On the 20th of January, Warwick PPE Society paved the way for greater intellectual collaboration between PPE societies across the nation with the very first PPE Symposium. The Symposium expanded on the PPE forum of previous years, to include seminars presented by this year’s forum speakers and a careers event, ending with an introduction for other universities to the Warwick party life (Eliminators all around).
Engaging over 150 students from the universities of Warwick, Kings College, York, LSE and Oxford, the event went relatively unhindered and with more success than its organizers had imagined.
“Identity Politics: Is Demography Destiny?” was the title of the forum which kickstarted the Symposium. Hosted by Ashok Manandhar, and chaired by Dr Sara Salem, the panel was composed of Warwick’s very own António Ferraz De Oliveira, PhD candidate; Claire Fox, founding Director of the Institute of Ideas and Warwick alumni; Adrian Wooldridge, political editor and Bagehot columnist of the Economist magazine; and Kate Andrews, news editor for the Institute of Economic Affairs and previous head of communications at the Adam Smith Institute. Hot topics were the merits of popular identity movements, de-colonization of academics in universities, and the relationship between historical eugenics and the treatment of voters in recent events. The full forum can be viewed here, and a personal evaluation on a fraction of the debate is at the bottom of this post.
Following the forum and a brief interval to bask in the gleaming wonder of the chocolate fountain, seminars led by the panellists (excepting António) went into session. The topics presented by each speaker are listed below:
Adrian Wooldridge: “British Politics: the collapse of managerial capitalism and the ongoing collapse of neoliberalism”
Claire Fox: “The importance of free speech”
Kate Andrews: “Critically thinking about the gender pay gap”
Perhaps the largest addition to the traditional PPE forum was the careers fair, which went even better than had been hoped, featuring Teach First, RBC, EY, Sky Betting, KPMG, and Compass News. While firms came with more organisation than had been expected, the hope for the following years is to integrate work-related seminars run by visiting firms; a valuable addition meant to entice not only more PPE students to the Symposium, but students from across the various degree programs as well.
How else could an event conclude at Warwick other than a booze-up in Leam? Starting at Kelsey’s, diving into Assembly, and concluding on Brunswick, a more traditional experience for the visiting universities could not be had.
It was an event run so well that it could have been its fifth year running, with positive remarks from all who attended. The response to light-hearted comments on the distinctly right-leaning nature of the forum panellists by an Exec member captures the spirit of symposium perfectly: “by platforming speakers who complain about the rise of ‘PC culture’ and ‘generation snowflake’ we are showing that students are mature and capable of engaging in serious discussions, and for those who disagree with a speaker’s position, this is the time to publicly challenge them.”.
The forum was defined by an exploration of contentious topics, epitomised by an apparent rejection of the positive effect of identity groups, constituting a general denouncement of these groups in contemporary society (with the counter-argument championed by António). I personally enjoyed the debate; it was pertinent, in-depth, and showed some of the intense friction around identity politics.
However, I can’t leave one topic discussed without critique: while many important points for concern with the rise of social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter were brought up, not least the potential division these groups can cause through lobbying for their own cause, and the relative importance of class and economic divides as the leading cause of inequality, the forum debate was dominated by this one-sided destructive narrative. Clare and Adrian were right to warn against the danger of a society focused on winners and losers; the division of society into identity groups will become a fight for dominance rather than equality. Leaving aside the debate about whether this is justified or not, the forum avoided one vital fact the entire time: that inequality based on these identities continues to exist. The dismissal of identity groups by Clare and Adrian in particular on the panel was based on what I can only identify as a perception of equality of identity in society. Forget the huge issues of identity which continue to be evident in third-world countries; this assumption does not hold in the West, and I don’t believe that if questioned either Clare or Adrian would say that there is equality based on identity. By leaving this issue undiscussed throughout the forum however led to the conclusion that identity groups are detrimental.
In short, my response is this: identity groups exist as a lobbying force for equality because their oppression as an identity group by external forces is already present. The risks with these lobbying groups based on identity were outlined by the forum, but a recognition of their positive role for achieving greater equality, as exemplified in historical movements such as the suffragettes and in contemporary protests leading to a growing number of countries legalising same-sex marriage, was completely absent from the forum. With the shaky support of examples of extreme instances of identity privilege, Clare denounced identity groups. I disagree; despite the risks, their role is irreplaceable in lobbying for identity-based inequalities in society, and the space for that role is still present as inequality is extant. It isn’t about being defined by your identity, nor feeling that your identity constitutes a privilege (though instances of both exist); the need for identity groups is to dismantle the external negative pressures placed on them by deign of certain features which have been deemed to constitute an identity.
As mentioned though, this is a contentious issue which was wonderfully exposed by this forum, and any debate on the forum, its speakers, and the above critique is welcome!