“Young people are *obsessed* with identity politics and it’s destroying society!” So goes the battle cry of the right wing and an opinion probably most famously espoused by psychologist Jordan Peterson, who caused controversy in 2016 when he refused to refer to students by their chosen gender pronouns while working at the University of Toronto.
In fact, Conservative MP Suella Braverman found herself in the headlines earlier this week after using the phrase "cultural Marxism" (which has its origins in Nazi Germany when it was aimed at Jewish academics) in relation to university safe spaces.
Critics of identity politics argue that by being obsessed with the things that make us different from everyone else, we ignore our common goals and thus cause social disunity. This is, of course, an incredibly easy argument for a white, cis, straight, able-bodied, middle-aged, affluent man such as Peterson to make: his identity is constantly affirmed as both normal and aspirational in our society. As Deborah Francis-White once said in her (brilliant) Guilty Feminist podcast, "Not every white straight man can get into the room, but every room has a white straight man in it". ("The room" refers to the environments where power lies and decisions are made, before you check behind your sofa).
Hatred and identity politics
The great irony is that it is, in many cases, the movement of politics to the right and the subsequent normalisation of hatreds that we might have assumed have long been unacceptable that has in part created the need for identity politics.
Belonging is a key psychological human need. Along with love, purpose, achievement and being heard, it is absolutely crucial to mental wellbeing. For those of us who are not automatically included or considered, therefore, we often need to fight to have our identity recognised and respected.
Mental health statistics show there are three groups of young people more vulnerable to mental ill-health than their peers – those from immigrant backgrounds, LGBT young people and those with learning difficulties. Whilst on the surface these three groups wouldn’t necessarily have anything in common with one another, the thing that unites them all is that they are far more likely to grow up in an environment where they feel as though they don’t "fit in" and therefore do not have this crucial belonging need served.
So, what can we do to make sure these three vulnerable groups feel included and celebrated? One simple step educators can take is to examine their use of language, particularly when it comes to recognising LGBT pupils.
I sometimes hear five-year-old boys being asked if they have a "little girlfriend" at school. While seemingly harmless, it’s worth bearing in mind that we lay down 85 per cent of our fundamental psychological programming before the age of 7 and that most of this is learned through repetition. It’s important, therefore, that by the time these children reach puberty they haven’t been indoctrinated into a belief system that tells them that boys have girlfriends and that’s the only option. Instead, adults could say, "Do you have a best friend?" or "Who is your favourite person at school?"
Similarly, I once overheard a 10-year-old being told it was "impossible" for her to have two grandmas on her mum’s side when she was drawing her family tree (her biological grandma had died and her grandfather had remarried). Understandably, this caused her distress.
Now tell me: is being sensitive to such issues indulging in "identity politics" or is it just showing empathy and courtesy?
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here