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The Dangers of Identity Politics

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Only a few decades ago we were cheering the theorization of the world as a ‘global village’. The contraction of time and space resulting from a wide variety of technological developments, combined with the communication revolution and the introduction of the Internet, intensified flows between countries and continents. This unprecedented interconnection was soon accompanied by a general feeling of openness that dominated the dawn of the new millennium.

Far from being a positive phenomenon in absolute terms, globalization soon displayed its downturns and critical implications. A new divide emerged, between the so-called winners and losers of globalization, which has exasperated global inequality and societal conflicts. The free flow of people and capitals has indeed depressed wages in many areas, made the terms of employment increasingly insecure, shifted productions to cheap-labour regions where the protection of workers’ rights is mirage. At the social level, globalization has challenged the homogeneity of local communities and confronted traditional outlooks of society with an increasingly diverse reality.

Several recent developments and events in both Europe and the United States are the latest cases in point signalling a reactionary approach towards globalization, marked by a renewed nativism that is having dangerous impacts on our democratic systems.

In the U.S., Trump’s out-dated and isolationist “America First” approach translated into an executive order on immigration, soon renamed Muslim ban, that has pretty much attempted to institutionalize discrimination based on nationality and religious affiliation, clearly in contrast with the constitutional principles protecting civil liberties in all liberal democracies. As if a presumed unconstitutionality was not enough, the travel ban soon proved to be utterly outrageous, as families were disunited, children were separated from their mothers, and simple people who been residing in the U.S for years were blocked from returning to the lives they have built. To this regards, nothing can be more symbolic than the image of the octogenarian couple in wheelchairs detained for hours at Washington airport, despite in possession of green cards.

As recalled by the United Nations, the ban also stands in violation of international law guaranteeing the protection of civilians seeking international protection from conflict zones. By suspending the refugees admission systems for 120 days and refusing entry to Syrian asylum seekers indefinitely, Trump’s administration is joining other Western countries in an unlawful refusal to uphold humanitarian obligations. After making headlines for months for its harsh and often denigrating treatment of refugees, Hungary has recently reached a new low after the government announced that it will detain them in shipping containers, while waiting for a final decision on their applications to be made.

The demonization and hostility towards immigrants are at the heart of a despicable act, recently witnessed in Venice. On January 22, a young Gambian refugee committed suicide by jumping into the Gran Canal, surrounded by a group of tourists and locals reaching out for their smartphones to film the scene, instead of rushing for help. And even more disturbingly, racist remarks were yelled at the young man drowning, with people yelling “Africa!” or “go on, go back to where you came from”.

These recent examples have been brought to special attention to point at the multiple dangerous effects that identity politics is having on our democratic systems. First of all, it is putting under attack the values enshrined in our constitutions. By taking social categorizations to the extremes and advocating a presumed superior status of a certain in-group, identity politics favours discrimination and fosters a climate of distrust among citizens, thus undermining the fundamental principles of tolerance that liberal democracies are built upon. Playing the game of identity politics is also deliberately jeopardizing the implementation of international law and the principle of humanitarian protection itself. Lastly, it is even challenging and changing our daily language: as noted by The Guardian, the use of the term ‘migrant’ has become politically charged, it has been loaded with negative connotations and has turned into a denigrating appellation, increasingly used to propagate an agenda that frightens public opinion, by equating migrants to threats and fuelling xenophobia.

And here lies the ultimate effect of identity politics and the greatest danger of all: by discouraging sympathy and diversity, identity politics is doing nothing but dehumanizing us.

Image source: Andrew Malone

Donatella Bonansinga
Donatella is an off-campus PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham. She is currently based in Prague - Czech Republic, where she serves as Project Manager for a local think tank. Her research interests lie in the fields of populism, security and political psychology.

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