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 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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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


Roy, your opinion that plasticity in sexual desire and gender identity is a heresy actually supports what you would probably regard as the modern/liberal/atheistic/selfish “identity politics culture”. You state: “That we’re all different is empirical”. The fact is that LGBTI people exist, just as black people and blind people exist. I’m sure we could write a whole thesis on the influence of nature and/or nurture in the development of sexual and gender orientation. The existence of bisexual people suggests desire is fluid. For me the moral issue is not one of orientation but faithfulness in loving relationships. You ask, “So what?” dismissively suggesting it’s no big deal. Christian teaching on “intrinsic disorder” creates a disconnect between desire and practice – but not for everyone – just for LGBTI people (hence the identity struggle which you seem to trivialise). So in order to maintain some sense of self-worth, personhood and hope, LGBTI people often repress either the spiritual or sexual parts of their seemingly incompatible identities. Making a moral distinction between homosexual acts and gay identity/orientation is not the answer. Sexuality is about more than just what we do with our genitals. For LGBTI people, reconciling these conflicting identities often seems impossible, or the cost seems too high. Thankfully Pope Francis has acknowledged this internal struggle and encouraged us. Maybe the church needs a more powerful telescope to delve into this complex issue just as Galileo did when his dangerous ideology of heliocentrism was condemned as heresy.
AURELIUS | 17 May 2021


Oh, what a bane it is to be tied up in one of Roy's labyrinthine knots! A master tis he in the art of extrinsic rethink, is he not? Find the sin and then label the sinner is his approach; Fain otherwise a subject dare our readers ever broach.
Michael Furtado | 17 May 2021


Aurelius. Your post is inarguably one of the most lucid and best insights on gender identity I've ever read.
john frawley | 19 May 2021


Aurelius: ‘the moral issue is not one of orientation but faithfulness in loving relationships.’ The stumbling block to the morality of homosexual practice is that homosexuals cannot be themselves without imposing a cost on a vulnerable third party, the child. A homosexual couple ‘has’ a child who owes a moral duty of love to a stranger to the homosexual relationship. Homosexual coupling also imposes a cost on the child by requiring family loyalty between it and a stepsibling, a child also of a stranger to the homosexual couple who may be a stranger to the sibling. Bisexuality requires polyamory and children are atomised further. Intersexuality means a child cannot relate to a ‘father’ or a ‘mother’ because who knows what the intersexual will be from day to day. Exactly how many ‘parents’ in a non-normative household is a child going to have to deal with? Humans have tried communal living. LGBTQI* doesn’t begin sublime but it becomes more ridiculous. That the ridiculousness may not appear apparent is because divorce (of heterosexuals) has normalised the ‘blended’ family where it is insisted that even though your parent is not my parent, apparently you and I and the foreign parent are ‘family’.
roy chen yee | 19 May 2021


Roy's version of Christian love, implicitly focusing on exclusion and containment, offers an insight into his theology. Far from 'Love the Stranger', which is what Christ taught, Roy's dictum is to be wary of them, even when in some instances a child is deprived of the love of a biological parent. How might Roy then cope with the hideous fact that sexual abuse is known to be an in-house phenomenon perpetrated in the overwhelming majority of cases of its occurrence within the intimacy and closed circle of biologically-related family members, and most usually 'heterosexually' between unscrupulous fathers and one of more of their victimised daughters? Why did not St Thomas Aquinas, elevated as he is by some like Roy (who are given to biologistic excess) to the status of 'Doctor of the Church', not see this and create yet another canon to cover against this exigency? Or could it just be that Roy pushes his first principles to extremes, so as to close his mind in perpetuity to the exigencies that modern families, people and indeed Christians need to confront for the sake and safety of their children, rather than just through mischievous and sin-soaked intent to contest Roy's narratives?
Michael Furtado | 21 May 2021


Roy chen yee, my comment was merely about my experience living as a gay Catholic. The ethics and morality of creating families is a whole other area and I might even agree with you on some our your comments. Personally, I am not comfortable with adoption/surrogacy unless it's done to benefit the child first - not the couple. But these are moral issues that are not unique to same-sex couples.
AURELIUS | 21 May 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘even when in some instances’ Some? It’s in the nature of the homosexual household that a child will be deprived of collecting on the debt owed to it by the biological parent. The rest of your post has no relevance to the topic.
roy chen yee | 22 May 2021


Aurelius: ‘adoption/surrogacy unless it's done to benefit the child first - not the couple. But these are moral issues that are not unique to same-sex couples.’ It’s not ‘unique’ because some other-sex couples will face this question. However, all same-sex couples will face this question. ‘Some’ is not equivalent to ‘all’. ‘….experience living as a gay Catholic’: Let’s unpack this statement. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are ‘issues’ (if you like) when the person wants to have sex. It makes no sense to describe people who have chosen to live a celibate life (clergy and consecrated laity) as ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ because they have moved on past those labels. If LGBTQI* can make real what they ‘identify’, well, celibates have identified as post-sexuals so don’t bother applying the hetero- or homo- labels to them. For Catholics who want to have sex, children become the ethical principle, no matter how old they are, because actions have to support principle.
roy chen yee | 22 May 2021


Applying Roy's definition of identity in terms of the ways in which people use their 'plumbing' (as Ross Jones aptly describes it in another ES article) has to constitute one of the more blatantly reductive depictions of the human condition on record, both within these columns as well as beyond. Human nature, spirit and behaviour is so much more than the use and misuse of the procreative function: we are taught, in fact, that all persons are sexed and it must follow, as night follows day, that those in the singular state who follow the discipline of chastity, are also sexed. As a gay man, the love and attraction I experience are indeed multi-phenomenal, and like my heterosexual sisters and brothers, not confined to the prudential advice of 'keeping a guard upon the eyes' but also in my automatic response to triggers as seemingly innocuous to Roy as the sound of the human voice, the beauty of human hands and the ways in which my sisters and brothers unconsciously walk and talk; in short, the infinitely variegated ways in which I experience them. If this constitutes a disfigurement, then we are all disfigured and not, as I see it, graced!
Michael Furtado | 26 May 2021


Roychenyee, the rare men and women who are integrated and healthy examples of celibacy - people I've known and have sought spiritual direction from - tell me that sexuality is not something they merely "move on from". It's not about "labels" and the idea of being "post-sexual" hints at a Puritanical ideology that that demonises our God-given human nature. The healthy celibates I've met tell me their life choice actually heightens their sense of being sexual beings. And even though they may not express their sexuality the same way, they still express their sexuality in creative/spiritual ways.
AURELIUS | 26 May 2021


Aurelius: ‘Puritanical ideology that demonises our God-given human nature.’ Human nature is fallen. That’s not ‘Puritanical ideology’. That’s basic theology. You see what your agenda items lead you to see. If sex is on the brain, whether practised or not, then everything is an expression of ‘sexuality’ (whatever that is). As far as I can tell, creatively figuring how to get out of the current trade boondoggle with China hasn’t anything to do with ‘sexuality’. If you want to suggest that we should listen reflectively, talk less and practise ways of communication which are traditionally associated more with the feminine than the masculine, that isn’t ‘sexuality’ but a mischaracterisation of gender behaviour which interferes with the efficient exchange of information.
roy chen yee | 27 May 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘we are taught….as I see it, graced!’ There are two sexes (‘biological sex’ being a tautology) and, under the LGBTIQ* intellectual regime, many genders. Male and female homosexuality are gender behaviours, like the behaviours down the rest of the train. A ‘gender’ is a way of applying a sex. Given that the LGBTIQ* idea is contestable, so is your claim that non-heterosexual behaviours are graced. In fact, not all of the ‘infinitely variegated’ heterosexual behaviours are graced.
roy chen yee | 27 May 2021


Roy, you are 'almost there' but not quite! Gender isn't a behaviour but a cultural construct that explains why, not necessarily how, people behave, especially in ways in which cannot be predicted by their/our/your's and my biology. Gender is therefore a much more precise marker of identity than sex (or biology). While I am a male in terms of my biology, I am a gay man; otherwise, like many males and females of my baby-boomer generation and older, I would have been inveigled into suppressing my homosexual nature and masquerading as a heterosexual person, which is what I did for several years because of social norms and also the pressure to marry, which, until my coming-of-age, was pretty normative. Not only did it plunge my wife and me into a nightmare from which both of us are still recovering, it exposed the Church to a fallacy in its own teaching. In that sense Nature itself can also be a cultural term rather than one confined to a biologistic norm. Thus, all animals in nature, while generally heteronormative, are not confined to a heterosexual norm but are also observably known to demonstrate homosexual behaviours. It follows that all Creation is graced!
Michael Furtado | 30 May 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘Gender isn't a behaviour but a cultural construct…. It follows that all Creation is graced!’ Most of Creation is fallen because cultural constructs are an expression of will and most expressions of will, unlike that of Jesus, are not doing the will of the Father.
roy chen yee | 31 May 2021


How can God's Creation be 'fallen' other than to someone with a perverse mind?If both culture and nature are increasingly seen to cohere in matters of same-sex attraction, how can God, other than through some grossly perverse intention, have made a mistake? And if God hasn't, it follows that God has graced us all by the variety of ways in which we are made.
Michael Furtado | 01 June 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘How can God's Creation be 'fallen'….’ How can it not? If the Fall hadn’t existed, it would have had to be invented to explain the many inaesthetic displays of Nature which exist under an all-seeing God who is of spotless purity: www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2XnQ4HKSVc In this case, the fact that the victim is a mammal means that it not only has the capacity to suffer, because mammals have very well developed nervous systems, but its suffering is undeniably obvious to other mammals with the brains to imagine quite accurately, from knowledge of their own very well developed nervous systems, what the quantum and quality of suffering would be in a tableau which no one other than the all-seeing and spotlessly pure God could have allowed into being. Humans have no responsibility for the sorts of events in this display. If Creation is not fallen, what did this evil impala do to God? Therefore, Nature is not necessarily a norm.
roy chen yee | 02 June 2021


Roy, as a post-Darwinian Kantian, I believe that without some sort of a priori paradigm the mind cannot impose order on sensory experience. So, I accept The Creation account but essentially the second one, which makes no mention of The Fall that you keep harping on about. Back to Kuhn: whereas Kant and Darwin each thought that we are all born with more or less the same, innate paradigm, Kuhn argued that our paradigms keep changing as our culture changes. 'Different groups, and the same group at different times,' Kuhn said, 'can have different experiences and therefore in some sense live in a parallel universe.' You and I are like that and, palpably, the two or more 'wings' of Catholicism to which we are obviously committed have clashing world views. Obviously, all humans share some responses to experience, simply because of our shared biological heritage, Kuhn added. But whatever is universal in human experience (whatever transcends culture and history) is also ineffable: beyond knowing or at least in terms of the reach of language. Language, Kuhn said, 'is not a universal tool. It's not the case that you can say anything in one language that you can say in another.'
Michael Furtado | 09 June 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘as a post-Darwinian Kantian, I believe that without some sort of a priori paradigm the mind cannot impose order on sensory experience.’ You don’t have to be a pDK to believe that. Primitive animists practised that thinking without the sophisticated language. And all Christians do. ‘I accept The Creation account but essentially the second one, which makes no mention of The Fall that you keep harping on about.’ Invalid reasoning, because it’s above your pay grade to scissor out one part of Holy Scripture but keep another, not even if you’re Thomas Jefferson. ‘Kuhn’: was a philosopher of science. The difference between science and religion is that the causes of science have their consequences in the observable world while, in religion, the causes in this world have their consequences in the invisible next. So, Kuhn is moot. ‘two or more 'wings' of Catholicism to which we are obviously committed have clashing world views.’ Your logic steps are mis-tangoing and, consequently, bumph. Connecting to the third sentence before this, ‘world’ views is irrelevant, it’s ‘otherworld’ consequences which are salient.
roy chen yee | 11 June 2021


So, Roy; why mention Kuhn in the first place when you are so quick to dismiss him?
Michael Furtado | 14 June 2021


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