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The trouble with identity politics

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Identity politics reflected two great longings, a desire for uniqueness, and a need to belong. As Britain’s political tribes meet, Graham Tomlin argues it’s time to ditch it.
A head and shoulders portrait consisting of large disc-like pixels that obscure the real person..
Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash.

I’ve been watching the remarkable documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, and there is one story in it I can’t get out of my mind. Richard Moore was a ten-year old boy in Londonderry in the early seventies. Charles Inness was a 30-year old British soldier in the Royal Artillery stationed in the city at the time. During a local disturbance in 1972, Inness fired a rubber bullet to disperse a crowd of youths throwing stones at a RUC base at exactly the moment the ten-year old Richard crossed his line of fire. The bullet hit the young boy in the eye, blinding him for life.  

Many years later, Moore expressed a desire to meet the man who fired the gun. And so, in 2006 they met. The British soldier, cautious, a little stiff and very proper, was initially defensive, refusing to apologise as he still felt he had acted rightly at the time and in the circumstances. Moore persisted, not out of a desire for vengeance or recrimination, but simply wanting to understand. Gradually the two became friends and Inness eventually found a way to say he was genuinely sorry. 

The history of the troubles in Northern Ireland is full of stories of people being murdered simply because of one part of their identity - that they were Protestant or Catholic, UDA or IRA, British soldier or Irish Republican. What struck me listening to this story was Moore’s tenacity, to get beyond the simplistic identity of Inness as ‘the soldier who took away my sight’. 

Summing up what he had learnt, Moore said: ‘Finding out who he was changes everything. To me, he’s no longer a soldier, he’s a human being. A father, a grandfather – it makes a person very real. And that’s a good thing.’ There seemed to me a gem of wisdom here that can get us past much of the polarisation of modern life. 

“There are two striking human passions, the passion for uniqueness and the passion for union.”

Tom Morris.

‘Identity politics’ was a term borrowed from social psychology in the 1970s and quickly gained traction. It was an attempt to enable marginalised people to find solace and support with one another, by focussing on the common characteristics of one aspect of a person’s identity. It tried to help bring particularly disadvantaged groups together by describing the common experiences they had faced.  

Since then it has gained a great deal of traction and generated much controversy. So why did it hit such a nerve? 

The philosopher Tom Morris once wrote:  

“There are two striking human passions, the passion for uniqueness and the passion for union. Each of us wants to be recognised as a unique member of the human race. We want to stand apart from the crowd in some way. We want our own dignity and value. But at the same time, we have a passion for union, for belonging, even for merging our identities into a greater unity in which we can have a place, a role, a value.” 

Identity politics was a reflection of these two great human longings - our desire for uniqueness, and our need to belong. On the one hand we all want to be special, unique, different from everyone else. On the other hand, we want a tribe to belong to, whether defined by gender, race, sexuality, nationality or the like. And so, we choose an identity that defines us, marks us off to the world, and gives us a group to belong to. 

Identity politics began with good intentions. Yet the way it is often used means that it encourages me to think that once I have labelled someone with a particular characteristic, that is all I need to know about them. If I know they are black or white, privileged or deprived, young or old, gay or straight, conservative or progressive, and so on, then I know all I need to know. I can then embrace them as one of my tribe, or dismiss them as different, without any further discernment.  

One of the writers of the Psalms, reflecting on his own self-awareness, wrote “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The reality is that we are all immensely complex beings with multiple facets, different qualities and a number of overlapping identities. My neighbour may be Asian. And knowing that, I might think ‘I know what Asian people are like – and he must be like all the others.’ Yet he might also be a father, a husband, an Arsenal fan, of Bangladeshi heritage, a doctor, middle-aged, a Labour voter, suffering from occasional depression, a 2 handicap golfer. And so on. These are all part of who he is and if I want to get to know him fully, I need to understand something about all of these elements of his identity. If I fix on any one of these as the final truth about him, and ignore all the rest, I do him a disservice. To reduce the complexity and wonder of a fellow human being to one single characteristic is surely a mistake. It is to fail to do them justice, and display an unwillingness to take the time to understand them. It is, in the final analysis, a failure to love.  

The final truth about each one of us can only be what is true of all of us - that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. In that same Psalm, the writer relates his sense that the God he worships, in a way that is both comforting yet unnerving, knows everything about him:  

“you know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar, you discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”  

We are each one known, loved, understood in our very complexity by the God who made us, and invited to become capable of that same kind love – the love that looks beyond the surface to understand the complexities of others – in other words, to grow into the likeness of God. 

Richard Moore may have been blinded by that rubber bullet in 1972. Yet in a strange way he learnt to see better than most of us. He learnt to see past the simple identity of Charles Inness as ‘the British soldier who ruined my life.’ He had the tenacity to learn that that this man was, like all of us, both complex and simple - a man with unique relationships, a history, in his own way shaped by his experience, and yet at the same time, worth getting to know in that complexity - that ultimately he was, like all of us, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ 

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For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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