Crisis: the Shallow Politics of Identity through Opposition

The existential search for identity through the politics of opposition for its own sake is shallow. We need convictions, not conformism.

We are in the midst of a political crisis – and my generation is not yet up to solving it.

Recently, I had been thumbing though the pages of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. A Professor of Romance languages and son of a rabbi, Victor both documented and survived the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany.

After flipping through his entries, I wondered if there were shared patterns between those who chose complicity and collaboration and those who resisted Nazi rule across Victor’s life. This led me towards a more solemn question. If my generation were to face a struggle akin to Victor’s, how would we fare?

My intuition was that we would not do all that well. More specifically, I think our psychological relationship with politics could do us harm, both in this respect and others.

Regardless of your political persuasion, if, like me, you are a young person eligible to vote, I think we should go about our business with a quiet pride considering how engaged with politics our generation has become. It doesn’t matter if it’s social media, charismatic figures, a wider cultural change, or all of the above. Despite there being no compulsory education in politics (the irony of being expected to be educated voters by eighteen!), youth engagement in politics has picked up, and that is a powerful thing.

I’m not for Momentum or Moggmentum, but I’m glad both campaigns exist. Division in politics is often framed negatively, but I think there are few things that are more important than division in this realm. After all, intellectual diversity allows us to thrive and to have our viewpoints challenged.

But in politics the word divisive is too often used pejoratively; ‘I think those remarks were very divisive.’ What does this talking point actually mean? Someone has divided opinion. Someone has a different opinion. Someone has an opinion. If politicians think that having an opinion is something they should deride and distance themselves from, how obscenely lost is our democratic culture?

There is a reason why the layout of the House of Commons sits the government on one side and the opposition facing them directly on the other. It is to physically represent the political division that exists between them. It is bizarre that the people who sit on these seats do not seem to know this.

Youth involvement, and division, in politics seems to be beneficial for democratic culture. But this is where I must be divisive. I’ve noticed that with this welcome influx of young people into politics, many well-meaning friends have looked to politics for identity, rather than ideas. I have watched as politics seemed to become akin to making a fashion statement. People my age have begun to join political clans and flaunt their membership like a striking hat or a cute bracelet.

Victor Klemperer, Orwell, opposition, identity, identity politics
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“I’ve noticed that with this welcome influx of young people into politics, many well-meaning friends have looked to politics for identity, rather than ideas”

A clumsy search for identity is not something to be ashamed of. Growing up, we latch onto music genres, fashion trends, movies, and the like to hurriedly cobble together something that satisfies the unnerving question of who we are.

Whether we wanted to admit this or not, lacking the wholesome identity we saw in adults was unnerving. I didn’t realise it at the time, but scrambling interests together like pieces in a mad identity jigsaw puzzle was a large portion of my teenage life. The need to blu-tack posters of the bands I liked to my bedroom wall, just underlined my own neurotic need to build the fulsome identity that I was unconsciously aware I didn’t have.

When I was about seventeen, I decided I liked Jazz music, without having listened to much jazz at all. After partially acknowledging this fact, I decided that in order to legitimise my shallow love of jazz, I needed to go to a jazz concert. So I pestered a confused friend, put on the jazziest jacket I could find, and said things like; ‘Ooh, that B-flat was salty.’

Enjoyable though the evening was, I felt like a charlatan. Bizarrely, I thought liking jazz would give me a more solid identity, perhaps even make me cool, but it just made me feel farcical. But I was lucky; pretending to like jazz to fool people into thinking you’re a proper person only gives you odd looks and ‘Simply Late Night Jazz’ boxsets.

Pretending to be interested in politics for the same reason can be a far more dangerous ruse.

Firstly, there is the toll it can take on the individual. Politics doesn’t just affect how we are allowed to live our lives. Its consequences ricochet through every conceivable subject. I often think I should have picked a different subject to study. It is impossible to be an expert in politics because you have to be an expert in everything. For this reason, politics is the worst subject I can think of to invest in if you hope to receive an identity dividend.

Victor Klemperer, Orwell, opposition, identity, identity politics
Shepard Fairey’s ‘We the People’ series.

“Politics is the worst subject I can think of to invest in if you hope to receive an identity dividend”

If my embarrassing search for identity through jazz was comparable to hopelessly searching for lost jewellery at the bottom of a pool, then searching though politics would be like searching for treasure in the Mariana trench. It’s like when someone joins a cult: after years of investment, they promptly leave and come to the horrific realisation that their entire self has been constructed around a lie. Perhaps owing to its complexity, politics can often become that cult. Somehow, I just don’t think that a misadventure into jazz could prompt an existential crisis of a similar magnitude.

While pure caricatures seldom exist, the phenomenon of forging an identity solely around a political stance is real. I have watched people ostentatiously cry over the result of a foreign election, as if to outbid others in a mad auction where the sole currency is mawkishness and the coveted item sanctimony. I have listened to students shrilly refuse to be friends with anyone outside of their immediate political allies, before pausing as if to await applause. It is not just friendship you are refusing. It is a sober examination of how your views might be wrong, a trust in your own thoughts over group-think. Perhaps most crucially, however, it is an acknowledgement of humanity in the other.

“I have watched people ostentatiously cry over the result of a foreign election, as if to outbid others in a mad auction where the sole currency is mawkishness and the coveted item sanctimony”

An election result has real, significant consequences. I understand that. But if you are thoughtlessly devoted to the idea that a politician will turn your life around for you, you are going to live a miserable life. This trend to see politics as an accessory to promptly pick and strut around with, instead of a decision requiring careful consideration, only gives voice to tribalism. Unfortunately, the lack of thought required to be tribal is its very charm, as Andrew Sullivan makes clear:

One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.

Once two tribes are stationed opposite one another in their trenches, we reach a scary cultural place, as Sullivan illustrates with the American example:

‘Slowly our political culture becomes one in which the two parties see themselves not as participating in a process of moving the country forward…but one where the goal is always the obliteration of the other party by securing a permanent majority, in an unending process of construction and demolition.’

It should be clear that taking political stances based on what we deem to be cool with our in-group is societally dangerous. Without political opinions grounded in non-negotiable principles, we risk being blown off course with the rest of our political ship. Fashion often sails this ship. But fashion has no direction, and it will not take us anywhere that we would retrospectively want to go.

As Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’

On a broader basis, joining any political movement makes me feel intuitively uneasy, because I feel it implies I have put aside quarrels that need to be had. The principle of dissent is all too often knowingly brushed aside for the sake of group unity. If people begin to turn on you for voicing an unpopular opinion, it is not a group you want to be a part of.

“If people begin to turn on you for voicing an unpopular opinion, it is not a group you want to be a part of”

Perhaps more worrying is the trend to pick political opinions for the sake of belonging or looking edgy. If my generation were to face a struggle comparable to Victor’s, I think this superficiality would be immeasurably dangerous. The common factor amongst those who bravely resist under occupation is not necessarily a politics of opposition to their oppressors, but principles they uphold consistently and refuse to give up.

Look through Klemperer, Havel, and Orwell. They refuse to be told what the truth is; they find it out for themselves. Havel’s non-violent stand against the Soviet Union, where he refused not to mock a system that was patently ridiculous (regardless of the consequences), resulted in the Velvet Revolution and Czechoslovakian emancipation. Orwell was a socialist, but saw Stalinism for what it was with a visceral clarity when many of his comrades chose to sacrifice his principle of anti-totalitarianism for group unity against fascism.

In the final words of his book, Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens underlines that Orwell personified the idea that principles matter more than politics:

‘But what he [Orwell] illustrates… is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think, and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.’

Oppositional politics won’t help to prevent the growth of totalitarianism, especially when it’s your own side that offers the total solution; only consistent principles will. Political tribalism, though adversarial, is often only so for the sake of it. Oppose everything in this way and the people begin to doubt your sincerity. Your partisan-based opposition will look embarrassingly hollow, at which point the public will ceremoniously welcome any opposition with substance (totalitarian or not). The emboldening of the far right is a good example of this.

It cannot be understated that opposition is something you do to achieve an objective, it should never be the objective. Far from stridently opposing everything, you end up just pathetically opposing bipartisanship. Our generation needs to foster consistent principles or political tribalism will provide the flaccid, rudderless opposition that totalitarianism will readily raise its boot to stomp on.

Victor Klemperer, Orwell, opposition, identity, identity politics
Getty Images

“Opposition is something you do to achieve an objective, it should never be the objective”

Would you be the former academic friend who severed his connections with Victor and later jovially greeted him only when the risk had subsided? Or the former student who, at considerable cost, risked bringing Victor and his wife several Christmas presents?

In 1942, Victor wrote:

‘This is my heroics. I want to bear witness, precise witness, to the very end.’

True to his promise, Victor only fled to Allied controlled areas in February of 1945.

About Ross Paton

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Graduate Student in International Politics, Interested in Politics, Religion and Foreign Policy.

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