So a few things have happened lately that have bought my issues with identity politics back to my mind.
First, I had a student complain that I used the N-word in a lecture.
Second, the UWA student guild made a motion to stop the Dalai Lama (or his representatives) from speaking on campus, because it might offend our Chinese students.
Third, I went to see Jonathan Pie – an excellent comedian who somewhat echoed my concerns about where this was all leading us.
So to deal with the first issue first, before you stop reading because I am such a horrible racist.
I was conducting a lecture on how language carries power through discourse. We were discussing Ed Sheeran as a group (funny how he keeps coming up in these discussions). He had just toured and a lot of the students had just been to the concert at Optus stadium, so I knew that his ‘power’ would be tangible for them. But I asked ‘is he really any good?’ and then (after fielding some yes and no answers) offered this unwise and unnecessary perspective which I will quote at length to ensure that you get the context:
I thought it was interesting because the music editor from The West panned him and said ‘well his music is all a bit same-ish’. And I have to say that I think within the frame of discourse he’s a fine musician and clearly a nice and sincere person but I don’t think that 20 years ago he would have been successful as he is.
He only sticks out now because so much of contemporary pop music is facile and horrible, and talks about ‘bitches’ and ‘niggas’ and whatever I’m buying; and he doesn’t do that, and so he sticks out.
By saying this I offended someone and was reported to the faculty.
Now let me say I am a little mortified that I offended one of my students – that was -hopefully clearly – never my intention; and I didn’t think that my use of the N-word was derogatory, inflamatory or even capable of creating offence. But it was, and for that, I’m sorry.
But I do think that I have every right to say the word. Based on the idea that if anyone can say a word, then I can too. The word was on my mind because I had been conducting a rhetorical analysis of Kendrick Lemar’s ‘Humble’. Which is peppered with the ‘N-word’ and the ‘B-word’. That’s why this issue was on my mind and I do think this kind of language is culturally toxic. But I discussed the lyric to ‘Humble’ in the following lecture and received no complaints. So from that I can only deduct that it’s ok for a rapper to use the word, just not ok for me to use it. And I’m not ok with that.
It is not about being free to spout my racist views, or being free to use language to perscute people; I don’t want to do those things and I’d happily be censured on the grounds of offence if I did that. It is about my freedom to use a word which others are allowed to use. I was not directing it at anyone, I was not calling anyone the ‘n-word’, I was discussing the fact that this is a word that was proliferating in popular music. It is happening, so I think I can defend my right to use the same word to describe what’s happening.
Do not give me the ‘only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger“‘ defence. Kendrick is not a woman and yet he is allowed to use the word ‘bitch’; despite the long and horrible history of female oppression and the continued use of that word to segregate and demean a group of powerless people. So, where’s the consistency Lemar? Maybe he self- identifies as a woman? great, but can’t I identify with a black person then?
The only way for Lemar to defend his position is to suggest that because he is black he is marginised and therefore can speak for/as/on behalf of all marginalised groups. Whereas I am white, so I can never know what it means to be marginalised. I’ve never heard K.dot make that argument but that’s the only possible way to defend it.
But there are problems with that argument, because why are race and gender the only things that matter in terms of judging marginalisation? They are facile elements of identity and, I would argue, while they do invite summary judgment (because they are apparent on surfaces) they are actually less determining that just about every other aspect of identity (because they only manifest at the level of surfaces).
Now, in saying that I’m not saying that being black/female and being oppressed have nothing to do with each other. What I’m saying is that there is actually nothing innate about being black or female that contributes to that oppression. The long history of African slavery did not happen because of blackness, blackness was used as a reverse justification for the economic exploitation of a human resource. It was the system of slavery that created the racism and the N-word, not blackness.
Yes a large number of black people are poor, marginalised and powerless (and a large number of women) – but so are a large number of white people, and a large number of men. Do you know who is not poor, marginalised or powerless? Kendrick Lemar. That’s who. He’s also famous, he’s beautiful. He has a freaking Pulitzer Prize. These are the things that are determining.
Black people, women (along with white people and men); they do all kinds of things, have a wide variety of experiences, they suffer, they succeed, it is almost impossible to tell who they’d be or what they’d be interested in based upon their gender or their race.
However, if you are born poor, you are likely to die poor, and your poverty is likely to determine (and limit) your education, your employment prospects and your experience of the world.
If you are born unattractive by conventional standards, you are likely to die unattractive by conventional standards, and your relative attractiveness is likely to determine your social standing, your group of friends, your mate and yes, even your employment prospects. Where is the representation for the marginalisation of ugly people?
I see nothing consistent here, just a fashionable form of group think which is doing exactly what it is supposedly fighting against – perpetrating race/gender as determining categories (‘you are black so you can…’ is the same logical premise as ‘you are black so you cannot…’). Understanding the world only in terms of surfaces (the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, so he must be offensive; a white person said ‘nigga’ so we must be offended) is the best way to create a world where only surfaces matter. And surfaces shouldn’t matter.
And on that, I’ll finish with this quote from Arendt.
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical. 
 Arendt, The Jew as Pariah, p250-251