Universalism

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Discussion

The rejection of universalism by post-1960 radicalism

Discussion

Kenan Malik:

"Previously, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled great radical movements from anti-colonial struggles to the campaigns for women’s suffrage and the battles for gay rights.

Radicals had, however, become increasingly disenchanted with universalism. Many saw it as a Eurocentric, even racist, outlook. Partly this was the product of the way of that racists and imperialists had appropriated, and warped, the language of universalism as an argument for Empire and for the denial of rights and freedom to peoples across the world. Partly, it was because universalism had come to be seen as a peculiarly European idea, the product of the European Enlightenment. But, many asked, if Europe had been responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Critics such as Frantz Fanon argued that non-Europeans, and oppressed groups in Europe, had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. And partly it was the consequence of growing disenchantment, from the 1970s onwards, with the very possibilities of social transformation and the disintegration of organisations and ideologies that aimed to bring out such transformation.

The result of all this was that in the postwar years, radicals came to embrace not universalism but the ‘politics of difference’, the idea that different groups, whether African Americans, Muslims or gays, possessed distinct identities, cultures and ways of thinking. Confronting injustice, they argued, required a defence of each group’s distinct identities.

The irony was that far from distancing themselves from European ideas, radical came to adopt notion of race and culture grounded in European Romanticism and the counter-Enlightenment. The belief that humanity could be divided into discrete groups each of which possessed a set of unique characteristics that shaped an individual’s identity had always been a central assumption of racial thinking. Now it became also a key feature of radical politics.

And eventually the language of identity came to dominate much of politics. Today, the political landscape is intimately shaped by the politics of identity. The lens through which we look upon social problems is primarily that of culture and identity rather of politics and class." (https://kenanmalik.com/2019/07/27/white-identity-and-working-class-politics/?)