments, and focusing just on secondary schools eh? It’s an idea.

  49. Electro — on 1st December, 2006 at 4:33 pm  

    Let’s all celebrate multiple identities. But we should not let them limit the extent of our compassion.

    Is that an order?

    Does one have a choice?

    Since when has celebrating “multiple identities” become a moral axiom?

    What would be the benefit of such actions?

    Should we celebrate multiple personalities, as well?

    Why celebrate such divide-and-conquer tactics, tactics that fragment the powerless into warring factions?

    Jesus, Sunny, you’ve got rainbows comming out your ass.

  50. Dang Nguyen — on 1st December, 2006 at 8:21 pm  

    Dealing with identity issues is like the American way. We have so much different identites in our country that contradict each other that it’s hard to ignore them. But still, you’re right that we should join together for a common cause. It’s best to reach the young people to teach them to get out of their identity sphere sometimes.
    The elderly are so fixated on their own identity that they’ll stick with it to the grave. Overall, excellent blog article.

  51. Thortz — on 2nd December, 2006 at 6:14 pm  

    Did anyone else go to Amartya Sen’s discussion at the British Museum last night? Bunting’s rose-tinted view of Bengali harmony in her article did no justice to Sen’s far more nuanced realism.

    I’m plugging Sen’s Identity & Violence book here in my brand-new blog. I think it’s a terrific work which is basically the long version of everything Sunny was saying in the post above, and, indeed, the long version of the NGN manifesto. PP folks really should go & grab a copy.

    (PS – Hi. You don’t know me but I’ve been lurking for months :-)

  52. Sunny — on 3rd December, 2006 at 4:53 pm  

    Thanks Dang and Thortz (and welcome to commenting with the unwashed masses).

    We’ve blogged about Amartya Sen a few times here, and I agree – that he typifies exactly what we are getting at. I have the book too, though I haven’t finished it yet.

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