Why identity politics and safe spaces are being dangerously misused

In September 2020, the smartly named #BAMEOver Live debate took place which set out to answer the question, ‘What do we want to be called?’ Afterwards the organisers surveyed more than 1,000 more people and then issued a statement in which they objected to being herded “into a meaningless, collective term, or reduced to acronyms”.

They continued: “We are ethnically diverse. We are people who experience racism.” As a gay man I feel similarly hostile to being compelled into the fashionable alphabet soup, the LGBT+ community. Because as individuals under these labels we have little in common except the likelihood of experiencing discrimination.  

HR and the umbrella acronyms:

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There is value in these big overarching categories when we are collecting data to help us understand that group disadvantage. Whether you’re rich or poor, middle class or working class, if you’re not white you know what racism is.

Prejudice is sufficiently stupid not to be able to make any distinctions. When you’re hit in the face, actually or metaphorically, because you’re a camp man or a butch woman it’s because (and if you need such things, trigger warning, I am about to quote insulting language) you’re a ‘poof' or a ‘lezza’.  

Discrimination, in law and in its damaging effect, is perpetrated on people because of a group they belong to or are even just perceived to belong to.

But we cannot trap people inside those groups and, more than that, we cannot dignify what others say or think merely because we belong to one of those groups. That leads to something that is destructive of the kind of open conversations and exchange that we need at work in order to be able to collaborate. 

The idea of identity is being misused. There is an ever-present danger in the way that diversity is often framed and pursued that we perpetuate the idea that who says something and who can challenge becomes way more important than what they are saying and the content of their challenge. 

It’s what I call the 'As a…' mode of speaking. 'As a black person/gay man/woman etc...' This is a way of people using their identity to justify what they are saying and to fend off any kind of challenge.

They are claiming validity for their opinion or view of the world not by convincing others but by silencing the legitimacy of those others to disagree.  

Not only does this shut down discussion, but it also fails to acknowledge the differences of opinion and experience within groups.

Nobody can be the sole voice of any one of these big inexact categories. Women, people from black and Asian backgrounds, sexually non-conforming people all know that they are not the same. As Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner used to defiantly avow “I am not a number” 

Diversity cannot be a tool of conformity, and HR cannot be 'the enforcer', otherwise we create a culture that dampens curiosity.

In order to discover and learn we have to blunder around. Questions about race cannot be closed down because the person wondering is white, about sexism because he is male, about sexual orientation because the person asking is not gay.

We are in danger of weaponising identity to extinguish inquiry rather than using it to understand our differencesboth collectively and individually.

This is most evident when the use of certain language is characterised as harming people or making them feel unsafe.

There is a significant difference between being hurt (or offended) and being harmed as there is between feeling unsafe and actually being unsafe.

We shouldn’t allow these confusions to put up the shutters against legitimate disagreement. We should engage with respectful challenge.

Make spaces safe for differences of view not from them. Because we need exchange and discovery to innovate, to reach the best solutions, to understand and take risks.

If we exclude people from contributing because of who they are, rather than what they think, we merely reproduce the idiotic lack of insight that is prejudice. Those of us who seek to achieve greater diversity are supposed to be the clever ones.  

 Simon Fanshawe is the author of The Power of Difference

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