Belfast Telegraph

I don’t have to be gay, or black or a man to have valid views on their issues

Dividing ourselves into labelled boxes makes us inward-looking and shuts down debate, says Fionola Meredith

I've given my family notice that if the dreaded words "as a woman" should ever escape from my lips again, they can feel free to lock me up in the garden shed for the day. Oh, I know, I've said it in the past, probably more times than I care to remember. "As a woman, I believe this, that and the other." But then I realised how very restrictive and reductive it is to flag up my womanhood constantly, as though it's the sole, defining thing about who I am. It also sounds like an instant plea for victimhood, and I hate that. "As a woman, I am uniquely hard done by." Well, boo-hoo, you'd be forgiven for replying.

Binning the phrase from my vocabulary also coincided with the realisation that identity politics is a curse of the modern age. Dividing ourselves off from each other into sealed units marked 'women', 'gay', 'transgender', 'black', 'Christian', 'Muslim' - the list goes on and on - is a really unhealthy and counter-productive way to understand ourselves and to tackle the complex problems of 21st century life. Identity politics turns people inwards. Huddling together in their own private echo-chambers makes them self-obsessed and super-touchy if others don't sign up to the one-dimensional way they see the world. And that's no way to build solidarity and draw people to your cause.

A classic example of this narcissism and need for personal victimhood was enacted by The Guardian journalist Owen Jones after the appalling homophobic massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last summer.

Jones, who happens to be gay, stormed out of a Sky News studio, telling the presenter: "You don't understand this because you're not gay." Jones' departure did not come across as a principled stance on behalf of the victims of Orlando. Rather, it looked like a petulant huff because he wanted to make the tragedy all about himself.

You don't understand this because you're not gay - or not a woman, or not black, or not whatever (delete as applicable) - is a common cry of protest. For example, in last week's column I called for a planned tribute to the LGBT community at City Hall to feature Jeff Dudgeon, the man who changed the law and brought gay freedom to Northern Ireland. Some gay activists were enraged that "a straight journalist" had dared to give an opinion on an LGBT issue.

Leaving aside the assumption about my sexuality - have they been round to my place to check who I go to bed with? - this raises some serious issues about free speech. If you're only permitted to speak on a subject if you have a specific identity, this immediately silences debate. And I guess that's the whole point. The "straight" slur is just another way of saying shut up and stick to your own tribe.

What's so depressing about all this is that Northern Ireland is the original home of identity politics and the sick race to be the Most Oppressed People Ever. I'm talking, of course, about the endless, bitter, blinkered war between orange and green, and the distorting coloured glass through which so many people view the world, regardless of the facts.

"As a unionist, I think this." "As a republican, I think that." And so the whole place gets carved up along stifling sectarian lines.

We should, by now, have realised the consequences of such reductive thinking, which prioritises difference and division over commonality. Instead, the new generation - as well as a few embittered oldsters - seems to be adopting it as a template for their own "progressive" political causes. "If you're not with us, you're against us": the stupid old mantra has been disinterred, dusted off and put to use in a new arena. Will we never learn?

One of the most consistently insightful observers of the harm that identity politics does is the commentator Brendan O'Neill. He writes: "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." Thus debate itself - the healthy exchange of political ideas - "comes to be seen as a form of hatred, a 'phobia'".

I want no truck with that, which is why I've decided to never again speak "as a woman". From now on I will speak as a human being - and that's something we all share.

Belfast Telegraph

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