We used to demand peace and love—now we demand no discrimination and no hate. Why did we lower our ambitions?
Political debate today is desolate—not just because it drowns in hate but because it lacks ambition. Strategic litigation and protest, shaming and angry shouting, have replaced utopian dreaming. How can we build a sense of ‘we’ and a shared future if we do not manage to get out of our own narrow perspective and acknowledge that the other person—no matter how much we disagree with and despise her—has also a legitimate claim to equal humanity?
An unfortunate victim of the ‘de-utopianisation’ of politics has been human rights. Human rights depend not on skilled lawyers. They depend on dreamers. If the dream dies, no lawyer can save human rights.
Human rights are universal. They are not rights for women or for men, for the elderly or for the young, for the black or for the white, for the religious or for the atheists. Perhaps the more we focus on the rights of certain groups, the more we erode this notion of universality.
The more we fight racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the more they fight back. The ‘anti’ triggers a counter-anti, and an escalation of antis, until it becomes impossible to agree on what we are all for …
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To sustain the universality of rights we need activists who cherish and defend universality—not defending ‘our rights’ (implicitly against ‘yours’). Human rights are not a zero-sum game. Power is. You do not get more privacy or more life by depriving me of mine. You get more power.
Comfort of groupthink
Waging identity wars is lazy activism, sticking to the warm comfort of groupthink, the entre-soi—not grinding through the pain of understanding the others, of meeting them half-way, tuning down one’s own truth to listen to someone else’s. Neoliberalism has perfectly succeeded in the divide-and-rule game towards progressive politics, by replacing the fight against the progressive movement with a war of all against all within that same movement.
If you impose an identity lens on everything, why wonder that others do too? Group-based discrimination is the mirror of group-based preference. The judge who gives a tougher sentence to a black youth and the male boss who gives a promotion to the man do it because they use shortcut categories to classify people. Both discrimination and identity politics undermine humanist universalism by reducing humans to a few (externally imposed) group characteristics.
By ensuring gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals have the right to define themselves and shape their lives exactly like everyone else, they don’t get some special treatment. They just get to be like everyone else. But framing the claim for equal rights in identity terms makes it sound as if they want something special, something more—forgetting that, in fact, all we want is equality.
Identity politics today is a diversion from the debate on economic inequality and exploitation. How can we stop the vicious circle?
We should stop dividing the world into them and us, and seek to build a bigger, inclusive ‘us’—a new and larger circle of solidarity—and include not just all humans but nature, as well as past and future generations. If we really care about equality and not about power, winning and revenge, we should stop the intra-progressive culture wars and, indeed, any warring attitude at all.
Instead of culture wars, think inclusion. Think how inclusive spaces make us more likely to build empathy towards a stranger. How inclusive schools respect both individuality and diversity and turn everyone—learners, teachers, parents and community, with their richness of languages, creeds, perspectives, experiences and dreams—into allies and resources for learning. How inclusive enterprises generate not just more economic value but more social and environmental value as well. How diverse, inclusive neighbourhoods make people act in a more pro-social, less egotistical way.
Inclusiveness thickens the exposure to other people and makes the contact meaningful. What if tomorrow all activists stopped waging culture wars and deployed their energy and creativity towards making all spaces and institutions more inclusive? I know I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one.
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Irena Guidikova was founder of the Council of Europe Intercultural Cities programme. Throughout her career at the council, she has focused on policy innovation in such fields as youth and cultural policy, participatory democracy, diversity and intercultural integration. She currently manages a team supporting governments, jointly with cities and other stakeholders fostering systemic change in anti-discrimination and inclusion across all types of diversities.