The author Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival recently outlining how the culture of hypersensitivity was a threat to fiction writing. How, she asked, could authors create fictional worlds and characters if every word they wrote was policed and every plot scrutinised for bias and – God forbid – cultural appropriation? Shriver outlined a no-win scenario for authors: depict people from outside your social group and you’re accused of stealing their experiences, have no minorities in your book and you’re accused of erasure. Shriver’s logical, well-written and often witty argument was met with hissy fits, incoherent ramblings and wild accusations: exactly the kind of reaction we’ve come to expect from a particular section of the ‘social justice’ community.
One thing Shriver said more than anything else cut right to the core of the problem. She claimed that Donald Trump’s rise was a direct reaction to politically correct culture. Trump represents a constituency of angry bigots, narrow-minded nationalists, misogynists and right-wing conspiracy theorists. And really, what do you expect? It is commonly understood that any major idea eventually creates its own counter-argument. The proto-fascists on university campuses and social media who want to censor everyone have met their opposite number – loudmouths who embrace offensive language and bigotry. Trump is merely a right-wing Lena Dunham or Laurie Penny. He says what his followers are thinking and sics his mob on those who disagree.
Something that really galled the social justice warriors about Shriver’s speech was her idea that being disabled or gay or black wasn’t an identity – or at least it wasn’t enough of an identity. People are more complex than the cards they’re dealt at birth. For generations, ethnic and sexual minorities (and women) have campaigned to convince white, straight men that they are more than meets the eye. Gay people are not defined by their sexuality; they are not stereotypical queers with rapacious sexual appetites and flamboyant habits. Black people aren’t curly-haired manual labourers with a musical bent. Women aren’t hormonal nags destined to pop out babies. Yet all the progress made in convincing others that sexual and ethnic identities are only part of who someone is has been undermined by reductionist identity politics.
When someone believes their ethnic or sexual identity is all that they are, they lose sight of what being a person really means. When protecting your identity from hurt feelings or ‘appropriation’ becomes the main reason for LGBT rights movements or other civil rights organisations, you’ve already lost. The push for ‘safe spaces’, where university students won’t be exposed to ideas they don’t like and the clamour for segregation in the classroom (based on the bizarre notion that it helps minorities) plays directly into the hands of Trump and his ilk. Every bigot who sees a gay man as just another faggot or a young woman as a hysterical, menstruating child is proved right time and again when these groups demand special protections from ordinary life.
There is one other similarity between Trump’s supporters and social justice warriors. They think the system is rigged. Those who embrace identity politics see a vast patriarchal conspiracy using free speech to cause emotional disturbance and ‘erase’ minority groups. This forces the identitarian to dig deeper into their single-minded, besieged world view. Similarly, Trump voters think a liberal conspiracy controls the world, spreads complete lies through the media, rigs elections, covers up Hillary Clinton’s murders, refuses to acknowledge Barack Obama is a Muslim agent. And so they dig in.
There is no future in either of these outlooks. The social justice agenda would destroy free speech, cripple education and critical thinking, reduce every individual to merely the sum of things they cannot control, rather than raising them above the vagaries of the birth lottery. Trumpism would turn conspiracies and lies into truth, remove basic rights from minorities, silence detractors and fact checkers and ultimately produce a world very similar to the one proposed by identity politics, but the safe spaces will be hiding places.
Moderation is a dirty word today. Since the beginning of the social justice movement and its embrace of narrow categories of self-identification, moderates have been appalled by the often fascistic rhetoric used in the name of ‘protecting’ minorities. It is the social justice warriors who re-introduced attacks on free speech, reductive social categories and segregation. Trump is just using what he’s been given. And Trump is a lot better at it.