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How identity politics destroys freedom

Sir Roger Scruton delivered the following address at the Acton Institute’s "Crisis of Liberty in the West" conference in London on December 1, 2016. The text has been mildly edited. A video of the full conference is available online here. – Ed.

It is characteristic of our times to regard freedom as an attribute of individuals, to campaign for my freedom to choose my way of life, my rights to proceed in this or that way through life without interference, and to concede the social dimension of freedom only by default: by recognizing that whatever freedoms I claim I must also grant – in other words to admit that freedom can be limited only for the sake of freedom, and that all our claims to it are equal.

Traditionally it was not so. Freedom was regarded primarily as an attribute of the body politic as a whole. We Britons prided ourselves on living in a “free country,” and regarded our freedom as a quality of the institutions under which we lived, and the space in which those institutions operated. This freedom was something we encountered, like a refreshing breeze, when we returned from abroad and crossed the border, sensing that we were now in safe hands. Freedom was seen as an inheritance, a feature of a way of life, not to be understood in terms of the multiplicity of options, still less in a list of civil rights. It was a shared way of being, founded in mutual trust, and the product of institutions that were not created in a day but passed on from generation to generation as things to be trusted. The free citizen was marked by a proud independence, a respect for others, and a sense of responsibility for their common way of life and the choices it protected. Fair-mindedness, acceptance of eccentricity and a reluctance to take offense, combined with an aversion for abuse and slander – all these were attributes of free citizens, and belonged to them by virtue of public institutions in which they placed their trust and which they were tutored to defend both in thought and deed against those who would destroy them. Such citizens fought for the freedom of their country, and for their own freedom as part of it.

It seems to me that the free individual and the free country belong together, and that the one will not survive without the other. However, the emphasis on rights, the neglect of the duties that bind individuals to each other and to the political order, and the growing grievance industry fostered by the welfare state are weakening the obedience on which freedom ultimately depends.

The pursuit of individual freedom, detached from inherited obedience, leads to a new denial of freedom.

We have witnessed throughout the Western world – which used to be called, and rightly so, the “free world” – a turning away from ideas of inherited membership. The old ways of defining your social identity and the sphere of your obligations, in terms of the way of life and national allegiance of your parents, have been replaced by a “culture of repudiation” which has spread through schools, universities, and the media so as to threaten the frail and good-natured affirmations that have hitherto been taken for granted. At the same time, the culture of repudiation does not satisfy its adherents. This is because we have a craving for membership, which is a deep adaptation of the species, and which presses us always towards the group and the conformity that will protect us. Many young people, under the impulse of this feeling, search for a “conformity in defiance,” a belonging which is also a rejection, that will provide a new identity in place of the old.

As a result, the pursuit of freedom has taken on an entirely new character. The new activist on behalf of freedom does not stop at affirming the right to choose a course of action or a way of life. He or she builds around this right a rival identity, an identity that defies the one that was traditionally on offer. This search for identity claims a space in the public world, and claims it from and against the unspoken conventions that have, over the years, made our free society possible. In this way, the pursuit of individual freedom, detached from inherited obedience, leads to a new denial of freedom.

It is worth examining how this comes about. Every freedom creates a difference – the difference between those who exercise it and those who do not. When you use this freedom to define your identity, you are in a certain measure differentiating yourself from those who receive their identity by inheritance. It is then a small move to the claim that the inherited forms of membership discriminate against the new identities, since they exert an unfair pressure to conform. There arises a new and virulent condemnation of our old identity and an attempt to suppress it. We are told of a “right” to non-discrimination, endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights. The old forms of membership, since they shape the social world and its privileges according to a given pattern of normality, are really forms of discrimination that violate the rights of those who wish to shape their identity in another way. Moreover, the right to criticize the rival identities has to be curtailed; such criticism is part of the pathology of an old way of life, an expression of “phobias” against the new practises that threaten its monopoly position.

This is all carried out in the name of freedom. Young people today often insist that that distinctions associated with their inherited culture – between sexes, classes, and races; between genders and orientations; between religions and lifestyles – should be rejected, in the interests of an all-comprehending equality that leaves each person to be who she really is. A great negation sign has been placed in front of all the old distinctions, and an ethos of “non-discrimination” adopted in their stead. And yet this seeming open-mindedness inspires its proponents to silence those who offend against it. Certain opinions – namely, those that make the forbidden distinctions – become heretical. By a move that Michael Polanyi described as “moral inversion,” an old form of moral censure is renewed, by turning it against its erstwhile proponents. Thus, when a visiting speaker at a university is diagnosed as someone who makes “invidious distinctions,” he or she is very likely to be subjected to intimidation for being a supporter of old forms of intimidation.

There may be no knowing in advance how the new heresies might be committed, or what exactly they are, since the ethic of non-discrimination is constantly evolving to undo distinctions that were only yesterday part of the fabric of reality. When Germaine Greer made the passing remark that, in her opinion, women who regarded themselves as men were not – in the absence of a penis – actually members of the male sex, the remark was judged to be so offensive that a campaign was mounted to prevent her speaking at the University of Cardiff. The campaign was not successful, partly because Germaine Greer is the person she is. But the fact that she had committed a heresy was unknown to her at the time, and probably only dawned on her accusers in the course of practising that morning’s “two minute hate.”

The reasons for the ethic of non-discrimination, and for the moral inversion that has made it into a fierce form of discrimination, directed against whoever transgresses its fluid and unpredictable boundaries, lie deep. The Enlightenment, which sought for a world in which reason had a head start over prejudice in all public debate, also sowed the seeds of its own destruction in exalting individual autonomy above every form of obedience. I am my own author, was the Enlightenment slogan; I can be what I choose to be, provided I do no harm to others. Social conventions, traditional forms of life, divisions of roles and communal identities, even the differences in social status associated with the biological division of labour between the sexes – all such things are of no significance compared with my free choice whether or not to give credence to them. Little by little, as the old authorities slipped away or lost their aura, more and more of human life was stripped of the rules, customs, and distinctions that make sense of it – and more and more did everything in life, everything that might matter to me and constitute my personal happiness, become an object of choice, in which only I have the right of action, and nobody else has the right to interfere.

Hence, nobody now may impose upon me an identity that I myself have not chosen. My nature as a self-created being is inviolable. Your disapproval of my lifestyle is your problem, not mine; should you object to my homosexuality, that proves only that you suffer from homophobia, a disorder of the soul that is also a hangover from an outmoded form of life. There is no room now for argument about homosexuality, still less for criticism. Just to question the advisability of gay marriage is to be branded as a homophobe – with radical career consequences. Your objection to Islam and the presence in our midst of its adherents is your problem – a sign of Islamophobia, a mental disease that unaccountably swept across the Western world on the 11th of September 2001. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia – all the isms and phobias that call down the damning tirades of the orthodox – are the residue of old and vanquished forms of life, last gasps of Western civilization in its vain attempt to cling to its empire among the living. That is what Germaine Greer came up against: a new and unexpected extension of the morality of self-choice, which tells us that we are guilty of transphobia if we deny of a person that it can decide for herself what gender he is.

This is all very well, you might say, but it does not yet constitute an assault on individual freedom. And that is true. It is perfectly possible to accept the latest adventure in non-discrimination while allowing others to speak out against it. However, it doesn’t work that way. The furor over the “transgender” issue comes into the general category of identity politics. It is about who you are, not what you think. So, thinking the wrong thing – still more saying the wrong thing – is an act of aggression, the equivalent of racist abuse or sexual harassment in the work place. The non-discrimination movement is about extending to others the freedom to choose their own identity; to criticize this is to constrain other people in their deepest being, in those “existential choices” that determine who they are.

It is an act of aggression and not just a comment. Hence, it must be punished.

We know who we are and define our identity – not by our religion, our tribe, or our race – but by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails.

We see here the equivalent of the censorship of heresy in religious communities. The heretic threatens the community by undermining an assumption on which membership depends. He has to be silenced for the community’s sake. In the community of non-membership, in which every identity is freely chosen, the heretic who believes in objective distinctions is just as much a threat as the Shi’ite in a Sunni shrine. He must be exposed, punished and, if possible, silenced.

If you wish to understand why our freedoms are today under assault, therefore, you must first understand that they are under assault from within, and from the very concept of freedom, used in that way to affirm an identity politics whose effect is fragmentation. This affects not only universities and their courses in “gender studies” and the like. The disease spreads through the whole of society, since it becomes absorbed into the imperatives of political correctness, by which I mean a kind of superstitious fear of betraying some traditional attachment in the face of any attack on it from the champions of this or that alternative.

We have an important recent case of this in the scandal at Rotherham in Yorkshire. As in so many of our cities today, Rotherham has been in the habit of taking children from dysfunctional families where they are at risk into Council care, usually as the result of a court order. The vulnerable children are in need of help and protection and are also often targeted by sexual predators. Girls in the care of Rotherham Council were regularly targeted in that way by men from the local Muslim community and essentially treated as sex slaves, even sold into prostitution abroad or in other parts of the kingdom. The police refused to investigate complaints made by the parents for fear of being judged to be “racist,” and the Council likewise decided that it would be politically incorrect to do anything save turn a blind eye. Any other course of action would raise the feared question of identity: namely, the question whether we, as British citizens, are free to condemn a way of treating young women which certain immigrant communities see as normal or even praiseworthy. Are we entitled to hold on to an attitude that has hitherto been fundamental to our conception of who we are, or must we renounce it in order to make room for a rival identity that conflicts with it?

The case is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates the way in which the new identity politics erodes individual freedom by attacking the preconceptions of a free society. My parents told me that I live in a free country, one whose freedom they had defended in the war against Hitler. In saying this, they were referring to a tangible feature of public life. They had in mind an openness, ease, and civic responsibility that were everywhere apparent, even if never explicitly mentioned. In trouble, they told me, I could trust the forces of law and order to protect me and passing strangers to take steps to help. I should never fear to tell the truth, since the truth would prevail in any case, and all around me were people accustomed to prefer truth to falsehood and to live by relations of trust.

The girls in Rotherham did not belong to such a country. It so happened that two of them were courageous enough to force the authorities to take note of their predicament, though not before their lives had been irreparably damaged. Their case shows the way in which political correctness can be an assault on freedom, by taking away the shared identity that creates a public culture of obedience to the rule of law. The Council Officers and the police force in Rotherham had been emasculated (to use a politically incorrect word) by Political Correctness. They feared to honour their duties as protectors of our freedoms. They feared to act according to the identity that underpinned their duties as public servants. Instead, they protected criminal organisations that could beleaguer them with a rival identity that no one dared to criticize.

There is another reason for the importance of the case, however, which is that the two identities that came to the fore in this case are in conflict in the wider world. On the one hand there is the old British sense of belonging to a place governed by law, where people live side by side as strangers and trust to the rules that protect them. On the other hand is a certain kind of Muslim identity in which family, not nation, is the source of obligation and in which women are divided into the pure (who are hidden) and the impure (who are publicly exposed, and exposed therefore to predation). It may be a minority view among Muslims that the world is to be organised in this way. But radical Islam of the Sunni kind is forcing this social identity upon us and inviting us thereby to a belated but necessary consciousness of who we are.

It is this “who we are” that is in question in cases such as that witnessed in Rotherham. It is because we share a national identity which subsumes institutions, customs, and laws that we can share – without any other cost than that of belonging – that our individual freedoms are something more than paper documents. This national identity is the foundation of social trust, the thing on which we have always relied, and on which the girls in Rotherham could not rely. It is something that exists only so long as we protect it, and the demand that we do so underlay the surprising result of the recent referendum – surprising because the result expressed the feelings of people who have been most affected by the culture of repudiation and the political correctness of our governing elite.

Here, in summary, is what I believe we should be affirming, as teachers, as public intellectuals and as people with responsibilities in public life:

We should recognize that freedom is nothing if we cannot protect it from the predators. Protection comes about only in conditions of trust, in which institutions command obedience and define the public standards of conduct and responsibility which we are to honour, and which can be called upon against the threats.

We are heirs to a society governed by law, in which the people themselves make and adjust the law through their representatives. Ours is a secular law which we can change as circumstances change, and which we obey because it expresses the commitment that we all share to the first person plural of our national identity. Unlike the Shari’a our law is not laid down for all time by God (a belief that has made it almost impossible for people to agree on what the Shari’a actually says in matters relating to the changed circumstances in which Muslims find themselves today). Our law is adjusted and amended in the interests of reconciliation and peace within the historical community over which it stands in judgment.

This law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are and define our identity – not by our religion, our tribe, or our race – but by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share.

This sovereign territory is our home and it is in terms of it that our public duties are defined. We may have religious and family duties too, but they are private duties, not incumbent on the citizenry as a whole. Our public duties are defined by the secular law, and by the customs and institutions that have grown alongside it.

We could put the point in another way. Our freedom as individuals is predicated on our membership of a political society. This society consists of people assembled in the sovereign territory to which they owe allegiance, under parliamentary institutions designed to represent and reconcile their many interests.

It is in that way that we should define the “first person plural,” the “we” of the modern nation state. And in my view this “we” is much to be preferred to the “we” of the tribe, the “we” of the ruling oligarchy, or the “we” of religion. Yet those rival “we” identifications are at this very moment eying our assets with a view to imposing themselves, and it is time for us to wake up to what we have – to the blessing of a national identity and a shared homeland, within whose borders we are freely governed.

It has become politically incorrect to affirm one’s loyalty in such terms. The EU insists that to think in this way is to commit the heinous sins of racism and xenophobia. Similar things were said during the American presidential election, condemning those voters who saw mass immigration or the global outsourcing of labour as the crucial issues. Let it be said that the regime of censorship and intimidation under which we now live is so powerful that no voter will confess to national feelings when they have been told that to do so is proof of racism, xenophobia or, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “you name it.” That is why the opinion polls were so wrong, both in the matter of Brexit and in that of the American election. National loyalty has been branded as a sin, even though there is no other loyalty that could be called upon to protect us in the likely emergencies that we now confront.

It seems to me that the national identity that I, as an Englishman, have inherited – the identity of a nation joined in a union of like-minded nations in a single sovereign territory – is far more robust than its detractors assume, and that it has, like the American identity, a remarkable capacity to absorb incomers and to integrate them by a process of mutual adaptation. But we can adapt to the effects of inward migration only if migration is controlled, and only if we are allowed to affirm our identity in the face of it, so as to renew our obedience to the institutions and customs that define us.

In other words, the global processes that challenge us now are reasons to affirm national sovereignty and not to repudiate it. For national sovereignty defines what we are.

Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who has published more than 40 books in philosophy, aesthetics and politics. He is widely translated. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches in both England and America and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. His home on the web is