Recently there was a social media uproar (read: twitter shitstorm) about the fact that the Glastonbury headliners for 2017 are all white males – Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran. People are up in arms about the fact that this doesn’t represent the true diversity of the music world… I am less sure about condemning Glastonbury because of this choice, partly because I know at least two of these bands are great live acts and a perfect choice for festival goers who expect the headliners of the mainstage at Glasto to be, well, great live acts. While I do reccognise the structural inequality that has led to these acts becoming great, I don’t lament their right to be where they are… and I feel that to do so is actually somewhat unfair. Yes, I am saying white males can be treated unfairly. I am not trying to get ‘in’ with the MRA people, I just really struggle with identity politics.
My colleague and friend warns me not to be ‘white marxist dude’ who reduces all social problems simply down to inequal distribution of wealth and power. I am that guy, to a certain extent. And yes, I’m a rich, white male. So nothing I say from here on in really counts right? As I could never know the pain of structural inequality and I am always passively benefitting from that inequality. I get that, and I acknowledge that it is true. However, I don’t actually think that means that nothing I have to say on the issue could matter.
Structural inequality comes in many, many forms. For instance, among rich, white males, there is a hierarchy of height. Taller men earn more money, have more status and are more likely to find a mate. Similarly, people born to wealthy parents are more likely to be wealthy themselves. Finally, people with anglicised names do better than people with strange names in job interviews, dating sites and promotions. (etc).
Now, as a relatively short man with a very strange name, who didn’t come from an exceptionally privileged background, I have to say that these inequalities are not necessarily determining – I’ve managed to find employment, a mate and some financial comfort despite these things. And I don’t think that is merely because I have had the good luck of being born white and male. My sister, who is notably not male, has had similar successes; and has been coveted by far more employers, more suitors and more accountants than I’ve ever been. And power to her, she’s worked hard for every bit of it. As have I.
Another way of putting it is that I think that everyone is unique, and while we can certainly detect overarching, or ‘molar’ systems of inequality (and unfairness should be battled wherever possible) our identity should never be reduced to those overarching ‘molar’ categories.
One of my go-to people on this topic is Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition and ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ she advanced a highly controversial interpretation of identity politics. She urged everyone to feel pride in and celebrate the things that made them uniquely who they were but, at the same time, felt that the things which make us who we are ‘never condition us absolutely’ (HC, p.11). Now, she was a Jewish woman who fled the Germans and saw many of her friends and colleagues killed in the process. When asked to report on the trials of Adolf Eichmann, she demured from her ‘Jewishness’ and instead reported on them as a philosopher. She identified that the underlying mental fault of Eichmann was not that he was monstrous, rather that he was banal.
It is this banality that I see in identity politics – a desire to reject the specific and gravitate toward a global ideal that can be ‘intersectional’ for sure but also demands a deadening of sophistication and the creation of straw men (strawpeople?) for twitter drive-by abuse and social condemnation. In the end it seems to reduce people back to their identity – and that is not their identity as defined by them and their actions but rather their identity as defined by their skin colour and gender. In prioritising the global and exclusive categories (white, male), as opposed to the global inclusive (human) or specific and local (white, male, middle class, depressive, introverted, arrogant and more) we obscure both the difference we’re trying to celebrate and the REAL systemic causes of exclusion and inequality.
So while no doubt there is something about men generally having less time pressures in their lives, which has allowed more men to experiment with the possibly frivolous pursuit of pop music I have to say that all of those headliners deserve to be there. Choosing to pursue a career in rock is a risky move and there would have been no safety net if they failed… They have worked hard to get where they are and their hard work (and ability) is what is recognised in the headline slot… not their maleness, not their whiteness. I mean Thom Yorke has facial paralysis, Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters battled for a long time with heroin addiction and Ed Sheeran is a redhead (nuff said). They’ve all known marginalisation and they all make art about resisting it.
So as much as it feels good to condemn people for what they inescapably are, it is, I feel, more instructive to celebrate what they uniquely bring to the world. And in what we can bring, we are actually all inescapably different.