Intersectional Feminism Precludes Epistemic Humility

In an earlier blog post for Heterodox Academy, I argued that the reason why elite intellectual venues (i.e. universities and print media) are often hostile to conservatives has more to do with numbers than ideology. The preponderance of progressives in the academy and in newspapers largely explains why rightist thinkers have to put up with more intellectual dishonesty and unfair rhetorical assaults than do leftist thinkers. In other words, I argued that if we could  magically reverse the ratio of conservative to progressive academics from 1–10 to 10–1, we would probably see equally vicious denunciations of “Marxists, supporters of abortion, critics of U.S. foreign policy, and other scholars who took positions at odds with core conservative values.” Group-think and hostility toward out-groups are ingrained in human nature, and it is likely that conservatives would surrender to such impulses if they were dominant numerically.

However, I do think ideology also contributes to the dearth of viewpoint diversity at our universities, and I would like now to explore how it does so. Specifically, I hope to demonstrate that the principles of intersectional feminism—the dominant ideology on college campuses—are intrinsically incompatible with epistemic humility and, by extension, with the promotion of viewpoint diversity. (Epistemic humility is an essential precondition for viewpoint diversity because only those who think they might be mistaken have any reason to listen to the opinions of others.)

Intersectionality’s defining axioms run counter to epistemic humility. Intersectionality presupposes, first, that all those in the Western world who are not wealthy, white, male, straight and able-bodied suffer from structural oppression. Second, it argues that the intensity of the oppression endured by an individual increases as the number of his or her intersections increase. (Thus, a black female is more oppressed than a black male, a black lesbian is more oppressed than a straight black female, and so on.) Third, intersectionality attributes all or most statistical disparities between racial/gender/ethnic groups to systemic barriers: blacks lag behind whites because of racism, women lag behind men because of sexism, etc.

This list is not exhaustive: the academic literature on intersectionality is vast and cannot be easily condensed into a paragraph. I have chosen to pick out these axioms only because, taken together, they have turned intersectional feminism into an ideology impervious to empirical challenge, leaving no room for competing interpretations of inequality. For intersectionality possesses only one tool to explain inequality—structural discrimination. It has a ready-made schema to explain all disparities: X group has oppressed Y group, which means that Y’s social outcomes are worse.

Pointing out that intersectionality presupposes oppression as the root of all group disparities might sound reductive, but it is not an unfair reading of what intersectionalists have to say. In her book Intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins—a leading black feminist thinker—defines intersectionality as follows: “When it comes to inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.” What are these axes, and how do they function? Collins explains elsewhere in the book that social divisions work to oppress groups by depriving them of rights and resources. And the “oppressed today,” she argues, are “homeless/landless people, women, poor people, black people, sexual minorities, indigenous people, undocumented immigrants, prisoners, religious minorities, disabled people, and the young.” No mention is made anywhere in her book of the ways inequality might be caused by factors different from oppression. Other books in the intersectional literature approach the problem similarly.

Since discrimination is the sole analytic tool employed by intersectional theory, all competing interpretations of inequality are summarily rejected. For intersectionalists, then, scholars who understand inequality by looking at different factors have nothing to contribute to debates on the subject, because that debate can occur only under certain incontestable assumptions. This is a serious affront to epistemic humility.

A more epistemically humble way to study inequality would be to treat it as the supremely complex social phenomenon that it is. One might do so by examining the myriad factors that give rise to it, which is precisely what center-left, centrist and center-right theorists of inequality do. Consider the case of Thomas Sowell, a staunchly conservative and highly influential commentator on racial inequality. Sowell has never disputed the claim that structural discrimination can cause group disparities. Instead, he has argued that disparities alone do not establish the existence of discrimination. He sees discrimination as one cause of inequality among many others. The extent to which discrimination can causally explain disparities is for Sowell a matter of empirical investigation. Thus, for him, scholars who produce research showing that discrimination causally explains a specific disparity must be engaged. In marked contrast to the intersectional perspective, the Sowellian worldview necessitates epistemic humility with regard to matters of inequality.

Of course, not all intellectuals who make arguments along Sowellian lines are fair in debate or gracious with their opponents. But centrist and right-leaning theories of inequality as such are compatible with epistemic humility, while the intersectional interpretation is not. Only the former leave room for counter-evidence and multicausal explanations.

The intersectional incompatibility with epistemic humility can pose a threat to viewpoint diversity. Intersectional feminists in university faculties are compelled by their theory to see no benefit in hiring centrist or conservative scholars or in engaging meaningfully with their research.

I see, therefore, an inescapable conflict between intersectionality’s key theoretical assumptions on the one hand and the promotion of viewpoint diversity at universities on the other. For the tension to be resolved, intersectional theory will have to yield some ground. Otherwise, the state of viewpoint diversity in the academy might continue to suffer.

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6 comments

  1. I am a strong supporter of viewpoint diversity, but I find it odd that the author doesn’t identify particular views that counter intersectionality as an explanation of inequality? The “Sowellian world view” is offered as a kind of panacea to anti-intersectionality, but it’s curious that specific counterpoints are at least mentioned. Sincerely, can someone explain theories of inequality that the aforementioned centrists and right-leaning scholars discuss?

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    1. ES: ok,here are some.
      1) As Sowell notes, it can take a couple of generations for immigrants to assimilate, something for which we have data. First generation irish and Italian immigrants mostly got grunt work jobs but now they are middle class. So if discrimination was completely removed by say 1990, we are expecting too much for everything to have equaled out. There is in fact a considerable black middle class at this point, and black doctors etc.
      2) The war on drugs has disproportionately affected the black community.
      3) Inner city schools are still crap.
      4) The current social atmosphere in the black community that calls studying “acting white” and that glorifies gangs does not help them in the long run.
      5) Welfare encourages broken homes (if men in house, no welfare). Children without a father around do worse, no matter their race.

      I hope this helps.

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      1. Sowell also argues that “cultural squalor” is a major problem holding black communities back. You touch on it above, with point 4. There is a serious problem with the policing of in-group behaviours, but policing based on a wrongheaded set of values that don’t promote successful outcomes for community members subject to this sort of ideological policing.

        Now his cultural squalor arguments aren’t limited to blacks. He traces the phenomenon – with it’s linguistic markers – through poor white southern American communities, and a white underclass in Britain.

  2. There are interesting counter-arguments to the intersectionality assumption. For example, Jews, in spite of real oppression in the 20th century (kept out of Ivy League for example) have way more Nobel Prizes than their population (35% vs 3% of pop). Immigrants of several countries (Iran, India, China) make more than the average white person in spite of being “brown”. African immigrants make more than native blacks. Women dominate vet school. As Sowell notes, economics is complex.
    To intersectional faculty, conservatives are not merely wrong, but are outside the pale (for the reasons the author mentions) and thus fundamentally to be shunned in hiring.

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