Intersectionality is Wrong for the Right Reasons

Intersectionality is right for the wrong reasons. Or is wrong for the right reasons.

Originally designed as an analytic framework to better understand the nature of human oppression, intersectional theory often comes across to those outside the academic bubble as a victimologist ideology, hell bent on deconstructing the alleged hegemonic white patriarchy, characterized by entangled jargon and propelled by the stigma of historical shame. The central thesis of this offspring of critical race theory and third-wave feminism is that we should interpret the world through an analysis of the intersection of our various group identities (white female, disabled Hispanic male, and so on) in order to better understand the anatomy of systemic oppression. This seems simple enough.

Why, then, would a relatively obscure analytic framework, preached from the ivory towers of academia, be responsible for the political polarization we are seeing in our society? Well, the scathing rhetoric of the intelligentsia does not stay in the university: it seeps downstream into the unsettled waters of culture and alters how we understand complex social problems. Although intersectional theory is an esoteric ideology most of the general public have probably never heard of—despite a recent tweet by presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand—the assumptions that undergird intersectionality have come to be quietly implemented beneath the surface of our culture.

For instance, the idea that certain groups have suffered more historical oppression than others and are therefore owed certain entitlements is hardly novel, but the intersectional prescription that historical victimization can be understood as a kind of mathematical equation of oppression, in which the intersection of our various identities creates an imposed moral hierarchy, with the victims at the top and the privileged at the bottom, is a fairly recent phenomenon. It has been ramped up to include ever more historically marginalized groups and encapsulates an ever broader systemic process of oppression. These ideas have become the norm among my generation (millennial), providing an a priori perceptual framework, which leads us to approach many modern problems through the lens of group identity and historical oppression—sorting out the noble victims from the privileged victimizers to establish who symbolically represents the good and who is emblematic of evil. Such a totalizing ideology is primed to stoke reactionary flames on both sides of the political aisle and feed into the culture war in America and elsewhere.

But what is wrong with inculcating an ideology that promotes inclusion and experiential diversity? In a popular Ted Talk on the need for intersectionality, critical race theorist and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw asked everyone in the audience to stand up (“everyone who is able,” that is, in order not to exclude disabled people), and began sounding off the names of victims of police shootings with the caveat that audience members sit down when they heard a name they didn’t recognize. At first, she mentioned victims of high profile shootings—young black men like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice—and most of the audience remaining standing. Then she started naming lesser known female black victims of police shootings—and most of the audience sat back down. The point was to show how much more attention we pay to police shootings that involve males and how that bias could be unraveled through intersectional theory. Her argument was, in essence, that—although we have come a long way on matters of racial and gender equality—there remains a learned unwillingness to recognize the intersection of group identities that must be overcome in order achieve equality.

But is it really emblematic of a deep-seated gender bias that the media pays more attention to black male victims of police shootings than black female victims—or is it simply that young black men are gunned down in much higher numbers than members of any other demographic ? Play out the same thought experiment by rattling off the names of white victims of police shootings and even fewer audience members would be left standing by the end. In a recent debate, John McWhorter has pointed this out:

Tamir Rice was a black boy of about twelve who was brandishing a toy weapon and he was shot dead. The exact same thing happened to a boy named Daniel Shaver not long after that. Daniel Shaver was white. Sam Dubose was shot dead by the police while driving his car away from a cop. The exact same thing happened before that to a white guy named Andrew Thomas. Alton Sterling was a black man who reached into his waistband for his wallet during an altercation with a cop and the cop shot him dead. It was a grievance event. And the same thing happened around the same time to a white guy named Dylan Noble. Alton Sterling made national headlines, none of us heard about Dylan Noble.. I could do this for twenty minutes.

Of course, intersectional theorists do not consider the intersection of whiteness and oppression because that goes against the basic structure of the ideology, in which white people are low on the victim scale.

In an article in Quillette last year,  Christian Alejandro Gonzalez argues that

In Intersectionality, then, one encounters everything that conservatives, centrists, moderate progressives, and classical liberals find most objectionable about the radical identitarian Left: Vehement opposition to capitalism, a rejection of objective truth, a dogmatic commitment to the politics of identity, the replacement of religion with an all-embracing political theory, a subtle (and at times not so subtle) hatred of groups perceived to be dominant, an inability to disagree with others in good faith, and a willingness to dismiss opponents as racists and sexists.

I agree. But, in addition, intersectionality diagnoses a real problem that it is intrinsically incapable of solving.

As the scope of intersecting identities expands to encapsulate ever more experiences, the grievance brigade invariably multiplies ad infinitum due to the allure of victimology—the facile power achieved through designating oneself a historical victim. Instead of recognizing the individual as the essential unit of moral concern, individuals are simply used as mouthpieces for their particular group, vehicles through which to voice its prevailing gripe. Intersectionality is a self-perpetuating cultural meme, which rewards our perceived oppression, rather than giving us the tools to transcend it.

We all have a plethora of intersecting identities—such as husband, daughter, writer, gay Hispanic man or disabled white woman—that we must constantly manage as we navigate our daily lives. Intersectional theory identifies this truth, but fails to develop a comprehensive method to illuminate our common humanity beneath our ever-shifting identities. It also falls into the age-old trap of making group identity paramount and ignoring the indelible uniqueness of individual experience.

As someone who has lived with a severe chronic illness for much of my adult life, I can appreciate the professed aims of intersectionality. There are many ways in which a person can be oppressed that are invisible to most others—poor health status, lack of wealth, color, family background, low IQ, lack of attractiveness, mental illness and many other uncontrollable factors can affect us to varying degrees. But the notion that we should make our suffering at the hands of society the basis for our egos or of the definition of a true sense of self, is unhelpful when we actually need to get on with our lives. In my limited experience, it achieves nothing to just demonstrate oppression—though sometimes a simple acknowledgement of the fact is nice—what’s important is what steps one can take in response. A sustainable identity cannot be built on a house of cards. I have found it psychologically detrimental to dwell upon my illness and the sheer injustice of it—and I don’t want others to go down that path.

One major problem with dissecting human oppression that is seldom acknowledged by the intersectional left involves the question of degree. How do we measure the intersection of marginalized identities and where do we draw the line in compounding those identities? For instance, does my white maleness cancel out the oppression I experience due to my chronic illness? Am I more or less oppressed than a black, gay college student, who is perfectly healthy? What is more of an obstacle, being poor or belonging to a historically marginalized group? If the answer is all of the above, and we can’t privilege one form of oppression over another, then how do we navigate this minefield? How are we supposed to treat people who have experienced entrenched hardship? Do we act especially nicely to them, give up our seats at the lunch table to them—what actual action should we take? None of this is explained—it’s barely even mentioned in passing—by those who espouse intersectional doctrine.

Intersectionality is a secular religion: it advocates an all-encompassing worldview, which explains the vast interlocking mechanism of human oppression at the expense of critical reasoning. It even functions like a religion, operating on the basis of an original sin of privilege, excommunicating heretics, awaiting a judgment day in which all oppression with be understood and overcome, and promoting figures who are considered beyond reproach (saints) who purportedly embody the doctrine’s best representatives. Ultimately, intersectionality is a quest for meaning in a world from which religion has been thoroughly uprooted. And, like all religions, it functions in accordance with our deeply felt unconscious needs, rather than our conscious choices and actions. Of course, one can no more reject the human impulse towards religious experience than the existence of gravity, but we can engage in our own personal line of inquiry—in which questions hold more meaning than answers. This is our only bulwark against human vice. And always will be.

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  1. Yeah, the Victimhood competence hierarchies are hard to calculate.

    “Social Justice practitioners are telling us all hierarchies are entirely socially constructed, unfair, and oppressive – excepting theirs – which they don’t admit to having. But what else is the jockeying for power in the identity group/victimhood hierarchy about?

    We haven’t yet seen a merger of the many contenders trying to prove they are the biggest victims and the smallest oppressors. The hierarchy of victim hierarchies is yet to be settled science. The Intersectionalist Progressive Social Justice Cartel is having some nasty fights trying to sort out their pathological hierarchy:”

  2. Consider someone in a wheelchair. While they are clearly at a disadvantage, it is hard to say they are “oppressed” by society. Life is just hard for them. Assuming that there are wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms, what more could society do? Why does anyone owe them anything for what Sowell calls a cosmic injustice?

    My friend is a legal immigrant, who is short, balding, has an accent and a mild speech impediment, which he admits has probably cost him job opportunities. Nevertheless, he supervises 800 people and has a much nicer house than mine. Is he, as a brown person, oppressed?

    Every single person in life has some disadvantages compared to others. My tall handsome blond friend in college wanted to be a quarterback but blew out his knee. Disadvantage–oppression?

    It is much more useful, as the author says, to focus on what one can do, what advantages one has, and the things in life that everyone has access to (books, family, friends, nature) as well as on one’s faith, than to dwell on oppression which maybe is only in your imagination. As a white person I could still be resentful that I’m not taller, more athletic, or inherited $, but how would that help me? Oh I know, no sympathy for white people but that just shows how distorted intersectionality is. The pain of all people is equally painful.

  3. Decent article, but the term “secular religion” doesn’t make sense. I think you mean “political religion” or “non-theistic religion”.

    And SJWism does indeed look a lot like Xtianity in one of its worse variants.

    1. Beautifully written article. Intersectionality shares many characteristics with religiosity. Regrettably, it doesn’t seem particularly strong on redemption

  4. I’ve lived with chronic illness for all of my adult life which has affected many aspects of my life.

    I was not amused a few years back when I was sitting with a group of middle class, university-educated, full-time workers who were trying to be sure that their place in the oppression olympics was secure. One heterosexual woman indicated that she was really pansexual because she kissed a girl when she was at university. Another heterosexual, this time a man, verified his place in the olympics because he lisped when he was in primary school.

    I fear that intersectionality has yet to reach its nadir.

  5. Wait a minute… If we keep recognizing more groups claiming victimization, won’t every individual eventually be able to identify with and fall into one or more categories of these groups? When everyone is a victim, doesn’t that ultimately cancel each other’s victimhood out, until no one is a victim, or that victimhood isn’t a consideration?

    1. Yes. Hence the increasing victimization language of Christians with there incessant whining about the ‘war on Christmas’, or whites claiming reverse discrimination. We currently are in a full blown victim culture where everyone is taught to identify their existence through the lens of some form of oppression.

  6. I find the parallels between the identitarians and Mao’s red guards are striking:

    1. They categorize people into groups and the group identity is the only thing matters. For red guards it was “the five reds and five blacks”. If you are a child of a poor peasant you are red. If you are a child of a rich landlord you are black. For identitarians, it is race/sex/gender. If you are LGBTQ you are more worthy than a straight person. If you are people of color you are more worthy than whites.
    2. They look at everything through a political lens. For red guards, the ancient history had to be re-written from Marxism viewpoints. Math textbooks had to be prefaced with Marxism quote. For the identitarians, everything is about group power struggle. Math is now proposed to be a tool of racial suppression.
    3. They both see themselves as self-appointed moral judges. If you are in a bad group then you inherently bad. Any people with differing viewpoints are inherently evil, and need to be silenced, or, in the language of red guards, “beaten down and stepped on”.

    This is not going to end well. It is past time for the liberal minded people to push back against these self-righteous illiberal actors.

    1. You’re hardly the first person to see valid comparisons to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and yes it’s time to push back and many people are. The difficulty is accusations of racism just as accusations of regression from Mao Thought are powerful cultural weapons, particularly with academia and on social media. It often ends up as one or two brave individuals against a mob. Part of the problem is there’s scores of people who know this ideology is ludicrous but for varying reasons sit on the sidelines, usually because they think it doesn’t really affect the real world and they have better things to do or they’re scared off by the thought of taking on a mob that have no interest in listening to reason and have no intention in engaging in good faith.

  7. I’d add to McWhorter’s comment that as tragic as the death of Tamir Rice was, he pointed a gun at officers that could not be readily distinguished as a toy, rather than real weapon, in a neighborhood with a rate of violence. Moreover, he was not readily identifiable as a child. He was as tall as I am and much heavier. This indicates the problem of seeing every tragic event as necessarily the consequence of oppression and police murder.

  8. I agree with everything except your agreement with the following: that liberals should find most objectionable about the identitarian, intersectional left a “Vehement opposition to capitalism,” What’s wrong with that? That’s the one good thing about them. And it flies in the face of every other of their positions, because these positions are a hangover from the elite pluralism of the 1950s, which supported capitalism and was based upon a deep dyed anticommunism: just like intersectionality itself.

    1. Being a generally lefty person, it drives me up the wall that the culture warriors on the left become the face of a much broader coalition with, frankly, more important things to worry about. Republican media plays endless clips of students acting out over the latest twitter-spawned outrage and say, “that’s why you should vote for Trump”. At the level of actual politicians, few Democrats are running on anything like an SJW platform, but the people screaming about Nazis in the Whitehouse allow
      the right wing to point and laugh at them instead of defending the very real problem that Trump is a corrupt, incompetent blowhard whose lasting damage is in the form of give-aways to the wealthy, dismantling of regulatory systems and social safety nets, sabotaging of our international relations and general mismanagement of everyday government functions. Yes, on top of that he’s an offensive jerk, but let’s have some perspective!

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