Does identity politics commodify us?

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The Prime Minister has recently denounced ‘the growing tendency to commodify human beings through identity politics‘. In doing so, he raises a number of important questions. The claim of ‘commodification’ of human beings and their relations is a powerful one.

Main image: Protestors looking at the camera (Getty Images)

The idea that humans or their essential relationships risk reduction to being treated as things (‘reification’, from German Verdinglichung) and thereby alienated from others was, indeed, one of Marxism’s central critiques of capitalism. In support of this thesis, Marxists could point to such charmless commercial terms as ‘human resources’ (assets on the company books) and, in contemporary discourse, to the claims that we should ‘open up’ our economies and suffer the consequent loss of lives to the coronavirus in order to avoid economic damage.

Mr Morrison’s thesis is not the traditional economic one, however, but is rather a social claim. He argues that it is the assumption of an identity by people themselves which causes this commodification and alienation. So, what is one to make of ‘identity politics’ and does it commodify us?

Certainly, it is true that identity can sell — and is in that sense commodifiable. One has only to go into a (physical or online) souvenir shop to see t-shirts allowing the wearer to display their AustraliannessChristianity, disability or any of a hundred other identities. Mr Morrison is also undoubtedly right to point out that one can invest oneself so completely in an identity as to submerge the reality of who one is. Indeed, a man who invited the cameras to church to watch him pray during the 2019 election campaign is doubtless right to warn that identity can be used to mask a person’s individuating characteristics in order to sell products — or buy votes.

But identity is much more than a brand. On one level, there is the very human tendency to identify with others we see as sharing our world view, our language and culture or other elements of our outlook. On another level, however, identity is itself often influenced by external and unwanted factors.

As many First Nations activists have commented, Aboriginality (and degrees of it) was categorised, classified and subclassified precisely by colonisers in order to mete out horrors to the Indigenous population of this country (and others too).

 

'Arguably, it is precisely the commodification of groups by discrimination in the first place which has caused the groups discriminated against to attempt to claim the identities targeted for discrimination as rallying standards.'

 

Women’s issues have come to the fore in Australian politics recently not because ‘woke’ women sought to distinguish themselves from society’s mainstream, but rather because of allegations that women have been sexually assaulted in Parliament and subjected to harassment and unwanted sexual advances by political leaders — and a subsequent lack of political will to effectively investigate these allegations.

On a more personal level, it is not I who have chosen to be spat on in public, called a ‘retard’ by fellow commuters, had my cane or glasses snatched by would-be faith healers while walking in city streets or given the third degree every time I go through airport security. These things have been a consequence of having a visible disability. Indeed, other disabled people have fared far worse. Physical and sexual assault, lack of access to buildings or communications, ill-treatment by the justice system or enforced institutionalisation have all been unwanted consequences of an identity marker imposed by society on people with a variety of physical or mental characteristics distinguishing them from an imagined ‘norm’. 

The LGBTQI+ community also have a long history of being the targets of discrimination, stretching back centuries. Even the Australian government admits that LBTQI+ people face multi-layered discrimination in accessing services from it, including the most basic of health services.

In the light of these histories, the question of ‘commodification’ can, I suggest, be seen in a new light. Arguably, it is precisely the commodification of groups by discrimination in the first place which has caused the groups discriminated against to attempt to claim the identities targeted for discrimination as rallying standards. So it is, for example, that many women’s groups have claimed the abusive term ‘slut’ as an act of defiance, just as many disabled people have embraced ‘crip’ or many LGBTQI+ people have adopted ‘queer’.

All this casts doubt on the Prime Minister’s claim that it is the politics of identity (rather than oppression on the basis of real or imagined identities) which commodifies.  

Nevertheless, Morrison is doubtless correct to the extent that he questions whether identity politics can ever be an end in itself when looking to dismantle structures of oppression. So it is that the concept of ‘intersectionality’ arose among Black women scholars (such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was at least partly responsible for coining the term) in the 1970s and 1980s. These scholars noted that many people experienced multiple forms of discrimination and that remaining solely focused on one identity marker could obscure the broader picture of how different structures of oppression interact. Only by tackling the complex as a whole could discrimination be removed. 

The Prime Minister’s remarks about ‘identity politics’ will therefore be welcome to the extent that they foster awareness of these structures and a determination to demolish them.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Protestors looking at the camera (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, identity politics, Scott Morrison, Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality

 

 

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Existing comments

Hail, O Justin, a Jesuit whose skills makes him worthy of that acclaim! I want to apply your treatment of the identity politics topic that you so beautifully deconstruct to a recent advertisement appearing all over Queensland. It includes a picture of our retired crickcter, Mathew Hayden, holding a bat and asking those who view his picture if they are 'Baptised Catholics'. The purpose of the advertisement is undoubtedly to invite the 90% of Catholics who are inactive to consider returning to faith practice, and as such is commendable. However, it is sacramentologically questionable whether one is baptised a Catholic, since all Christians share this Sacrament of Christian Initiation. Ought there not to be a better way for the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane to advertise more specifically what its intentions are? While some Catholics might be avid cricketers, others are not. Nor are we all White, Male and Sporty! Why not be honest and take out advertisements as part of this very expensive campaign asking lapsed Catholics to tell us why they have lapsed? At the very least a summation of the results would be a useful means of informing what needs to be prioritised as part of the Synod.
Michael Furtado | 04 May 2021


Far more disturbing than being commodified by identity politics is to have no identity to the commodifiers. Last week I started to watch a movie, "Never Look Away", and found only a short time into the movie that I was unable to keep watching. The subject matter was too disturbing to me at a personal level. I knew it was a movie but still.... Our identity as unique and irreplaceable human beings is paramount.
Pam | 04 May 2021


That we’re all different is empirical. When and why it should matter is normative. An ‘is’ is not ipso facto, but needs to be converted by further reasoning into, an ‘ought’. Disparagement because of race and disability have always passed the Christian translation tests. Philosophies and ideologies that sexual desire and gender are plastic concepts have never passed the same tests because they are heresies. The relationship between Christian evangelism and intersectionality has its precursor in the model of the Samaritan. The Samaritan was obliged to help the Jew in the midday heat with water from a well, but the Jew was obliged to tell the Samaritan that his form of worship was superior to hers, even if he had male rabbi privilege and the yet to be earned privilege of an immaculate conception and life, while she was a sexual outcast from the necessity of domestic prostitution. The most benevolent interpretation of even non-practising homosexualists and gender dysphoriacs is that they are sexual outcasts (because thought precedes action, as the teaching about adultery reveals) from necessity, but the events at and from the well say, ‘So what?’ because ‘is’ is not ‘ought’ and there is more.
roy chen yee | 05 May 2021


Powerful - thank you. From what I can see and continuing conversations, I believe there is a growing awareness that we are in uncharted waters. The old excuses and prejudices are rightly dying out. This article may help us find our way towards genuine inclusion.
Barry Gittins | 05 May 2021


Mille fois bravo, both Justin and Michael, for striking your blows for tolerance and commonsense.
Edward Fido | 05 May 2021


This cynic in me suggests that the PM is projecting a negative image i.e. 'identity politics' onto the centre and left for electioneering purposes, which also deflects from issues within Libs and Nats. Further, it draws more US GOP tactics and 'identity politics' encouraged by the LNP, pollsters, NewsCorp etc. to divide the centre and left; also occurs and is apparent within the LNP (especially directed towards social moderates and those who follow climate science). The tactic used and needed to form a LNP voting coalition is about their need for providing labels or targets to voters for a negative focus i.e. complain about, denigrate and attack; negatives move people not positives. Unfortunately conservatives aggressively promote what sociocultural issues they are against but are unable to present what they are for?
Andrew J. Smith | 09 May 2021


Astutely observed & sadly true, Andrew. Even the 'other-worldly' theological escapology of the PM reinforces this view, seeking to divide Christians between those with intense personal faith commitments from others with a strong social justice conscience.
Michael Furtado | 10 May 2021


Michael Furtado (4/5) questions the 'sacramentology' of being "baptised a Catholic". The event of Pentecost as presented in Acts 2 provides an answer - as does the Church's tradition, which declares the marks of Christ's community of the faithful as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 830 ff). Regarding the appropriateness of the Matthew Hayden-featured advertisement, it's true that not all of us are "White" and "Male" - many cricket lovers are, in fact, females, who, in increasing numbers, play the sport, thus broadening the advertisement's target audience. Good on Matt Hayden for playing his part in a new arena - one of greater consequence than even the Ashes!
John RD | 11 May 2021


Yes, Pam, eugenics is an abominable manifestation of hubris. I found the 1981 Hungarian film "Mephisto" directed by Istvan Szabo similarly challenging, but more due to its main character's forfeiting of his soul and integrity in a Faustian bargain under the weight of ideological pressure.
John RD | 11 May 2021


Although Justin would hardly have bargained for John RD's latest shackling of Pentacost, usually associated with the sacramentology of Confirmation, with Baptism, John's accompanying remarks offer scope for wry reflection on why Matt Hayden, stupendous cricketer that he is, should feature as an enticement for those who share John's ecclesiological views. Are not those women cricketers, aggrieved as they often are by the unequal treatment of male and female practitioners of their sport, likely to contest the view that a man should 'represent' their interest in the way that the sports media often insists, especially in the context of this advertisement? Secondly, as honorable a game as cricket is meant to be, the risk here is that someone is bound at some stage to recall an instance in which Hayden fell short of its impeccable, 'straight bat-playing' standard. While I hope the ad works, my view is that the populist idea that underpins it may well backfire by countermanding Christ's injunction to pick up our cross - and not necessarily our bat - and follow Him. Its surely light years since we advanced Princess Grace of Monaco and Hollywood's Tyrone Power as exemplars of Catholic rectitude, whatever that may mean.
Michael Furtado | 11 May 2021


M.F.: "shackling of Pentacost (sic)"? Now just how on earth do you come up with this fiction? The whole sacramental life of the Catholic Church is intrinsically connected with the Pentecost event. If "shackling" is being done it's by the secularised notion of inclusivity you appear to support - a notion , at that, which demonstrably has very clear demarcations of non-acceptable limits and related exclusions - which vaporises the distinctiveness of the Church's liturgically enshrined baptismal promises, their Christ-inspired relevance to all, and his mandate to teach all nations.
John RD | 13 May 2021


Clever polemicist though he is, John RD cannot wriggle out of the following recent and categoric teaching of Pope Francis, as operationalised in two recent English-speaking instances by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Aquila of Denver and Bishop Silva (now Archbishop) of Honolulu (formerly of the Diocese of Fargo): https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/pentecost-and-confirmation/ All three bishops explicitly link Pentecost and it role within Confirmation to a far more explicit sacramental status, downplayed in the past and seen as a mere rite of passage to full membership of the Church, than before. Does John RD again take issue with the Pope or will he remain, as he incessantly prefers to position himself, a loyal son of the Church?
Michael Furtado | 14 May 2021


Everything is ‘shackled’ to baptism of water because the Great Commission doesn’t mention any other sacrament. No baptism of water by John, no baptism in the spirit at Pentecost. Except for baptism of water, the Church has authority to change the order of sacraments because the early Church had eucharist after baptism in the spirit when the apostles received communion before. Infant baptism is uncontroversial because infants have no moral agency. Agency is an extension of reason, and where there is reason there is sin. The question will be whether a child with the intention of accommodating itself to gender dysphoria or non-normative affections which in due course will be termed ‘sexuality’ can truly be confirmed given that the sense of the sacrament in the Catholic Church is that it is meant to be given to a person who has attained the age of reason.
roy chen yee | 16 May 2021


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