Has there ever been a more petulant mob of moaners than that which is currently hurling abuse at Peter Tatchell? On Twitter, which is where these people live, self-styled queers and gender-benders are insulting and even threatening to kill Tatchell, the man whose risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.
Tatchell’s crime in the eyes of the PC thought police was to have signed a letter in the Observer calling for greater free speech in universities. Following student unions’ banning of various feminists who are ‘whorephobic’ (they don’t like the sex industry) or ‘transphobic’ (they don’t think men who have sex changes are real women), the letter-writers slammed the use of No Platform to ‘prevent the expression of feminist arguments’. It is ‘illiberal and undemocratic’ to silence people simply because you disagree with them, they said.
Then, in an irony so profound it could make your temples throb, trans activists and their ‘allies’ — people who follow them on Twitter — went berserk, describing the letter as an intolerable assault on their feelings and going after all who signed it. In short, they showed their anger about a letter that branded them illiberal by behaving illiberally. Two people in particular got it in the neck: Mary Beard, who said she felt so ‘battered’ by the liberty-allergic trolls that she went to bed; and Tatchell, who has been bombarded by 5,000 tweets, many of them insulting, some threatening.
How do we explain this tirade of abuse against someone I would describe as the grandfather of gay rights if I wasn’t worried that the use of such a gender-specific title might earn me a tsunami of online abuse? Why are people so incredibly thin-skinned? I think it’s down to the politics of identity. I think the more we’ve made the personal political, the more we define our social and political outlook with reference to what’s in our underpants or what colour our skin is, the more we experience every criticism of our beliefs as an attack on our very personhood, our souls, our right to exist. The problem here is the terrifying wrapping together of the biological and the political, the packaging up of the accident of your gender or race or sexuality with your political persona, to the extent that debate itself comes to be seen as a form of hatred, a ‘phobia’.
Identity politics is spreading, filling the chasm where the politics of ideas used to be. Even the general election looks set to be a festival of identity, a less violent form of the communalistic politics we sniffily condemn in places like India. Politicos rarely speak of ‘the electorate’ anymore. Instead, they prefer to change their message depending on which ethnic, gender or generational pocket they’re talking to. Just look at Labour’s pink bus, Operation Black Vote and the Tories wooing of the ‘grey vote’. The end result is implicitly divisive, hinting that the young have different interests to the old, blacks think differently to whites, and women are a distinctive political species.
The politics of identity is strongest among the young, especially on campus. There, the dread phrases ‘As a woman’, ‘As a gay man’ and ‘As a Muslim’ are commonplace. Things have gone so far that some students now insist that you ask a person what their preferred gender pronoun is before addressing them, on the basis that if you were to use the wrong one — such as calling a man a ‘he’ when in fact ‘he’ identifies as a ‘she’ — their personhood would be crushed and they would require months of therapy and tea to recover. The politics of identity is narcissistic and needy. It encourages self-reflection over solidarity with others, sectionalism over universalism. In 1979, the great American thinker Christopher Lasch noted the emergence of this new ‘narcissistic personality’, where individuals ‘cannot live without an admiring audience’. Such neediness is rampant now, as evidenced in all the identity sects demanding supine acceptance of their terminology and worldview from everyone. If you don’t respect their ideas, you hurt their minds and bodies.
It’s all inherently censorious. Because if your political activism is indistinguishable from your natural characteristics or cultural identity, then any criticism of your political activism will inevitably feel like an assault on *you*. This is why student politicos in particular are so insanely cagey about open debate, forever hiding themselves in ‘safe spaces’ and trying to ward off campus anyone who criticises them in the same way monks might once have wielded crucifixes to chase away witches: because their transformation of their navels into the most interesting things in the world, their politicisation of their bodies and sexual preferences, means they can brook no ridicule of their outlook.
As it happens, I think the feminists complaining about No Platform, and possibly even Tatchell himself, unwittingly helped to nurture this censorious tyranny of identity politics with their old slogan ‘the personal is political’. But no matter. For what Tatchell also had, back in the day, was a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview — which has nothing to do with the world — from any questioning. We need a new politics of liberation, one which liberates the personal from the political and reminds people that, no, political debate is not an act of violence against your poor, weeping little self — it’s just political debate.