There is a spectre haunting our world — the spectre of identity politics, an instinctive, hardwired tribalism that leads us to cling to our own and reject those deemed “outsiders”.
It is a 21st century law of the jungle: something deeply primal. It seems we are not entirely different to chimpanzees — and just as likely to tear each other limb from limb.
Look around our world. We are putting up new walls; we are militarising our borders; “identity police” shut down debate; “safe spaces” offer shelter from “offence”; from the political left to the right, identity is shaking up the ballot box.
This is the world sketched by American lawyer and academic Amy Chua in her new book, Political Tribes.
Professor Chua traces how identity politics is remaking our world and has already triggered a revolution in American politics.
“Tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude,” she writes.
The US, she says, is “in a perilous new situation: with nearly no one standing up for an America without identity politics: for an American identity that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s subgroups”.
Professor Chua says the country is divided over race and class: black lives matter versus white lives matter or all lives matter.
It has at times turned ugly and violent: the rise of the alt-right and white supremacy and protests over statues, tearing open the wounds of the American Civil War.
Trump politics in a NASCAR nation
Donald Trump has seized on this moment. He personifies tribal politics and it has taken him all the way to the White House.
“Make America great again” spoke to those who felt they had been left behind; they had lost their country to the liberal elites of the Washington establishment.
Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, US, August 12, 2017. (Reuters: Joshua Roberts)
Professor Chua calls this the WWE tribe, named for their fondness for World Wrestling Entertainment; these are the people who love motorsports — the “NASCAR Nation”.
Donald Trump the celebrity billionaire speaks to these people, Professor Chua says, “in terms of taste, sensibilities, and values, actually is similar to the white working class”.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, dismissed these Americans as “the deplorables”. She saw them as racist and sexist and ignorant.
Ms Clinton and Mr Trump played identity politics, but Mr Trump did it more effectively. He won.
Identity can kill
It is the paradox of our age, that as technology has brought us closer together, as free trade has spread wealth, as globalisation has blurred the lines between nations, we fracture into sub-groups. We cling to identities of gender, race, sexuality, culture or religion.
This is what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra calls “the age of anger”: We prize identity more than citizenship.
History tells us identity can kill: Hutu versus Tutsi in Rwanda, Hindu pitted against Muslim in India, Palestinian and Israeli, Catholic and Protestant in Ireland, the internal Muslim blood feud between Sunni and Shia.
Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has warned against what he calls “solitarist” identities: “Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged.”
American political scientist Mark Lilla has condemned the growth of identity politics as a cancer on democracy.
In his recent book The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla despairs at how we are abandoning the idea of shared citizenship.
Lilla says it is a “disastrous foundation for democratic politics”. America, he says, is in a “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message”.
Life between order and chaos
The question of identity politics is one of the key issues of our time.
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has emerged as one of the world’s most provocative and interesting thinkers. He directly challenges ideas of political correctness and identity.
Dr Peterson’s job at the University of Toronto was threatened when he refused to abide by preferred gender neutral pronouns: “they” or “ze” or “air” instead of “he” or “she”.
Academic Jordan Peterson refused to abide by preferred gender neutral pronouns. (7.30 Report)
Dr Peterson is in Australia promoting his book 12 Rules for Life. It is a no-holds-barred call for people — particularly young men — to take more responsibility for their lives, to move beyond victimhood so often associated with identity politics.
Dr Peterson argues we live between order and chaos. Order is “tribe, religion, hearth, home, country”. Chaos, he writes, “is where we are when we don’t know who we are”.
Identity is the response to a world that can appear chaotic: a world in flux.
Taking a post-ethnic perspective
There is an antidote to this: it is cosmopolitanism.
Simply, these are the people who are “citizens of the world”. Identity is not fixed but negotiable and multi-layered.
Philosopher and historian David Hollinger in his book post-ethnic America argues against multiculturalism, not because he doesn’t respect ethnicity and culture but because it organises itself around “fixity and givenness”.
Professor Hollinger says it encourages identity formed around affiliations, categories derived not from culture but “from a history of political and economic victimisation based on bad biology”.
Professor Hollinger doesn’t accept the permanence of race or colour; he argues that defenders of multiculturalism need to move to post-ethnic perspective that “favours voluntary over involuntary affiliations”.
He says we need to balance “communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities… that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds”.
As someone who identifies as Indigenous Australian — in a country where Indigenous identity can be fraught and politically charged — cosmopolitanism presents as a liberating idea that allows for a deeper and more complex sense of myself beyond fixed notions of race.
Cosmopolitans draw from the words of the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and the dream of living free of “the ball and chain of an everlasting permanent minority”.
In a world of tribes that dream may be farther away than ever; even those who seek to free themselves from tribalism risk being trapped in their own contradiction.
As Amy Chua reminds us, cosmopolitans “don’t see is how tribal their cosmopolitanism is”.
Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.