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.