Freedom in an Age of Identity Politics

Self-expression now comes with its own strict rules

30th June 2023
Joanna Williams

For real freedom we need both individual agency and a recognition of our common humanity, argues Joanna Williams.

It can seem as if we live in an age of unprecedented personal freedom. The suburban conformity policed by net-curtain twitching neighbours has been consigned to the dustbin of history, alongside office dress codes and deference to those in authority. Today, tattoos, piercings, niche diets, music and media on demand allow us to express our individuality. Now we are free to bring our whole selves to work, we can dress down in jeans and trainers, or even choose to stay at home and work from bed instead. Not even biology stands in the way of our self-expression: unwanted body parts can be removed, others added and opposite-sex hormones consumed, until our corporal bodies match our mental self-image. We can insist others fall in line, respecting our new names and pronouns and our right to access once forbidden spaces. Freedom that begins with rejecting sex-assigned-at-birth ends, in some parts of the world, with the freedom to choose how and when to die.

But we soon discover that in this age of personal freedom, self-expression comes with its own strict rules. Net-curtain twitchers have been replaced by social media snoops. And whereas disapproving neighbours could tut loudly, tweet the wrong joke and you could find the police at your door. You can wear what you like to work but attendance at diversity training workshops is mandatory. Question what you’re taught and you’ll be hauled before your boss: your employment – and income – at risk. It’s the same at university – opportunities for self-expression have never been greater – or more limited. Men wear make-up, women are non-binary, polyamory is celebrated but seminars can be silent if students fear speaking out of turn.

Multiple opportunities to express our individual identity sit alongside a growing intolerance of views that challenge the consensus. At school, pupils can change gender and even species but those who ask how this is possible or why it is desirable find themselves labelled ‘despicable’. They must conform, shut up, or find a different school. On social media, on campus or in the workplace, say that men cannot become women or that there is no such thing as a transgender child, say that Britain is not a structurally racist society or that marriage should be a union between a man and a woman and cancel culture, no-platforming and compelled speech become immediately real. In this way, the demand for emotional, intellectual and political conformity poses a challenge to older, more fundamental freedoms – freedom of speech, religious freedom, freedom of association and freedom of conscience.

Today, two seemingly contradictory things seem to be true at the same time. We have more freedom than ever before to express our individual identity but freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are held in scant regard at best, and actively denigrated at worst. How can both of these things be true? To answer this question we need to consider the shift that has taken place over the course of several decades from class-based politics to identity politics.

Identity politics

Identity politics groups people according to characteristics such as sex, gender identity, race and sexuality. It assumes that each identity group has a particular social status, or power, and that groups can be ranked according to these varying levels of privilege or oppression. Some groups, such as black women, might be considered less powerful than, for example, white men. Social justice demands that power is taken away from white men, and given to black women, in order to produce a level playing field. According to this outlook, free speech is a problematic right because, applied universally, it amplifies the voices of the already privileged. Forms of censorship or self-censorship are needed to give more oppressed groups a platform.

One immediate problem with this approach is that a focus on group identity obliterates individuality in the assumption not only that all members share a common experience and wish to label themselves accordingly but also that they share a political outlook. Joe Biden best encapsulated this view when he said, in the run up to the last presidential election that black voters considering voting for Donald Trump ‘ain’t black’. The assumption that people who share a skin colour share a particular outlook is an old fashioned racist trope. With identity politics, there is no room for individual differences or viewpoints. Every time we begin a sentence by saying, ‘Speaking as a ….’ we are acknowledging an inability simply to speak as ourselves. Crucially, as well as signalling the end of individuality, identity politics also signals the end of universalism. By emphasising group membership, we focus on what divides people from each other, not what humanity has in common.

In this way, identity politics effectively marks the end of class politics, too. Whereas previous generations of activists made sense of the world through competing class interests, now, social class is just another identity, a badge to be worn, signified through cultural choices around food, clothes and holiday destinations as much as through job or income. It is considered no more influential in determining people’s life chances than any other characteristic. It was the left’s rejection of class – and rejection of the working class as a powerful agent of political change – and its subsequent search for a new constituency among identity groups – that has allowed identity politics to become so dominant.

Whereas a focus on social class spoke to a political project that moved beyond the individual to forge solidarities that went beyond race, gender and sexuality, identity politics abandons such universal objectives. Our focus is continually turned inwards and yet the self we find is fragile. Rather than seeking to change society, we strive only for recognition of our identity. Rather than assuming power, we must make do with affirmation. In this way, a focus on identity speaks to exhaustion with politics and a cynicism about humanity. But it also speaks to a loss of faith in individuals. Rather than a shared humanity, we have only identity groups. Rather than powerful individuals we have fragile beings in need of constant affirmation.

Lived experience

Identity politics emerges from an epistemology that emphasises lived experience or personal standpoint; according to this approach there is no one truth or objective reality but a socially constructed world created by people with their own truths. Although identity politics erases a strong sense of individual autonomy and agency, its founding mantra is that the personal is political. Embracing the personal has come to be seen as a vital tool in the struggle against oppressive institutions and practices. According to this argument, in order to challenge structural racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in police, education, even the family, we need to make room for lived experience. Proclaiming identity is, by this logic, the means to challenge existing paradigms of privilege and oppression. Proponents of identity politics would point out that it is not good enough to point to statistics showing, for example, that the police or universities are not racist institutions when the lived experience of people of colour tells a different story.

In a political context that denegrates both individual agency and universalism, freedom is rendered meaningless. It comes to be understood as little more than a consumer choice: the power to opt for one brand over another or, indeed, to opt out of choosing brands altogether. Freedom becomes a lifestyle choice: the decision to go vegan or to raise gender neutral children. In turn, these lifestyle choices come to be interpreted as political decisions. This is how politics takes place today: not in the debating hall, or at the ballot box, or in a street protest, but in the contents of your supermarket trolley or how you bring up your children. In this way, once mundane aspects of people’s lives – what they wear, what they eat, how they raise their children – are assumed to be significant political statements. Our daily lives end up providing fodder for culture wars.

The ability to make these lifestyle choices – to change our bodies or alter our diet – may, at first glance, appear liberating. But this promise is soon found wanting. Our self-obsession limits our own aspirations and our capacity to find solidarity with others. Raising gender neutral children may seem more progressive than an old-fashioned insistence upon raising female babies as girls and male babies as boys. But it is through gendered socialisation that children become adults and take their place in the world. Not socialising children into society’s values and traditions is not freedom but simply the absence of restraint. With no rules there is nothing to rebel against. The absence of boundaries reflects a society that struggles to give meaning or purpose to life.

New boundaries are created, but they are more limited than before. Feminists once fought to ensure that women could do anything that men did. Being female did not dictate what you wore or how you behaved. But rejecting sex for gender identity compels transgender people to perform masculinity or femininity, while others are labeled ‘cis’ and compelled to lingusitically affirm something they know to be untrue. Likewise with race. Identity politics moves us from the freedom to be judged by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin. Today we are taught to stay in our lane and beware the dangers of cultural appropriation. This instruction – to ‘stay in your lane’ – acknowledges the formal and informal policing that identity politics compels. At work and on campus, we celebrate diversity and inclusion while excluding those who hold different views. The upshot is that we live in an age not of freedom but of intellectual and political conformity.

Curtailing freedom

Sadly, while there is a growing backlash to woke identity politics, many of its proponents share the same pessimistic view about people which gets in the way of them being able to make the case for either individual freedom or freedom as a universal value. A new group of reactionary feminists argue that we need to have a more realistic view of where the limits to individual freedom lie.

Writing in Feminism Against Progress, Mary Harrington argues that, ‘It’s not just women who need a freedom haircut; it’s everyone.’ Yet again we see that freedom can only be so readily denigrated when it is misunderstood as lifestyle choices. Worse still, when freedom is perceived as just the trivial decisions we make about our own lives and bodies, it becomes set against responsibility. Our individual freedoms are seen to be in opposition to our commitments to our family, community, nation or humanity. In this context, a mother’s freedom to work is no longer seen as a personal decision made in a unique set of circumstances but judged to be in opposition to her responsibility to her young children. The many complex decisions often taken in conjunction with other people and that lead to people acting as they do are overlooked when the social problems we face – such as disregard for the family, a crisis of intimacy, the privileging of gender identity over sex-based rights – are blamed on too much freedom, not too little.

Once, solidarity meant a deep-rooted sense of having something in common with other people, of having shared values and a shared stake in the future, premised on community, social class or the biological reality of womanhood. By contrast, today’s phony identity groups focus on what divides people rather than on what unites them. Strangers become potential threats to our physical safety and mental wellbeing, rather than fellow humans. In order to express solidarity with others and exercise freedom to the full extent, we need to see other people as autonomous, capable and rational beings.

An older generation of freedom fighters recognised that real freedom was not in opposition to responsibility but emerged out of commitment to others. It is when we stand in solidarity with people – not on the basis of biology or identity – but as an expression of our common humanity that we become most aware of our own power to bring about change. In the past, progressive political movements fought for individuals to be free to transcend their circumstances rather than insisting they be defined by their race, religion, gender or sexuality. Today we have the exact opposite. Identity politics, in restricting us to our group memberships, in ordering us to respect ranks of privilege and oppression, in demanding we stay in our lane, limits our freedom at every turn.

For real freedom we need both individual agency and a recognition of our common humanity. Freedom is not as a lifestyle or consumer choice but grounded in our commitment to others. When we desire freedom not to dye our hair a wacky colour but in order to express our intellectual, political and emotional commitment to our lives led in solidarity with others, then it becomes something precious. And far from having an excess of freedom, our lives are blighted by the lack of it.

Joanna Williams is the director of Cieo.