A few years ago, I had an extended argument on Facebook with the author of an article accusing Richard Dawkins and Maryam Namazie either of being racists or of perpetuating racism. The argument seems to be as follows: 150 years ago, anti-Catholic sentiment had its roots in anti-immigration or racism. Dawkins criticising Catholics in a speech “stirs up” these “old prejudices”. As for Namazie, her anti-Islam focus is (according to Meadway) reminiscent of the English Defence League (EDL). It’s an association fallacy: Dawkins is anti-Catholicism, so he is guilty of the same racism of historical anti-Catholics. Namazie is anti-Islam, so she is guilty of the racism of the notoriously anti-Muslim EDL members.
This rather irritating line of argument has reared its head once again, as we are confronted with the issue of gender segregation in UK universities. Of course, gender segregation is wrong – in my view the speaker should be able to request that men and women sit apart, but nobody should be compelled to comply. Just imagining whether we’d tolerate the same with race segregation is enough to convince me of this. This is a principle. It doesn’t matter who is making the demand – female/male, black/white, atheist/Muslim/Christian and so on.
As it happens, most (and possibly all) of the guest speakers making these demands are of the Islamic faith. However, while some might see this as a way to single out and attack Muslims, it is perfectly possible to oppose gender segregation on the principle alone, just as I would support the right of racists (say) to express themselves freely under the law. My reason for supporting it wouldn’t be that I like racists, but rather that I agree with the principle of free expression; similarly I oppose gender segregation out of principle and not out of hatred for Muslim people.
This is the principled approach to political issues. However, there is another approach, and that focuses primarily on identity. Roughly put, there is a way of viewing the world that sorts everyone into two camps based on personal characteristics. If you’re white or male then you are on Team Privileged and if you are non-white, female, or trans-gender then you are on Team Oppressed. You can mix and match these to have some privilege and some oppression – this is sometimes given the ostentatious name intersectionality. Muslims are of course on Team Oppressed and so the gender segregation issue has caused some cognitive dissonance among fans of identity politics, as they have to decide between exclusively supporting one oppressed group and another (I’m reminded of a paradox in intersectionality I’ve never heard an answer to: when equally oppressed minorities disagree with each other, which one is right?). Specifically, they have to choose between attacking sexism and attacking ‘Islamophobia’.
There were two notable articles using something like this approach that popped up late on in the debate. The first by Priyamvada Gopal laments that Student Rights “managed to bring ‘gender segregation’ at some campus events to national attention despite evidence that events in which the audience is so segregated are not numerous.” Student Rights is an anti-‘extremist’ organisation, seemingly right-wing and libertarian (though I’m unfamiliar with them). According to Gopal, after Universities UK retracted their advice:
The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.
Leaving aside that the director of Student Rights, Raheem Kassam isn’t white (though, alas, he is male), I don’t see much evidence that Student Rights were the ones leading the way (and at the time I was totally unaware of their existence despite keeping a keen eye on the issue). Even if they were, it shouldn’t really matter. It wouldn’t make gender segregation acceptable, it wouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t oppose it, and it wouldn’t mean that by agreeing with some of the views of Student Rights, we agree with all of them, or that we have the same motivations.
The second article, by Laurie Penny, calls the issue a “non-controversy”, “white men stirring up anti-Muslim prejudice to derail debate on western sexism”. The suggestion is that there are feminist issues worth fighting for, but this isn’t one of them. It is less important, and ‘derails’ the debate. Penny also alleges that “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.”
The article wildly misses the mark, even aside from her following Gopal in greatly downplaying the roles of many people in the debate. Nobody is “demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against ‘radical Islam'”, at least not those at the forefront of the fight against gender segregation. It is possible to support all of those campaigns, make no claims about ‘radical Islam’, and yet still oppose gender segregation at university events. It is not a “non-controversy” – as has been mentioned many times by many people, if this was about race segregation there would be uproar. And what made it worse was Universities UK’s advice which (at the time) seemingly excused gender segregation.
Their trouble is this. Gender segregation is wrong, and should be opposed. There are good reasons for thinking this. But under identity politics, it is unclear whether we should oppose it. Do we oppose the sexism or the Islamophobia? Gopal and Penny seem disturbed by this fact, since it seems like such a cut-and-dry issue, and need to rationalise this lack of clarity with ‘whataboutery’ to make their identity politics ‘fit’. They see the fightback against gender segregation as ‘imperialist’, ‘colonialist’, or (as Gopal puts it) “an intolerant Western ‘liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou.” This is where ‘intersectionality’ and identity politics tend to lead us. We stop considering the actual issue at hand, and instead think about who is making the arguments, their credibility proportional to how oppressed their identity group is. It should also be noted that the singling out of Muslims by groups like the EDL (as criticised by Gopal and Penny) is also identity politics, just applied in a different manner.
This is why I find the principled approach much better. It doesn’t require a generalisation about ‘Muslims’, ‘racists’, ‘white men’, ‘women’, ‘minorities’ and so on. That isn’t to say that identities don’t matter at all – they might, but often the principle works generically. We can consider each case on its own merits – gender segregation is wrong no matter what the gender or race of the guest speaker might be. It doesn’t matter who alerts us to the issue – we can make the decision for ourselves and for our own reasons. We can offer arguments that don’t rely on ad hominem associations and accusations of hypocrisy.
This is the liberal approach, and it really is liberating on many different levels.