Better the Battle of Ideas than the Battle of Identities

William Costello
15 min readJun 11, 2020

The following is an essay based on an updated transcript of my opening remarks at the Battle of Ideas 2019 where I spoke on a panel on the topic of, “Individuals Vs Identities: Can we move beyond Tribal Politics?”

I feel the sentiment is more relevant now than ever.

Identity over Individuality & Suffering over Achievements

How has our cultural discourse come to the stage where, at a recent wedding, I found myself lampooned as a racist by a gay couple for quoting Martin Luther King?

“I have a dream that one day people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin”, I was told, is something that “known racists” say, during a conversation about whether white people could ever be the victims of racism.

I can’t quite remember how we got on to the topic as I was leaning quite heavily into my Irish identity at the time, but I was told that I could never understand as I am a cis-gendered, straight, white male.

I asked how they know if I’m straight…or cis-gendered for that matter?

THIS actually curried me some favour. As if to have minority status in my sexuality or gender would make me more moral and more deserving of an opinion on racial issues.

I could see the cogs turning in their brains in real time, “AH…he might be a victim after all? Let’s deduct some points in his oppression score…but he is still VERY visibly white so we can still hold that original sin against him.”

Douglas Murray is speaking in another room at the festival at this very moment and erudite as always he used a great turn of phrase during a recent interview. “People used to be celebrated for their achievements…now they’re celebrated for their suffering.

Not only are people celebrated for suffering, but they are celebrated for their group’s suffering. Past or present, perceived or real, we cannot question the lived experience of “their truth”.

Martin Luther King sentiment and enlightenment values of universalism and individualism are no longer in fashion in a society that favours group identity over the sovereignty of the individual.

Identities come and go

The story goes that in the oppression Olympics if you’re part of a minority group…

William Costello

Psychology PhD Student University of Texas at Austin. MSc Psychology, Culture and Evolution from Brunel University London 2020/21. Bylines: Areo and Quillette.