by Janet Newman
14th October 2019

John Clarke’s book, Critical Dialogues: Thinking Together in Turbulent Times, celebrates the productive possibilities of what he terms ‘thinking together’. His work can be used to challenge the idea of identity as singular, fixed and immutable – an idea in which people are assumed to have their own, unique, authentic identity, and to belong to one or another political ‘tribe’.

Such assumptions run counter to the idea of ‘thinking together’ – rather, the image is that of shouting across chasms of misunderstandings and antagonisms. The book challenges such assumptions, pointing to identity as a relational set of constructions and practices. The politics of identity has become a key resource for the political right, and so the book suggests ways in which academics, commentators and authors might foster a more dialogic politics.

Contemporary political culture – in the UK and elsewhere – seems to be preoccupied with questions of identity. In the political furore surrounding Brexit, I keep hearing about people belonging to tribes, and the difficulties of speaking across the tribal politics of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’. Politicians attempt to speak for such tribal identities assuming they are fixed and irrevocable. At the same time a hungry media encourages people to express an ‘authentic’ self rather than to engage with public discourse. ‘Authenticity’, rather than evidence or dialogue, is the currency of populist politics.

Meanwhile many academics and commentators proceed as if demographic categories – old and young, rural and urban, north and south – were equivalent to political identities. However the self may not be as fixed as such categories assume. In one of our pieces on understanding Brexit[1], John Clarke and I argued for a view of the subject as multiple, contradictory and dialogic. The idea of subject positions as not fixed – and not tied to an essentialist form of identity – opens up the possibility of alternative voicings, identifications and connections.

This takes me back to the worries about ‘identity’ that helped shape feminism and other social movements. One’s sense of self, we argued, was a relational phenomenon, formed through social practice and interactions with others.[2] Talk was crucial to the practices of such movements – talking and testing ideas, shaping understandings with and against each other and, crucially, developing new concepts and frameworks that others might draw on to help make sense of their social world.

In the present, questions of identity have been appropriated by the political right – for example. in the racial politics of Trump [3] and in the anti-feminist, anti-gay rage of Conservative and other right-wing politicians in the UK. Such appropriations strip ‘race’ from the anti-racist politics of activist movements, enabling it to be mobilised by populist and other movements of the political right, much as questions of gender have been reworked as anti-male forms of ‘political correctness’. Attacks on the vestiges of feminism, antiracism and other social movements work by stripping away the politics that formed them to leave a thin, asocial and individualized notion of identity. It is worth noting that the Right both eschews identity politics while tacitly invoking identity – national, white, Christian – in its political practice, trying to construct a ‘we’ against whom ‘others’ are defined, stigmatised and excluded,

Identity has become a vital axis in the definition and enforcement of the fracture lines of contemporary culture. Talk alone cannot heal such fractures. But without a language that transcends – and perhaps loosens – the boundaries of tribes, there is little hope of political and democratic renewal. So, what might this mean for academics, commentators and authors?

First, the importance of recognizing how others have helped shape your ideas. Academic writing – especially for journals – often references lots of other contributions but only in order to dismiss them, highlighting the uniqueness of the author’s own work. Transcending this practice is difficult in the competitive world of publication, but it is possible to proceed with both generosity and reciprocity while still showing distinctiveness. Second, it seems vital to challenge the culture of even-handed debate in the media and the academy, refusing to contribute to platforms in which all opinions are treated as equivalent (in the name of ‘free speech’). As recent concerns about BBC bias suggest, ‘balance’ is now a discredited cultural construct.

A third point concerns dialogic thinking, of which John Clarke’s book ‘Critical Dialogues’ is a wonderful example. This means talking with others (not simply ‘interviewing’ them) and shaping ideas and practices through dialogue. It also means trying to establish – and contributing to – opportunities for dialogue in political praxis, from trades union to civic forum, from academic seminar to research praxis.

I want to end with a wonderful quote taken from Arundhati Roy[4]:

‘Although writers usually walk alone, most of what I write rose from the heart of a crowd. It was never meant as neutral commentary, pretending to be observations of a bystander. It was just another stream that flowed into the quick, immense, rushing currents that I was writing about. My contribution to our collective refusal to obediently fade away’.


[1] Clarke, J and Newman, J (2019) ‘What’s the subject? Brexit and politics as articulation’, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 29, 67-77.

[2] See, for example Roseneil, S. and Seymour, J. Practicing Identities: power and resistance. Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

[3] see Haider, A, Mistaken Identity,  Verso 2018,

[4] Roy, A. My Seditious Heart. Hamish Hamilton, 2019.. Cited in Guardian Review 1/6/2019


See also: Thinking together: Encounters with Bakhtin’s ghost?


Janet Newman is a contributor to Critical Dialogues, which is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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