Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The discomfort of change: is “white fragility” our main concern?

Image taken from Cyprus Mail.

In a post last year, Nathan “Mudyi” Sentence (Australian Museum) wrote about his involvement in a museum programme for university students discussing the Stolen Generations (the removal of children of aboriginal descent by the Australian government and church missions along the 20th century) and intergenerational trauma. “After the program, one of the students anonymously commented on a feedback form that they felt like they were being reprimanded and made to feel bad for being White. I found this to be an odd response as we were just discussing a reality and an issue that affects many, many First Nations people, but they chose to disengage because it made them uncomfortable. This made me worried that White fragility will always get in the way of settlers engaging with programs that challenge the colonial structures that benefit them. This made me worried that White fragility is more of concern to some people than the truth.”

The ‘truth’… In his book Για τo “νόηματης πολιτικής (On the “meaning” of politics), Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras explains the Greek word α-λήθεια (truth) as the “not forgotten”, “not hidden” (p.46). Thus, truth means revelation, coming to light and refers to a lived experience and not simply a “correct meaning” (as the latin veritas suggests). Thus, there can be many truths coexisting in a society. Living in society means doing something together with others, acquiring knowledge by participating, being part of the same experience and knowledge (p. 106). Furthermore, democracy, according to the Greek paradigm, is not an achieved ‘what’, but the purpose of a ‘how’, the challenge of an achievement, on the condition of the dynamics and the indefinition of the relationships developed in society (p.80). All these concepts blend in my mind and point out to me that living in a democratic society means that citizens participate (not an individual right for the ancient Greeks, as seen today, but rather a collective obligation), learn from each other and about each other, share experiences, learn to deal with the truths of the others which may confront their own, and achieve things together. The art of living together is the art of politics and it is an act of survival.

Image: Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation (taken from

French journalist and member of the European Parliament Raphaël Glucksmann, in his book Les enfants du vide: De l´impasse individualiste au reveil citoyen (Children of the void: From the individualist impasse to citizen awakening) discusses the society of isolation and how much this has affected our democracies: people who are confined to their houses and live for themselves, whose worldview is shaped by media exposing them to an idea of ever-increasing dangers to their well-being and benefits posed by “others”; they don’t participate in collective bodies or contribute to common causes and they long for a leader-saviour who will acknowledge their hardship and protect them. Glucksmann criticizes identity politics for transforming the political struggles into a matter of identity recognition, bringing about the rise of identity awareness also among “majority groups” (p.61 in the Greek edition) and substituting the pursuit of equality for all into the confirmation of the rights of each one (p.63). He argues that, in order for people to come out of their isolation and become active citizens again, our democracy needs to take a step back and concentrate again on greater common causes and not individual differences (for instance, Glucksmann suggests, on climate change).

There are, of course, a number of great causes that bring together people with shared ideals and values and it definitely makes sense to continue rallying around them. The criticism against identity politics, though, made me think about the terms of participation of different people in these causes. Do we all have the same starting point? The same opportunities? Can we hope that our participation will be equally acknowledged and that any benefits will be equally shared and experienced?

Little time after reading Glucksmann’s book, I came across Francis Fukuyama’s article “Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy”, which helped me understand better the arguments against identity politics. Fukuyama attributes the support given around the world to authoritarian leaders who use fascist techniques not only to the economic and technological shifts of globalisation, but also to the rise of identity politics. He argues that, in many democracies, the left focuses less on creating broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of marginalised groups (such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people), resulting in the fracturing of democratic societies into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. “Unless such liberal democracies can work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, they will doom themselves - and the world - to continuing conflict”, he writes.

At the same time, Fukuyama acknowledges that “equality under the law does not result in economic or social equality. Discrimination continues to exist against a wide variety of groups, and market economies produce large inequalities of outcome. (…) and minorities continued to cope with the burdens of discrimination, prejudice, disrespect, and invisibility.” This is precisely why I have difficulty accepting the argument that identity politics (meaning, getting to know the other and his/her lived experience better) is fracturing our persistently fractured, unjust, discriminating society, diverting “attention from larger groups whose serious problems have been ignored” and hindering our possibility to act collectively.

Who are really the larger groups Fukuyama refers to? Who are the people who felt left out, invisible, threatened by the rise of “other identities” and the claim of their rights? Who were the people who felt strangers in their own country and voted for Donald Trump (see post-election survey results)? Could it be that it is white people and that it is their (our) discomfort that these arguments against identity politics are all about?

Photo: Laura Baris taken from People's Pundit Daily.

Let’s take women for an example (one of the “minority”, “marginalised groups” whose identity struggles are considered to be contributing to the current fragmentation of society) and let’s keep, for the time being, this argument only between white men and white women. I believe that the #MeToo movement regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault has clearly shown what little effect the struggle for women’s rights has had in the mentality of many men (and women). The not-so-much-of-an-apology statements of people like Joe Biden or Placido Domingo regarding accusations of harassment show us, and Fukuyama agrees, that outsiders (or dominant cultures) “often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions”. “However, I recognise that the rules and standards by which we are - and should be - measured against today are very different than they were in the past”, said Placido Domingo. Are they really that different or, rather, they were less contested and denounced?

I believe that what is different today is that “other” people have got a voice and confront dominant mentalities and cultures, creating discomfort among those who were not at all used to being questioned. I will not make Francis Fukuyama’s mistake of comparing the effects of peaceful movements to violent contestations (which is what he does when he discusses the black activism of Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam). I will keep to peaceful movements and ask: How far have they taken us? How open have we been to listening to others? What is the power of a voice when noone listens?

“Identity politics aims to change culture and behavior in ways that have real material benefits for many people”, writes Fukuyama, at the same time that he criticises “the tendency of identity politics to focus on cultural issues [which] has diverted energy and attention away from serious thinking” regarding economic inequality. But is this just about economic inequality? Is this the only concern for people who continue being discriminated, harassed, violated, set aside, silenced, invisibilised? Can we fight together if we don’t call things by their name, if we don’t know who the person next to us is, what their daily lived experience is? Can we act collectively if some of us continue behaving as “outsiders”, for the sake of our comfort? In a country like the US, although great attention has been given, according also to Fukuyama, to the promotion of a “creedal national identity” (built not around shared personal characteristics, lived experiences, historical ties, or religious convictions but rather around core values and beliefs), don’t Muslim congresswomen have to prove themselves every day as true Americans, true patriots?

Thanks to Fukuyama’s article, I do understand better the argument against identity politics. And I still disagree with it. In the 21st century I wish for communities of mature citizens, who realise that the health of a liberal democracy is based on the confrontation of ideas and, inevitably, on discomfort. I wish for communities that embrace this discomfort and embark of the quest for truth and knowledge. A utopia?

Although I don’t consider political correctness to be a threat to free speech or identity politics to be responsible for the rise of far-right identities, I am concerned with excesses. As I wrote before, silencing a person who used what today is considered the wrong word before letting them finish what they have to say and understand the context in which they speak (read here); or considering that everyone should by now be informed and, instead of repeating ourselves once again and explaining once again, we just throw at them “Check your privileges” (read here), these are not ways of learning together by participating. Noone learns anything, everyone feels violated and we end up turning our backs on each other, disengaging.

Access Culture debate (Photo: Pedro Faro/ Casa-Museu Júlio Pomar)

I have been thinking about what the way forward could be, how we can create spaces where we can meet, learn about each other, have the freedom to share our fears and concerns and work together on issues that are common to many of us. Perhaps building on common values could be the foundation for such encounters. Not with the intention to disregard the individual lived experiences of the minorities, as Fukuyama suggest, for the sake of the comfort of the many, but with the aim to create a comfortable space to discuss uncomfortable issues.

The Happy Museum Project in the UK has developed an initiative called “Values work for museums”, supporting arts and cultural organisations to use a values-based approach to their work with audiences and communities. They have held several workshops, including one focusing on the role of values in addressing social polarisation (and one specifically on “How can the cultural sector respond to the referendum?”). I learnt about it from Esme Ward, Manchester Museum Director, who participated in it (yes, it seems that there are museum directors who take time to participate in workshops….)  Manchester Museum has created the Discover and Share – Ways to promote positive values in arts and cultural settings guide, based on a year-long collaboration with the Happy Museum Project. This is my next reading, together with Words Matter, since Wayne Modest (Troppenmuseum) will be back in Lisbon on 26 September to discuss it.

Change brings concern and discomfort to everyone. That much we know and we should built our communication strategy around it. Little will be achieved, though (and little has been achieved), if we continue avoiding certain realities and being mainly concerned with the comfort of the many. Identity politics is not responsible for the rise of the far-right. But we know that the far-right rises and shines by creating identity-based fear and promising protection. Identity is central to the existence of everyone, both majority and minority groups. As Raphaël Glucksmann says, we can “Take back control” (the Brexit slogan) or, I add, “become great again” (the Trump slogan) by redefining the “we”, without excluding the “other”, without xenophobia and scapegoats. Yes we can. But first, we need to know who the other is, where they have been all this time, where they come form and why. This is how we can create a “we”, through knowledge, not through ignorance neither through arrogance.

More on this blog:

More sources:

Recording of Access Culture’s seminar “Decolonizing museums: in practice this means…?”

E Pluribus Unum? The Fight Over Identity Politics (2019). By Stacey Y. Abrams; John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck; Jennifer A. Richeson; and Francis Fukuyama

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