In a recent article in the London Review of Books surveying feminist manifestos, Joanna Biggs says that it’s always been clear what women want: ‘girls just wanna be human, not other’.
Indeed, but what does being human mean?
It’s been pointed out ad nauseam that ‘human’ all too often means ‘man’, so the question ‘what do women want’ is frequently answered with, ‘what men have.’ This is a bad answer. It’s bad not only because it’s wrong to define a generic term (human) in terms of a particular (man), but also because a) ‘man’ is itself a generic term, and b) what men have isn’t always good anyway.
The same might be said of the movement against racism. What do BAME people want? It’s surely not enough to answer, ‘what non-BAME people already have’. Again ‘non-BAME’ covers a multitude of different conditions, and even if we could identify some representative non-BAME person, who’s to say that that person’s life is the model on which to base BAME demands?
Let’s take a specific example of what happens if we model identity-based demands on the experiences of the dominant identity.
In a review of the BAME experience of the criminal justice system Labour MP David Lammy found that ‘between 2006 and 2014, 41% of black defendants pleaded not guilty in crown courts compared with 31% of white defendants. Consequently, black defendants lose the opportunity of reduced sentences through early guilty pleas and distrust in the system is reinforced.’
This looks unfair. It looks as though equity demands that the same proportion of blacks as whites should be able to plead guilty so as to get a reduced sentence.
But what Lammy doesn’t point out is that solicitors will often advise defendants to plead guilty to crimes with which they’ve been charged but haven’t committed, so as to be sure of a reduced tariff.
In what sense, exactly, would giving more black defendants a longer sentence than they deserve be an improvement? But that’s where Lammy’s version of fairness takes us in the absence of non-identity based criteria for fairness.
It looks as though identity-based politics needs criteria drawn from outside any already-existing identity if the aspiration to ‘be human’ is to be fulfilled.
Where is this ‘outside? One possibility is that one identity can speak for all the others. If the most downtrodden identity can be emancipated won’t that entail the emancipation of everyone?
I’m not sure any identity can claim special privileges in this regard. Marx thought that the proletariat was the universal class, so once it was freed everyone would be freed. Maybe, but might not proletarian freedom always be proletarian freedom?
The black feminists of the 1974 Combahee River Collective similarly argued that black women are the carriers of a universalist freedom on the grounds that ‘If black women were free it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression’.
Perhaps. But first, there will always be someone lower down the pecking order who will argue that their particular form of oppression has been left out. Second, and linked, because as long as our understanding of freedom is tied to any identity’s interests it can’t and won’t be universal.
So if the ‘outside’, the universal, can’t be the property of any particular identity, where is it? Currently the best bet is ‘intersectionality’ where it’s recognised that different forms of oppression - race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, gender - intersect and overlap. But intersectionality has yet to show that a movement that multiplies difference can point us towards the universal.
And that is surely what we need, because the choice is clear: ‘Feminism can ask for the things men have,’ writes Biggs, ‘or it can ask for the world to be organised differently’.