Abstract: This paper argues that the persistence of group identity-based arguments – whether racism or nationalism – are a permanent rebuke to all universalist ideologies including liberalism. Further, it argues how universalist ideologies are flawed and inherently paradoxical. These flaws precipitate from the group-based identities themselves. This paper elaborates its claims and agreement with the prompt by using W.E.B. Du Bois’ arguments on racism strengthens them further through and George Eliot’s analysis of nationalism-based group identities. Further, the paper offers a critique of the previous ideas by qualifying universalist ideologies through Kantian idea of mutual respect and rationality. A possible response to Kant from the point of view of Du Bois and Eliot further nuances the understanding of the relation between group-based and universalist identities, before concluding the paper.
The idea of an all-encompassing universalist ideology appears to be quite pleasing and the solution to most problems of political theory. An important tenet of all universalist ideologies is the belief in a single objective idea that characterises everything there is. Alas, persisting group-based identities, specific to different geographic, demographic or intellectual preconditions cannot simply be integrated under an umbrella characteristic and would require the trivialisation of group-identity based arguments. This begs the question of whether group identity-based arguments are a permanent rebuke to universalist ideologies.
This paper finds itself in agreement with the question posed. It argues how universalist ideologies are flawed and inherently paradoxical, This agreement with the prompt is elaborated upon by using Du Bois’ arguments on racism and strengthens them further through George Eliot’s analysis of nationalism-based group identities. Further, the paper offers a critique of the previous ideas by qualifying universalist ideologies through the Kantian idea of mutual respect and rationality. A possible response to Kant from the point of view of Du Bois and Eliot further nuances the understanding of the relation between group-based and universalist identities, before concluding the paper.
To begin with, one of the main points on which group identity-based arguments lie differentiated from universalist ideologies is their approach towards the ideas of liberation and freedom. For example, universalist ideologies address these ideas in an abstract sense. They lead one to believe that true freedom and liberation is when an individual realises their true potential and exercises their will guided by objective reason. However, from the perspective of racial identity, freedom focuses on more “tangible” problems such as freedom from being discriminated against and looked at differently. Du Bois explains this feeling of being looked at and treated differently by virtue of ‘the veil’ in his book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. According to Du Bois, this veil that “the Negro” (an African-American) is born with, characterises their identity. The Veil constitutes three things – the darker skin of the ‘Black Folk’, white people’s lack of clarity to see them as truly American and lastly black people’s lack of ability to see themselves outside of what the White Americans perceive or prescribe them as. Tension arises when this black identity is viewed as a problem. This makes the black people question their membership of the political community they inhabit i.e., America – the land of the ‘free’.
All political communities are bounded by certain definitions. There are three ways that the criterion for membership of a certain community can be dictated. First is the normative way by which the membership is open to all who desire to join the community. Second is the pragmatic way which asks an individual what benefits they bring to the community. Third is the idea of ‘Liberal Exclusion’. According to this, everyone has the right to free association. A universalist evaluation would deem liberal exclusion to be the best way since it gives everyone equal right to freely associate with the community. However, therein lies the problem. The idea of free association gives the members of the community the right to decide who constitutes the community and who doesn’t. Hence, the right to exclude sprouts from the idea of free association. Such is the case for all liberal communities, America included. Therefore, it appears as if the ‘land of the free’ comes with an asterisk mark reading “terms and conditions apply”.
Now, to go back to the case of Du Bois, when black people are placed in a liberal community like America, the tension produced due to their veil creates what Du Bois calls a “Double-Consciousness.” It is the tension/confusion which comes about from the inability to reconcile the racial identity which has been oppressed by the Whites through the American, liberal and universalist identity of being a free individual. This tension arises because the expression of a liberal identity has created a zone of exclusion for the racial identity, while simultaneously preaching the universal right for free association. Hence, the two identities of the Black Folk, an oppressed racial identity and the free American identity lie in conflict. Du Bois adds that it is their “dogged strength alone [that] keeps [them] from being torn asunder”. It appears as if that the freedom of the ‘white’, who get to form this community, invites the un-freedom of the blacks. Therefore, it is clear that racism as a group identity not just cannot be simply put under a universalist umbrella but also lays bare the flaw in the idea of a universalist identity/ideologies.
Another critical aspect of a political community, apart from its membership, is what it is forged by. Essentially, all communities are communities of memory i.e., they have certain stories about the past that they believe in. These are mostly based on history— its heroes and villains. These choices are made by the members of the community as per what suits their identity and the narrative they want to lead by. This sows the seeds for nationalism. It can be understood as the belief in a certain set of ideas, histories and narratives that qualify a particular national community as legitimate. As people associate with this nationalistic idea, a national community arises which holds a monopoly over memory. The problem arises when different sects start challenging the existing narrative and try to build their own.
It is in this regard that George Eliot says that cosmopolitanism cannot be virtuous. Cosmopolitanism refers to the idea that all human beings could be members of a single community. Since the account of memories is different, even antithetical, for different groups, weaving them into a single coherent narrative is unimaginable. Moreover, what this single community’s narrative would look like is also not clear. A cosmopolitan by definition will require a single memory to prevail which will ultimately be the imposing of one kind of narrative, usually provided by those who find themselves on the upper side of the asymmetric distribution of power. Eliot’s description of the rising anti-Semitism in English society of the 19th century illustrates this idea beautifully. It points out the deeply embedded exclusivity and contradictions in the English objective of bringing about universality in the world by conquering it. This means that the English thought that their identity will form the universal/cosmopolitan identity; clearly a supremacist idea. Interestingly, although they themselves are not ready to give up even a fraction of their identity, they expect the Jews to do the same and assimilate into this “universal identity” (read: ruse).
Such tensions are encountered even within a national community where the group-based identities/memories of the minorities go against that of the majority. Extending Eliot’s previous argument, it can be said that there are no normative differences between the claims of minority and majority. Neither want any disruptions in their lives nor feel threatened. This leads one to a paradox in a way that any argument in support of the majority’s right to identity also invokes the minority’s right to identity. Hence, they cannot be assimilated into a single body. Moreover, any universalist idea/identity will require suppression or complete obliteration of memory by the ‘other’ who is to be assimilated. This is very dangerous because the obliteration of one’s memory, for the sake of identification (with the universal idea), risks the loss of a sense of personal identity. Loss of a self-identity is something that is also against the universalist ideals themselves. These arguments clearly reveal the paradox and prove the failings of all universalist ideologies.
A Kantian response in favour of universalism would be to argue that a community can also be built on rational sense, mutual respect and recognition. If everyone operates through reason, respect becomes universal. This is because any reasonable person would want to be respected and be treated fairly. In wanting to do so, they must recognise the other person’s desire also to be respected. Hence, to be treated reasonably and respectfully, any person must also treat others in the same manner. From the perspective of Du Bois or Eliot, any form of discrimination or coerced assimilation of identity respectively would qualify as disrespect. However, in order to provide respect or show compassion of any kind, members of a national community need to identify with the other person. This can only happen when there is some characteristic feature through which they could identify with the other. As mentioned previously, these characteristics are different for different communities. This once again illustrates that the persistence of group identity-based arguments is a permanent rebuke to universalist ideologies.
The rebuke is permanent because no matter what the context is, the emergence of a group identity-based argument will fracture the universalist ideals. This is because the working definition of universalist ideologies is to characterise different things under a single idea. However, these different things possess a distinct group-based identity of their own. Some of these identities may thus be irreconcilable into a single thing, without having to compromise. Therefore, the expression of these different group identities will lie in conflict with the universalist project permanently.
In conclusion, yes, the persistence of group identity-based arguments is a permanent rebuke to universalist ideologies. Furthermore, universalist ideologies are often flawed and inherently paradoxical. The paper vigorously argues these claims by illustrating how universalist ideologies fail to reconcile group identity-based arguments in various contexts. An attempt at forceful assimilation of racial and nationalist identities under the dogmas of liberalism or universalism gives rise to tensions and can have potentially dangerous implications on personal identity and the stability of the political/national community. To end, universalist ideologies may look very appealing on paper, however, a closer look might just reveal that it is a gilded tomb infested with worms on the inside.
Bromwich, David, and George Eliot. The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep! (1879). In Writing Politics: an Anthology, 236–55. New York: New York Review Books, 2020.
Du Bois, W. E. B., ed. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Essay. In The Souls of Black Folk, 8. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.