Chapter 5

From: Identity

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The Value of Difference JEFFREY WEEKS A Question of Values Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others. At its most basic it gives you a sense ofpersonal location, the stable core to your individuality. But it is also about your social relationships, your complex involvement with others, and in the modern world these have become ever more complex and confusing. Each ofus live with a variety of potentially contradictory identities, which battle within us for allegiance: as men or women, black or white, straight or gay, able-bodied or disabled, 'British' or 'European' ... The list is potentially infinite, and so therefore are our possible belongings. Which of them we focus on, bring to the fore, 'identify' with, depends on a host of factors. At the centre, however, are the values we share or wish to share with others. 'Identity politics' was initially defined by and for the new social movements that came to public consciousness from the late 1960s: the black movement, feminism, lesbian and gay liberation and so on. The question ofintegrating these creative but diffuse and potentially divisive forces into the political mainstream has been part of the agony of the Left during the last decade. Issues of identity are now, however, at the centre of modern politics. When Mrs Thatcher utters anathemas against Brussels and all its works, or interfers in the details ofthe history curriculum, she is engaged in an exercise in delineating a cultural and political identity, in this case of 'Britishness', which she wants us to share. When President Gorbachev discourses on 'our common European home' he is striving to re-form our perception of the Soviet identity, and to re-fashion our idea of Europe. When the Bradford mullahs organise 88 The Value of Difference against The Satanic Verses and follow the Ayatollah'sfatwa they are simultaneously affirming and fashioning an identity - as Muslims, but also as a black British community entitled to the protection of the blasphemy laws like Anglicans and Catholics and evangelicals. When we mourn with students in Beijing, or express solidarity with black South Africans, or run (or sing, or joke) 'for the world', we are striving to realise our identities as members of the global village, as citizens ofthe world. Identities are not neutral. Behind the quest for identity are different, and often conflicting values. By saying who we are, we are also striving to express what we are, what we believe and what we desire. The problem is that these beliefs, needs and desires are often patently in conflict, not only between different communities but within individuals themselves. All this makes debates over values particularly fraught and delicate: they are not simply speculations about the world and our place in it; they touch on fundamental, and deeply felt, issues about who we are and what we want to be and become. They also pose major political questions: how to achieve a reconciliation between our collective needs as human beings and our specific needs as individuals and members of diverse communities, how to balance the universal and the particular. These are not new questions, but they are likely, nevertheless, to loom ever-larger as we engage with the certainty ofuncertainty that characterises 'new times'. The Return of Values This is the hackground to a new concern with values in mainstream politics. Most notoriously, Mrs Thatcher has invoked 'Victorian values' and has pronounced about everything from soccer hooliganism, to religion, to litter. Even the Labour Party, in an uncharacteristic burst of philosophising, has produced a statement on Democratic Socialist Aims and Values. And these are but the tips ofan iceberg. Such flurries have not been entirely absent in the past from British political and cultural history. But on the whole, from the Second World War until recently, the political class eschewed too searching a discussion of values, preferring, in Harold Macmillan's 89 Identity world-weary remark, to leave that to the bishops. During the years of the social-democratic consensus, welfarism, with its commitment to altruism and caring, provided a framework for social policy, but offered little guidance on the purposes ofthe good society. Similarly, in the sphere of private life, the most coherent framework of moral regulation, that enshrined in the 'permissive reforms' in the 1960s of the laws relating to homosexuality, abortion, censorship etc, is based on a deliberate suspension of any querying of what is 'right' or 'wrong'. It relies instead on subtle...



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