Notes on identity: Is shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility always bad?

In the best case scenario, it leads to a situation where everyone has the right to eat at McDonalds and to vote in elections, if not to have the right to be tortured by a police officer whose skin is the same colour, who is the same gender, and speaks the same language as their victim. One cannot escape from the structural constraints of the system by democratising access to its functions.

 Crédit à Mort, Anselm Jappe

Those are quite random thoughts about an online discussion I started by reacting to a statement about the IDF’s latest display of an army’s lack of humanity. A friend’s comment was “Jews were forced to hide in sewers during the holocaust. They, of all people, should know better.” It is a type of argument we often see, not only about Jewish people but any oppressed group (“how can a Black/gay person vote Tory?“). When it comes from a member of said group, of course we cannot, and should not, police how people identify themselves and how they feel about it. When they are not, the issue is a lot clearer.

In either case, it made me think of many cases in which the fact that an individual belongs to an oppressed group is deemed to give special moral qualities to said individual: “feminist” essentialism, for example, or the belief that women in positions of authority would be somehow fairer simply on account of being women. Which is really no different in nature than the orthodox Marxist belief that working-class people, when elevated to a position of power, will somehow behave better than bourgeois leaders (which come in Stalinist and Trotskyist versions). And of course, the use of the phrase ‘betray’ in sentences such as “Political parties/unions/ union leaders have betrayed the movement“, which many anarchists use without thinking about it, partakes in this worldview. How are they betraying anything when they are precisely filling their function? Unions and the police are not so dissimilar, and this type of discourse is no better than blaming the violence of police repression on individual police officers’ practices.

A lot of contemporary nationalist discourse (and almost all nationalist discourse on the Left) takes this form: In Britain, it is shameful that we let people die of exposure in the street. As French people, we should somehow have a special duty to observe the principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Sometimes, it gives the oppressed more moral license, on the contrary, instead of more of a moral duty, like in the Orientalist belief of a whole fringe of Marxist-Leninist groups that the Palestinian or other national liberation movements cannot be held to the same standard of morality we expect from everyone else, and that if they ‘choose’ Islamism as a mode of resistance, we should support it.

As far as I can tell, this kind of thinking only leads to unjustified feelings of guilt or to a suspension of moral judgment which spur little positive action. But are there any cases in which shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility is useful or necessary?

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