Taming Identity Politics In Diverse Societies

A French cultural upheaval is underway, influenced by American ideas — that came from France.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Ideas have legs. But where they end up depends on what they walk through.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, passions in France are absorbed these days by what is, in some ways, the most profound cultural upheaval since the student revolt of May 1968, perhaps best remembered by its most permissive of slogans: “It is forbidden to forbid.”

As with most such eruptions, the current slow-motion upheaval spilling out from the halls of academe to the cafes along Boulevard Saint-Germain has spawned a tumultuous mix of consequences. There is the good — such as the #metoo-like implosion of a male-dominated sexist culture and the exposure of discrimination and injustice in a nation of hallowed citoyens that does not officially recognize race. And then there is the bad — identity politics and the “ugly” of cancel culture, which seeks to close the mind through politically correct sanction instead, as in 1968, of opening the imagination.

While Charles De Gaulle remained silent behind closed doors in the Élysee Palace during the raucous events of 1968, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken up the challenge head-on. He blames the bad and the ugly on the country’s favorite whipping boy, America. For Macron, “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States” are at fault for fomenting what he calls “ethnicization of the social question,” which, in his mind, will lead toward “Islamist separatism” and end up “breaking the republic in two.” To defend itself, in the words of the French education minister, “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.”

Some younger scholars have embraced American-style “post-colonial,” gender and other identity politics, especially with respect to Muslim immigrant populations, as the only way to break through an unwoke establishment blind to very real racism. At the same time, 100 prominent scholars backed up Macron and the education minister in an open letter in Le Monde lambasting theories “transferred from North American campuses.”

Though he recently acknowledged French soldiers tortured and killed a top rebel in 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, Macron has refused to apologize for France’s colonial past. He insists that “the republic will erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues.”

Macron’s point on this last score is well taken. As any trauma therapist will advise, you can’t make a better past, only a better future. But the irony of blaming ideas from American universities for French troubles cannot be lost on anyone who has followed the evolution of academic fashion over the last few decades. It was, after all, the “deconstructionist” ideas of intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as the post-modernist notions of Jean-Francois Lyotard and others, exported from France in the 1980s, that, often misinterpreted, have been transmuted as the frame of identity politics emanating from American campuses today.  

At the admitted risk of reductionism that sacrifices nuance for brevity, let me summarily trace the path of influence. The deconstruction of all “objective” mainstream certitudes or “master narratives” said to be mere expressions of past social power arrangements creates a vacuum. That void can all too easily yield to “subjective” constructions of reality based on wherever you sit in the world. When such a mindset takes hold, it is a short distance to a self-referential “society of singularities” fraught with fragmentation instead of the possibility of a common social imagination. In particular, the guilt-by-race association of cancel culture that projects the sins of the fathers onto present-day generations dooms a society to paralysis since it can no longer conceive of itself as a whole.

The legs of these ideas have by now moved well beyond their French origins transmuted through the American experience to the entire realm of multicultural and multiethnic open societies straining at the seams to hang together.

In a recent essay in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled “How Much Identity Can a Society Stand?”, Wolfgang Thierse addressed this sensitive subject with sage balance.

He starts off with the obvious, which in the present environment comes off as provocative: “It is not only minorities but also majorities who have cultural claims, and these should not be simply denounced as conservative or reactionary or even as racist.”

Thierse’s argument is worth quoting at some length so it is not misunderstood:

We are living more than ever in a pluralistic society in terms of ethnicity, culture, and religious worldview. Diversity is not the goal but rather the real foundation of our democracy and culture. Denying this fact or wanting to revoke it is the fatal and dangerous flaw of right-wing identity politics. Elevating diversity to the goal of all social and cultural aspirations is the problematic of left-wing identity politics.

The goal should instead be to accept diversity and find ways to live with it, peacefully and productively. Reaching this goal does not only require energetic engagement for the recognition and realization of one’s own respective identity. … It also requires, to an even greater degree, the readiness and ability to think what is one’s own in relation to what we have in common, to consider the common good … Proponents of diversity should in any case also act as proponents of commonality.

The unqualified respect for diversity and difference is not everything. Instead it should be embedded in the recognition of rules and obligations, and also in the acceptance of majority decisions. Otherwise social cohesion faces threats or even destruction through radical opinion ghettoes and the perception of profound differences as well as competing identity claims, especially in the digital public sphere. … Its cultural program must be to insist that solidarity — this is what it is all about after all — is not a one-way street, nor only a claim on others; it depends instead on reciprocity within an embrace of the whole.

Much has been made in the West lately of the need for massive investment in physical infrastructure and technological innovation in order to remain a civilizational presence in a future global order China is on track to dominate. Little so far has been said, though, about revitalizing the far more decisive cultural and civic infrastructure of open societies.

Yet, if democratic culture comes to mean nothing more than sanctifying the splintering of society into a plethora of special interests, partisan tribes and endless acronymic identities instead of seeking common ground, there is little hope of competing successfully with a unified juggernaut like China. In the end it would not be China that buries the West, but the incapacity of diverse and plural societies to manage the conditions of their own existence.