“A good way to start is by counting the number of dead white men,” two girls inform a nearly full class room in the old Nokia headquarters on Sydhavn, which now houses the Copenhagen campus of Aalborg University. They are leading a workshop on how to make Danish university curricula more inclusive for minority groups and the underprivileged. The group seems to primarily consist of highly-educated young people from around the world, and topics such as privilege and whiteness are discussed at length.
The workshop is hosted by the recently-formed student organisation FRONT, whose purpose is to “identify and reform discriminatory structures” within higher education in Denmark. The group belongs to a growing strand of left-wing thinking that is often called ‘identity politics’, due to its focus on the identities and struggles of minority groups against the dominant majority culture – diverging from the Left’s traditional focus on class struggle and economic redistribution.
After rising to prominence on US college campuses, FRONT demonstrates that the approach is also developing a following in Europe. With it, however, has come a polarisation of views on the left wing of politics.
On one side are those who argue the time has come to challenge the explicit and implicit structural inequalities of Western society – from overt racism to micro aggression embedded in language – that oppress minorities and maintain the dominance of a majority white culture.
On the other are those who are concerned that identity politics is doing more harm than good, by alienating groups who are too slow to catch up with the new language and terminology used to describe the different types of people they share society with.
Henrik Marstal is a political candidate for the Alternative (Alternativet) and a prominent commentator on issues such as minority rights and the power hegemony of the white patriarchy. While he has debated issues relating to identity politics, he feels the term has a derogatory connotation.
“The people who often use the term ‘identity politics’ are those who don’t believe we need to understand how minorities see the world, and how different our experiences are,” he says.
“It’s often the same people who use the term ‘political correctness’. For a long time, I have been a part of the feminist and gender debate. But I realised that I had to think wider and see how feminism was related to the whiteness debate and cultural appropriation – how minority groups exist within the dominant culture.”
As the topics of whiteness and cultural appropriation entered the mainstream political debate, a backlash has emerged. After appearing on DR’s news programme Deadline to discuss the issues, Marstal says he received a barrage of abuse.
“It is usually people on the right who criticise people who think about gender and racial issues. These people use the term ‘PC’ to shut down debates. They out and shame people because they dare to see the world through the eyes of others.”
Few are as vocally critical of identity politics as Weekendavisen journalist and commentator Søren K. Villemoes who has, at times, mocked ‘PC culture’. He was even barred from DJing at the left wing culture house Bolsjefabrikken earlier this year after the organisers took issue with an article he had written under the headline ‘Offence culture’.
“I don’t really use the term ‘offence culture’ I prefer ‘offence epidemic’ because it spreads. If one group demands that something is wrong, and if it works, then other groups do the same. If they succeed in getting the university curriculum changed, or how we talk, or something you don’t like. Then other groups can do the same.”
Villemoes regards identity politics as a form of American cultural imperialism that is best avoided. On issues of race, he argues against following the American approach, which he says has created nothing but “suspicion and fear”. The essential problem is that it serves the interests of people who propagate it – those who call for changes to curriculum or terminology – rather than the people they claim the changes will benefit.
“In reality these people don’t care about minorities, they care about minorities who can be used to bash the right wing,” he says.
“Whenever a Muslim steps out of line and criticises power relations within the Muslim community they are no longer useful. For instance my friend Geeti Amiri has been called a ‘house Muslim’, for not conforming,” he says, referring to the Afghan-born debater, whose recent autobiography details her struggle to break free from her family’s conservative codex.
“When it comes to these people, we also have to ask ourselves, who voted for them? When was the last general assembly of ‘Afro Americans’, where they voted for their spokespeople? Just think about the Afro Empowerment Center Denmark – where do they get their mandate from to speak on behalf of all black people?”
Marstal wholeheartedly disagrees that there is an “offence epidemic” and argues that Villemoes – being a white, heterosexual, and a highly educated cis man – needs to understand that he belongs to the most privileged group in Denmark.
He sees Villemoes’s reaction as an attempt to fight for his “territory” in society and hold on to the privileges it has given him – privileges that are threatened by a power shift that is taking place, which means white men no longer have the power to dominate society.
“The shift can be bitter and hard, and some people, like Villemoes react with sarcasm. For example, people have said that I am an ‘offence enthusiast’, and that anyone who feels offended should just talk to me. But while we have a lot in common – we are white, heterosexual men with a space in the media – I believe that the more privileged you are, the more you need use your position, and I am not going to back down.”
The values a society regards as progressive are constantly changing – what was progressive 30-years-ago can seem regressive and conservative today. Marstal believes that we are now witnessing new lines being drawn and that the emergence of the next wave of progressivism.
“I can already see a change happening. For more than 100 years we didn’t discuss our history with slavery, but now white ethnic Danes are starting to look themselves in the mirror and face that fact. I think young boys and teenagers are being influenced by this change, and that they will grow up to become men in a very different way, than for instance their grandfathers. There are always first movers, and they will face a pushback – that is where I see myself. I have been told to see a shrink and that I suffer from a bad case of Oedipus complex, but this will change.”
Villemoes is concerned that Marstal’s approach is actually shutting out dissent by forcing ideological conformity on people, rather than reaching out and trying to find common ground.
“In reality this is authoritarianism – if people don’t fit in they need to be dealt with. The Left used to be about celebrating people who swam against the stream, but now it demands absolute conformity. There is only a false sense of diversity – we are diverse in how we dress and our skin colour, but not our opinions,” he says, adding that it takes no effort to tolerate views you agree with.
“Many of these people are just lazy. They would much rather shut down a debate then have it. They can tell people they are ‘mansplaining’ or being racist and then we don’t need to have a discussion.”
Alienation of the white working class
The election of Trump has brought the discussion of the white working class into the forefront. The debate on the left has centred on whether their concerns should be taken more seriously, or whether they should be condemned for having racist and sexist views.
Marstal argues that while a white working class man can feel underprivileged in his personal and professional life, he still needs to recognise the structural benefits of his identity.
“We need to be good in taking the debate, but that man also needs to understand that it goes both ways. A working class man in Lolland, who doesn’t have education and has never had a high salary, can feel underprivileged. But structurally, he is the one who can say, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. He can build on a tradition of men talking down to women and holding them away from power. He can go with his friends to see a football match, where they can meet and talk badly about women. He can go to a prostitute and he can use rape culture as a joke.”
Villemoes agrees that white men do sit on most seats of power, but the discussion of privilege in this context simply silences and talks down to the working class.
“It seem we’ve finally found a group that we don’t have to hold back in demeaning and belittling. So we propagate all these crazy theories and talk condescendingly about them, and we can feel safe in channelling all our anger and hatred towards them. But the logical conclusion of this identity struggle is that the white man starts thinking the same thing. If he feels excluded and talked down to then he will go where he is wanted and that is with people like Trump and DF.”
Villemoes points out that the same logic applies in the radicalisation of Muslims – that when they feel excluded from society, they migrate towards groups like ISIS, where they feel accepted.
Central to Villemoes’ discomfort with identity politics is that it is propagated by people who occupy positions of power in the media and the universities, and who are ignorant of people whose circumstances are very different to theirs.
“I think there is an understanding among the population that on the Left there are big city elites, like Henrik Marstal, who look down on them. Who don’t take them seriously, and probably sees them as part of the problem,” he says.
He points to the 2015 general election, which saw a surge of support for the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, particularly in rural and less affluent parts of the country. When TV reporters went to the multicultural Copenhagen district Nørrebro to ask residents why they thought DF had become more popular, many acted dismissively, arguing it was because they were prejudiced toward Muslims or immigrants.
Villemoes believes that this view not only represents a complete lack of empathy, it’s even a celebration of apathy for the “heterosexual white man”.
“These people are the old communists who just want to rule over others. Thankfully we are not like Sweden, which is a lot more authoritarian and perfect for the PC culture. We need to push against this development, and if I am to be a bit pompous, then I see myself as occupying that position.”
Marstal isn’t too worried that the debate is alienating some parts of the Danish society – it’s a debate that’s too important not to be had.
“It may well be that people in Funen see me on TV and think ‘what the hell is he talking about,’ but that doesn’t make it’s less important. Not that long ago we started the sexism debate and we got the same reaction. People thought it was stupid and silly, but now workplaces have started to take sexual harassment seriously, and we discuss how women are presented in the media. And I think we will see the same development.”
Unsurprisingly, Marstal and Villemoes disagree about where this debate will lead us. They remain convinced by their own ideas, and both believe the other’s approach will eventually die out, and with it a better society can be established.
They represents two poles in a debate about power and society. Both of their analyses are based on structural hierarchy, but their approach is radically different. The identity politics, versus the classic materialistic approach, has become the main point of argument on the left, and it is a fight for the heart of its mainstream. A fight that is far from resolved. M