The Revolutionary Nature of Intersectionality

Over the past few years, a number of platforms, including the Heterodox Academy blog, Areo and Quillette, have been publishing very perspicacious critiques of intersectionality as it is practiced today. The most careful commentators make it clear that they are speaking about intersectionality as a movement and not, say, the basic—and useful—insights which characterize the origins of this kind of thinking. For such commentators, intersectionality starts out as a mode of analysis in which it is emphasized that we possess manifold identities, and that the effects experienced by someone with two or more marginalized identities are peculiar to that manifold identity. (The effects in question are negative in early intersectional thinking, but, as Chris Martin has demonstrated, we might profitably use the same starting point to study positive effects and discrimination which benefits members of a disadvantaged group.) The critiques are focused upon how intersectionality functions as a movement in society today: how activists adopted the initial intuitions and built an ideology around it.

To provide a couple of examples of such critiques, in “The Problem with Intersectional Feminism,” Helen Pluckrose bases her observations on the idea that, in essence, intersectionality addresses a lacuna in our thinking about the human subject: to our awareness of the fact that we are part of humanity itself and that we are individuals, we must add cognizance of the significance of the fact that we can be categorized in relation to groups, intersectionals tell us. But intersectionality developed an “intense focus” on group identity to such an extent that it began to stand in clear opposition to “universal liberalism,” thereby evolving into “a very narrow political ideology”. And in his “Intersectionality is a Political Football – Here’s Why It Doesn’t Have to Be,” Chris Martin, alerts readers to the fact that, as far back as the 1930s, psychologists and biologists were studying intersections, using the term interactions. In those early days, the approach was statistical and based on empirical research. Like Pluckrose, Martin charts how intersectionality proper emerged in the field of legal studies and the work of Crenshaw. At this stage of its evolution, intersectionality was based on “an evidentiary set of case studies” (perhaps not ideal, in Martin’s view), but it is the next stage which Martin sees as regressive. In Crenshaw’s iteration, intersectionality is progressive but not ideological. But, under the influence of Patricia Hill Collins’ work, intersectionality “moved the theory from grounded specificities to ungrounded generalities,” a rift between theory and research opened up, and an idea became an ideology.

One further critique must be brought to bear on intersectionality as it is practiced today: intersectionality is in part a nascent revolutionary movement.

In 2017, conservative Andrew Sullivan published a polemical piece about intersectionality as a quasi-religion. Sullivan sums up his argument in the following manner:

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue—and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

The piece provoked a slew of responses from various commentators, some sympathetic, some not. Of particular interest to me was the response of Lauren Nelson, who dismissed the idea that it is legitimate to construe intersectionality in this manner. Nelson argues that

[…] intersectional beliefs are no more a “religion” than feminism, or anti-racism, or a political party, or any other cultural ideology. There is no deity being praised. There are no churches. There are no sacraments. These ideologies don’t stem from books written thousands of years ago with centuries of suspect revisions and politicized interpretations. It stems from actual modern lived experiences. Contrary to [Sullivan’s] assertion, there are no saints; leadership in intersectional movements openly admit they are flawed and work to better themselves. There is no “controlling” of language; there is encouragement for respect of human beings. This isn’t about virtue. It’s about basic dignity.

Sullivan’s account is insufficiently penetrating, but something is getting overlooked in Nelson’s account. To the extent that any political movement is revolutionary, it does indeed take on characteristics not unrelated to what Sullivan outlines. The point, however, is not that revolutionary political movements inevitably start to behave like religions; the point is that all revolutionary movements, be they religious or political, invariably take on characteristics of this type.

The locus classicus of this point about revolutionary movements is the following section in Northrop Frye’s The Great Code. Everything from Christianity to Marxism is characterized by a “revolutionary quality,” Frye argues. That quality is introduced in Biblical tradition; its characteristics are retained in Christianity and Islam, and “survive with little essential change in Marxism”:

Of these characteristics, the most important are, first, a belief in a specific historical revelation as a starting point. Israel’s story begins here and in this way; Christianity begins in this way, and not, say, with the Essenes; Islam begins with the Hegira of Mohammed; and Communism with Marx and not, say, Owen or Fourier. Second is the adoption of a specific canon of texts, clearly marked off from apocryphal or peripheral ones, along with a tendency to regard the heretic who differs on minor points of doctrine as a more dangerous enemy than the person who repudiates the whole position. Third is the dialectical habit of mind that divides the world into those with us and those against us.

The last point here is of enormous consequence, for it tells about how revolutionaries conceive of social change.  Revolutionary thinking typically amounts not to the abolition of social class but to the establishment of a new order, involving the replacement of one dominant class with another. In his Keywords, Raymond Williams comments that, by the sixteenth century, the terms revolt and revolution had come to signify “an attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high,” and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this dynamic remains a feature of revolutionary thought. To return to Frye’s language, revolutions produce new societies in which those with us take over, and those against us typically get relegated to the status of a new underclass.

At least in some of its manifestations, intersectionals are starting to think like revolutionaries. Taking Frye’s points in reverse order, some exponents of intersectionality think of swathes of the population as a homogeneous opponent group; it does indeed seem as though the greatest fury is reserved for left-wing heretics, such as Mark Lilla, and the works of certain theorists are somewhat sacralized by some radical professors and students; and perhaps a rubicon was crossed with the publication of the works of Crenshaw or Hill Collins.

Of course, as a consequence of one its characteristics, it is should be well-nigh impossible for intersectionality to adopt a revolutionary bearing towards society. If we expand our definition of intersectionality, exponents of this approach acknowledge the difficulty of identifying the them of the revolutionary them versus us opposition. Importantly, from an intersectional viewpoint, privileged and disadvantaged groupings are seen to overlap to a significant extent, in that many or most manifold identities (for intersectionality, all identities are manifold) are understood to participate in both advantaged and disadvantaged group experience: some aspects of identity are privileged, while others entail disadvantage. But activists working with intersectionality in a revolutionary manner solve this problem by adopting strategies which allow them to divide society up into a traditional them and us opposition. One strategy is to construct the opponent group as right-wing people generally, although this is a contradictory move because a great many conservatives happen to be socially-exposed and therefore to an extent belong to intersectionality’s own disadvantaged groups. A second strategy, already implied by the former, is simply to veer away from full intersectionality, expelling social class considerations from the intersectional approach. When social class is removed from the mix, an opposition group, highly appealing to some activists, heaves into view: white men, in toto, although sometimes age is taken into consideration, too, so that it is specifically the pale, male and stale who are grouped together.

As a revolutionary movement, intersectionality is a thoroughly unappealing project. Of course, critiques are also suggestive of solutions. The flipside of the foregoing observations represents an alternative path for intersectionality. The way forward is represented by a political attitude which is close to the opposite of revolutionary politics. In contrast to revolutionaries, gradualists view the process whereby one dominant group gets replaced by another with enormous suspicion. You can characterize their view as hopelessly middle class in a sense—if you don’t like it. It is dedicated not to the creation of a new dominant class, which involves turning society on its head, but to the unlimited expansion of the middle section of society, the aim of which is to bring about the society which has always animated liberalism: the classless society. As a gradualist approach, intersectionality would consistently incorporate considerations of social class into its conclusions, deal less antagonistically with conservatives (especially socially-disadvantaged conservatives), and avoid the insistence on a sharp division between societal groups which characterizes revolutionary thought.

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4 comments

  1. I can’t stand all this ‘intersectionality’ rubbush myself. People are always trying to fabricate tidy, ordered systems around the messy, complex and organic nature of life and they nearly always fail. It’s perfecty natural to do so of course, religions have always tried to give us comforting frameworks to live in without fear of the vast unknown out there. But let’s not fool ourselves that someone can come up with a compleltely infallible system by which we should all live for ever and ever.

    I believe in the ‘evolution of everything’ as Matt Ridley puts it i.e. things sorting themselves out one or another in the end. Life itself has no ‘plan’ or system, other than survive and replicate. That’s it. Everything else are merely artificial contructs, which may go some way to explaining things but we should always be prepared to ditch them if they stop working, as they often do.

    As with all artificial systems which people get excited about every so often, there will always be situations/people/events they simply cannot cater for. So for example, I saw a chart of intersectionaity once and I wasn’t on it. I am male, middle-aged, white, married, heterosexual, well paid and not disabled. Intersectinal points for me? Zero.

    And yet I was born poor, grew up poor, in a single parent working class (and sometimes unemplyoed) family, brought up by my young mother (who had me at sixteen) and was subjected to some pretty appalling discrimination and prejudice back then in the sixties. We even got told to leave the church choir for goodness sake. Landlaides and landlords evicted us ad we had to move all the time, because obviously, the fact my father left us was all my mother’s fault.

    So I didn’t feel very privileged back then and still don’t now. Everything I have I struggled for. No-one has given me a damned thing, even though I’m white etc. etc.

    So stuff ‘intersectionaiity’ and go and check your own bloody privilege. I’m just trying to live my life as best I can while trying to be a good and moral person depsite my rather jaded opinion of others.

  2. The Lauren Nelson quote is astonishing. “There is no “controlling” of language; there is encouragement for respect of human beings.” This is a degree of self-delusion that leads one breathless. Is the howling meanness that meets even the smallest and most imaginary of verbal transgressions “no ‘controlling’ of language”? Is the vicious attacking aimed at any departure from dogma part of encouraging respect?

    Her ignorance of religion is also remarkable. She clearly equates “religion” with “Christianity”, and “Christianity” with “what my grandparents were taught in Sunday School.” Christian Science’s holy book dates to 1875, Bahai

    1. Dang, my fingers slipped off the home keys. Anyway, Bahai dates to 1844, Rastafari to the 19th Century, Scientology to 1954. [Some] Quakers and all Anabaptists have no churches and no sacraments, and if Derrida and Foucault aren’t holy books, I don’t know what is.

      It’s useless to talk about the essence of religion or make lists of what you have to have to be one. It’s useless to talk about the essence of anything, mainly because essences don’t exist. You can’t get an essence out of atoms and the void. Put ’em together anyway you want and all you have are atoms and voids. Yet Intersectionalists are obsessed with discovering the true essence of oppressed and oppressor groups, but with surprisingly little by the way of charitable action to help those oppressed people who aren’t in universities. That’s why it’s useless, a dead end.

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