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Feminism as retrogressive identity politics

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Feminism as retrogressive identity politics

Saturday, 03 February 2018 | Prakash Shah

Western feminism has become a part of broader identity politics that pits various groups in society against one another without resolution of their relations

The recent interview of University of Toronto’s clinical psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, by Cathy Newman, of Britain's Channel 4 news, has gone viral. During the interview, Newman tried to attribute a host of cliché attitudes to her interlocutor. Why it went viral is presumably explained by the skilful handling by Peterson of Newma’'s charges invented by her twisting of Peterson’s replies. One of her tactics, successfully deflected by Peterson, was the continual insertion of the proposition that differentiation amounts to discrimination, as though all need and want to have the same expectations in life. The interview exemplifies the shoddy, footloose and yet unembarrassed way in which Western feminists gerrymander facts from life into their normative commitments, raising real doubts whether they have anything substantial to say about human relations.

Without doubt, feminism has become a seemingly unstoppable, immoveable feature of post-Marxist identity politics in the West. Being part of a broader, spreading identity politics that pits various groups in society against one another, without resolution of their relations, it signifies the decline of Western culture. While it has become a mainstream component of that culture, feminism also represents its gradual collapse into identity factions and the capture of power by group members able to capitalise on their identity rather than merit or ability. Indians will recognise this pattern in caste politics and its capture of institutions.

In Sweden, the government recently ordered the universities to implement a policy of "gender mainstreaming." Universities are to formulate goals like subjecting teaching staff to mandatory "Gender and Diversity in Education" courses, ensuring that "gender and diversity perspectives" are represented in all courses, requiring that a minimum of 40 per cent of female authors are included in course reading lists, or making gender studies texts compulsory. Thus Erik Ringmar, senior lecturer at lund University's Department of Political Science, was told after a meeting of the department's board of directors: "You will include Judith Butler in your course." Not only does this signal unhealthy interference in an academic's freedom to design their own syllabus, but having to teach Judith Butler sounds even more cringeworthy when you realise that Ringmar was teaching a course on turn-of-the-century modernity, with a focus on fascism!

As Roger Kimball excoriatingly writes in his Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, such developments are reflective of a movement that had already begun to infect American academic institutions. The first edition of Kimball's book appeared in 1990. The Swedish example is an indicator that varieties of this movement have taken hold in Europe. I can unhappily report that Britain is in its throes. Academic appointment panels can now stipulate that prospective university employees be conversant with the feminist strand of whatever subject domain in which they may be applying for a post. The honest respondent who claims that they are not so conversant can expect not to be shortlisted or selected no matter how impressive their credentials may otherwise be.

And what are to be the implications of this kind of ideological pressing for one's politics of identity as if its associated literature is canonicalIJ Muslims are increasingly entering the academic profession in Britain today. Many of them may hold one or other variety of Islamist views. Are we not far off from the day when being conversant with or even having to respect Islamist views may be compulsoryIJ One can well imagine how those candidates unable to demonstrate that could be branded 'Islamophobic' and deselected. And God help them should they admit to being critical of Islam!

The deeper the West descends into this form of politics, the less relevant the contributions of Western culture will remain for humanity. For all the hellish force it has often unleashed upon the people over whom it has exercised imperium, the West has also made major contributions to human culture. The world over has come to accept the primacy of the achievements of Western culture not least of them being the establishment of universities, together with scientific endeavour, the idea of higher education, and intellectual freedom. True, these were not merely handed on a plate to Western people. They have been struggled for, required great investment and considerable sacrifices, and they are vulnerable to the winds of cultural change. As with many Western achievements, feminism also claims that it possesses general truths about human beings. However, like other political and social theories in existence today, feminism emerged from within the cauldron of Western culture. As such, it purveys Western, Christian ideas in their recycled, secular forms disguised as general truths. To that extent it is not different to other products of Western culture such as secularism, freedom of religion, equality, the rule of law and so on.

Two elements seem to combine here. First, along with the tendency of Western culture to incorrectly purvey its truths as if they were general truths about human beings, feminism also becomes a way of speaking about humanity in general. Second, being part of the retrogressive development of identity politics within Western culture, universalised, it exports that retrogression to the rest of the world, with immensely damaging effects. The deepening of identity politics in the West creates even greater and more violent effects upon other cultures such as India, still reeling from the counter-intellectual consequences of colonialism. This is especially so when their elites have not grasped the intimately Western nature of the ideas they appear to so freely and shamelessly dispense in their description and criticism of their own cultures and traditions. In imitating the most retrogressive kind of identity politics that emerges from the West, Indians are likely to find themselves on the receiving end of greater fractiousness in times to come.

I see little sign of the educational apparatus in India being able to address such problems. Education appears to be among the lowest priorities in all the talk about vikas. India's educational future appears to depend on foreign countries keeping their doors open, even demanding that they remain so if recent reports of Indo-British discussions are to be believed. All this conversely signals that there is no make in India agenda for education. Naturally, this bite at the foreign higher education cherry comes at great cost even for those able to afford it. Those students returning to India can be guaranteed to bring back the worst dimensions of retrogressive identity politics and continue to fuel conflict.

Surely they will not learn anything affirmative about India’s culture and traditions from feminists!

(Views expressed are personal and entirely of the writer, who is Reader in Culture and law, Department of law, Queen Mary, University of london.) 

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