Education, Politics, Top Stories

The Illiberal Logic of Intersectionality

A spate of articles about intersectionality have been published recently—two at Heterodox Academy from Ian Storey and Chris Martin and another at the Atlantic from Conor Friedersdorf. These three authors seek to challenge what appears to be a reflexive hostility among conservative and centrist thinkers to the ideas of intersectional theory. Broadly speaking, they all agree that intersectional principles do not necessarily pose a threat to the free speech and that intersectionality is a useful conceptual framework, as it allows us to better understand the unique set of problems faced by people with intersecting identities (e.g. black women, gay Hispanic men). Storey and Friedersdorf, moreover, argue that the fact that campus activists have used intersectionality to suppress speech proves only that the tactics of the social justice movement can be illiberal, but not that the theory is itself at fault for illiberal activist conduct.

Thought-provoking and insightful though their essays were, the claim that intersectionality can be fully separated from radicalism and opposition to free speech remains unconvincing. That is not to say that all the claims of intersectionality should be retired: it is certainly true, for instance, that the average life experience of a poor white female will differ substantially from that of a wealthy black male. Some form of intersectional thinking would enable us to understand such distinctions.

Further, Kimberlé Crenshaw (the Columbia Law professor who coined the term ‘intersectionality’) certainly deserves credit for pointing out a debilitating blind spot in the American legal framework: namely, its inability to consider ‘black women’ as a protected class of people, as was witnessed in the 1976 Emma DeGraffenreid case. DeGraffenreid, a black woman, had sued General Motors for discriminating against her, but the court found that, since GM did not discriminate against blacks or against women, it could not be held liable for discrimination against black women. In his article, Chris Martin rightly laments the court’s decision, which stated that plaintiffs “should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies to create a new ‘super-remedy’ which would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended.” In other words, the court found that U.S. anti-discrimination law protected blacks and women, but not black women. The court finding was a flagrant violation of the spirit of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We have Crenshaw to thank for highlighting this injustice.

Nonetheless, despite enabling a greater understanding of intersecting identities and highlighting certain flaws in our legal system, intersectionality’s logic contains the seeds of illiberalism and censorship. Intersectionality employs dangerous and imprecise language, encourages ideological uniformity (and conformity), fosters groupthink, and necessitates radicalism. These undesirable characteristics are all likely—if not necessary—consequences of the foundational tenets of intersectional theory. Let me take them in turn.

I. Intersectionality Employs Dangerous and Imprecise Language

The primary claim of intersectional theory is that there are multiple axes of oppression (or subordination) to which people can be subjected. Crenshaw and her co-thinkers (including Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks) do not use the phrase “axes of disadvantage” or of “misfortune” nor anything to that effect; they specifically refer to a wide range of social phenomena as “oppression,” thereby implying that some groups (or structures of power) actively oppress other groups. Intersectional theorists claim that blacks, women, queer people, indigenous people, Hispanics, and the poor are categorically oppressed—that is, at the receiving end of some current (and not just past) systemic injustice; moreover, the intensity of the oppression increases as the number of intersections increase in an individual. Presumably, then, the only people who aren’t oppressed in America are straight, cis-gendered, wealthy, white males.

In his article, Chris Martin elucidates many of the shortcomings of the ‘oppression’ framework. He argues compellingly that intersectionality “posits unambiguous axes of oppression” by ignoring that minorities sometimes benefit from pro-minority discrimination (as with affirmative action policies). He adds that intersectionality fails to consider “the influence of the situation.” “For instance,” he explains, “being African-American might be an advantage when you apply to an undergraduate college, but it might be a disadvantage when you apply for a summer internship.” So certain identities might yield advantages in some places, but not in others.

Other problems with the intersectional framework remain, and they merit elaboration. First, ‘oppression’ is rarely defined rigorously. And it is simply not self-evident that all the various groups purportedly subjected to oppressive power structures in fact suffer from oppression, however defined. Consider men and women, for instance. Men benefit from certain biological advantages (they are stronger on average and can perform hard physical labor with greater ease) but also suffer from biological disadvantages (men make up 80 percent of all people with autism and are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women).

Similarly, social advantages and disadvantages are not evenly distributed between men and women. Men, for example, seem to be severely “underperforming” at the universities: in 2013, women earned “61.6 percent of all associate’s degrees, 56.7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9 percent of all master’s degrees, and 51.6 percent of all doctor’s degrees.” One can of course rattle off a list of areas where men are dominant, but my point is that reducing the entire universe of male/female social outcomes to a simple formula in which ‘women are oppressed’ is far too simplistic. Men do better in some areas, women better in others. Both benefit and suffer from different advantages and disadvantages, respectively.

Without engaging here in the debate over whether ethnic minorities are or are not oppressed, suffice it to say that, as in the case of women, it is not self-evident that they categorically are. Asians, Nigerians, and some other non-white minority groups outperform whites on a variety of objective standards like educational attainment, employment rates, and levels of income. Additionally, the idea that blacks are oppressed is not even unanimously accepted by blacks. In a recent article for Quillette, my friend Coleman Hughes drew attention to a “message of black self-creation [as opposed to] the prevailing leftist view that modern systems of oppression recapitulate the overt injustices of the past and therefore constrain black potential.” Hughes also notes that “60 percent of blacks without college degrees say their race hasn’t affected their chances of success.” Many centrist and right-leaning black intellectuals have long advanced similar propositions.

Yet Crenshaw’s intersectional framework is impervious to empirical counter-arguments and dismissive of nuance because it presupposes that most people in the United States suffer from oppression, without ever bothering to define what exactly that word means and seemingly without considering what the people in question think about their own situation. (And of course, one does not need to believe that ‘racism is over’ or that minorities suffer from no disadvantages to lodge criticisms of this sort against intersectionality.)

Intersectionality also posits that all forms of oppression overlap and are “inextricably linked,” which brings me to my next criticism.

II. Intersectionality Encourages Ideological Uniformity and Fosters Groupthink

As alluded to above, the statement that most people in America suffer from oppression is nearly incompatible with nuanced analyses. If one accepts that the intersectional framework is essentially correct, and if one further accepts that blacks are oppressed, then one must necessarily grant the notion that women, gays, poor people, and so on are also oppressed. The oppression axes of intersectionality therefore make it very difficult to make nuanced claims because intersectionalists are committed to the radical-Left interpretation of anything related to race and gender. The logic of intersectionality mandates uniformity of this kind.

The intersectional claim that all systems of oppression are linked is, furthermore, the driving force behind the coalescing of nearly every Leftist activist cause, from Palestinian-liberation-advocacy to pro-choice feminism to LGBTQ activism. All these groups have come together under one massive panoply, and they have all started to employ the same quasi-Marxist rhetoric about systems of oppression and the need for revolution.

We can best see the effects of this kind of awkward coalition-building in the ideology of Black Lives Matter. A movement that purportedly arose to combat police brutality now writes on its website that it “affirm[s] the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” Its policy prescriptions now reflect these broad interests. Thus the dynamics of intersectionality pushed Black Lives Matter into issues outside its original area of interest by committing the movement to far-Left narratives of ‘marginalization.’

“Feminism Without Intersectionality Is Just White Supremacy” Placard at a Demo.

And in the universities, where intersectionality is strongest, intersectional professors and student activists often excoriate moderate progressives and non-intersectional Leftists for being insufficiently ‘woke’ or radical. Just look, for instance, at what happened to Mark Lilla, the professor of intellectual history at Columbia, when he spoke out against identity politics in the wake of Trump’s election. Katherine Franke, a fellow Columbia professor, compared him to (white supremacist) David Duke, writing that “both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.”

Franke, as she reveals in her essay, was writing under the suppositions of intersectional theory, which informed her that any (supposed) attempt on Lilla’s part to obfuscate the truth of American oppression was no less than an attempt at upholding white supremacy. (Lilla has argued that minorities would be better served if liberals focused on electoral politics, but no matter; as far as Frank is concerned, he’s still a white supremacist.) Her accusations and her insistence on ideological uniformity evidently originate in the dictates of her interpretations of intersectionality; this reality complicates the optimism of Friedersdorf and Storey vis-à-vis intersectionality. Which brings me to my next point.

III. Intersectionality Necessitates Radicalism

Suppose intersectionality were true. Suppose, as Crenshaw et al do, that everybody in America save for cis straight rich white men were oppressed. Such a society would be tyrannical, unjust, morally abhorrent—and, for precisely those reasons, desperately in need of radical change. It would be incumbent upon activists, if not upon all morally-righteous people, to radically transform such wretched forms of social organization. If our police forces, court systems, legislatures, universities, and corporations are stained by the filthy sins of misogyny and white supremacy, then some sort of radical or even revolutionary politics would understandably follow.

An article by Sharon Smith at the International Socialist Review is telling; she writes that, “As an additive to Marxist theory, intersectionality leads the way toward a much higher level of understanding of the character of oppression than that developed by classical Marxists, enabling the further development of the ways in which solidarity can be built between all those who suffer oppression and exploitation under capitalism to forge a unified movement.” Thus, intersectionality is made to function at the service of Marxism political projects.

The behavior of people like Katherine Frank (referring to colleagues as no better than Klansmen and neo-Nazis) and of campus activists (shutting down speakers and calling them similarly ugly epithets) makes more sense when one understands the tenets of intersectionality. There are certainly other factors behind such illiberal behavior, but the ideological underpinnings of intersectional censorship cannot be ignored. If allowing intellectual dissent exacerbates injustice and prevents the creation of large, coalition-based movements to combat all the oppression in our society, then it easily (though not necessarily) follows that one should shut down people who challenge these leftist narratives. That is, at least, one potential interpretation of the logical conclusions of intersectionality, which in the end amounts to a ruthless critique of everything existing in our society because it is, according to the theory, too white, too male, too Western.

But Friedersdorf and Storey see no critical link between intersectionality’s radicalism and the behavior of the activists who preach its doctrine. Storey writes that “nothing about intersectionality makes it inherently hostile to open speech and debate.” He explains in his piece that there are “three constitutive parts [of a given social movement]: its issue area, its constituency, and its tactics. Although the three are often profoundly intertwined, no individual component mandates anything in particular about the other two” (italics mine). Put more simply, Storey believes that a movement’s topic of concern, demographic characteristics (i.e. the sorts of people who join the movement), and the methods it uses to advance is claims can vary independently, even if they are often intertwined.

There’s much truth to Storey’s analysis. But in the particular case of intersectionality, it seems clear that its “issue area” (the emancipation of the oppressed) does seem to play a role in encouraging its tactics (demanding immediate emancipation by the means of radical rhetoric and calls for censorship). The intrinsic radicalism of intersectionality fosters a moral culture of extreme urgency. We can see this even in the words of the anti-free-speech activists that Friedesdorf quotes in his piece, who justified shutting down a speaker by arguing that they “now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs.” The matrix of intersectionality and censorship is herein demonstrated, belying Friedersdorf’s attempt to separate the two; while censorship is not mandated by intersectionality, the culture of moral panic that intersectionality creates certainly encourages it.

There does seem to be, then, an intimate link between intersectionality’s claims and tactics. The former, in part, inform the latter.

Conclusion

The critiques above have largely skirted around the question of whether the claims of intersectionality are true and, instead, focused on their deleterious social consequences and on the extent to which the consequences can be blamed on the theory. While Storey, Martin, and Friedersdorf are right to say that as a conceptual framework a type of intersectionality could have been helpful, the inherent tendencies and mechanisms of intersectional theory as it has developed must bear some blame for the illiberal behavior of campus activists and for the inability of some intersectional theorists to engage in civil debate with their opponents. And while intersectionality is by no means the only force driving the debasement of discourse (social media also comes to mind), it certainly remains a factor, and a significant one at that. The claims of intersectionality, radical and uncompromising as they are, must therefore be implicated in any analysis of the predicament of our universities, of free speech, and of national discourse in the United States.

Christian Gonzalez was raised in Miami, Florida, but now studies political science at Columbia University. If you’d like to get in touch, feel free to contact him at cag2240@columbia.edu or follow him on Twitter @xchrisgonz

47 Comments

  1. James Lee says

    Nice article. I like how you emphasize that the deployed language of Intersectionality tends to foster extreme urgency and therefore radical tactics such as silencing free speech or slandering a life-long liberal like Mark Lilla as a white supremacist. I believe a major part of the appeal of Intersectional ideology is that it places the believer in the role of the good guy fighting the evil empire of bad guys in a cosmic war of the utmost importance… in other words, it is filling in for religion for many modern left-leaning middle class people.

    In my view, it is also a manifestation of the very recent shift in moral matrices to the left due to an unprecedented low level of war and survival threat, especially experienced after the fall of the Iron Curtain and end of the Cold War. The Greatest Generation faced significant poverty and survival threat during the Great Depression, then saw a substantial percentage of their men fight and die in multiple major wars. The baby boomers were more progressive than the Greatest Generation, but they still had a percentage of their male citizens who fought and died in Vietnam. Within Europe, it appears that the nations with the more recent history of being brutally occupied by an aggressive USSR (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia) are also the nations that are currently the least left-wing politically.

    medium.com/@james3lee321/why-the-west-has-gone-blind-6ef8996b686c

    • Matthew B says

      I read your column on Medium James. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. For a long time, I have thought that the lack of any widespread hardship or crisis in the West (the most tolerant, educated, fair and welcoming society in the history of the world) has led to this strange attitude of self loathing – like a snake eating its tail. It’s an awful thing to watch.

      • James Lee says

        Thanks Matthew. I think that moral matrices in the West will eventually shift back to a more balanced and sustainable alignment, but judging by our lack of foresight as a species, I am doubtful that it happens other than as a reaction to large scale violence and survival threat.

        We seem to keep repeating the same mistakes. Martin Luther King jr.’s dream was transcendent and unifying, and it seems to have been not only abandoned but completely inverted by the Intersectional left, where individuals are now to be treated differently on the basis of their group membership, and not on their individual character.

        • Douglas Murray, in his recent book The Strange Death of Europe, refers to what Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called the “tragic sense of life” to describe the difference in Western and Eastern European attitudes. I think his and your assessments describe at least part of the difference between our two societies’ distinct responses to threats to our survival, cultural or otherwise, and how we’ve arrived at our two divergent current positions. The idea that instability and stability might represent a state in and of itself and not simply the distance between two points is a difficult one to come to, let alone accept. To even consider this oscillation a possible fact of life seems like an invitation to nihilism. If popular demographic models being proposed for the West are even close to accurate, I struggle to feel optimistic about the future of our societies. I hope I’m wrong.

  2. KD says

    The caste system has worked well in India for thousands of years. Why not sort everyone in the Western world into their Jati’s based on intersectional pokemon points, and then lay down some arbitrary social taboos? Probably good for business.

  3. ga gamba says

    Intersectionality is a gambit to allow a person other means to claim oppression. Further, in its present iteration of the game it’s only just scratched the surface by juggling the big three of race, sex, and sexual orientation. We can fractionate identities to ever smaller bits. For example, bisexual Asian-American woman (bAw). By and large, straights females have few, if any, problems with bisexuals, especially bi females, but lesbians give bi women a lot of grief. Straight males say “Yippee” and ask to join in, so that’s gotta be oppressive, yeah? If you’re keeping score bAw gets 0 points for sexual orientation in contexts with straight females, and +1 in contexts with lesbians or straight men.

    Asians have been losing their oppression points recently because they are a success group, but we can fractionate to reveal new layers of oppression. Is bAw an intelligent Korean (East Asian) or a much less intelligent Hmong (Southeast Asian). Not only have we fractionated, we also introduced a new identity category, intelligence. Further, we can introduce passing, colourism, height, and attractiveness. Does the less intelligent Hmong get a minus intelligence passing point when in the context of “These folks don’t know the Hmong aren’t too clever”? If our Korean is unusually dusky but the Hmong is unusually faire, the dusky Korean gets an oppression point. But if the dusky Korean is normatively very attractive she loses a point.

    Oops, I forgot height. This tends to more of an issue for men when it’s shortness, but what about unusually tall women? Say… 6’7″. How many women want to be that tall? Put her in 3″ heels and don’t forget the requirement men have to be a few inches taller than her wearing heels, and she’s left with male partners 7’2″ or taller. Is Dikembe Mutombo still active in the dating scene? Oh, what’s that? You want to know if our 6’7″ bisexual, faire-skinned, dim yet intelligent passing, unattractive, Hmong woman who is challenged finding a suitable tall male partner is athletic? You’re thinking what I’m thinking, yeah? WNBA contract. Oh goodie, more ways to fractionate identity. Athleticism and wealth. She’ll need it ‘cuz it’ll be almost impossible to find clothes and shoes for her in shops. Yes, she’s very athletic. Whew.

    Okie dokie. By identifying more group identities and the corresponding intersectionalities – it’s never been stated how far it may be taken – we now have a 6’7″ bisexual, faire-skinned, dim yet intelligent passing, unattractive, athletic and wealthy Hmong woman who is challenged finding a suitably tall male partner and has to spend much of her money on bespoke clothing and shoes. Let’s hope she’s not drafted by Arkansas. How many bespoke tailors and cordwainers do you think Little Rock has?

    How many others share this group membership? This is the flaw with intersectionality. You fractionate enough and you’re back to the individual. Which is where we were before Kimberlé Crenshaw opened her mouth and set us on this unproductive and highly divisive misadventure. It sure was worth it, though.

    And what’s her oppression-point tally? We need to place her on the progressive stack to determine how much shutting up and listening must be done and by whom.

    • Of course the yellow brick road of ever-finer “fractionations” leads us back to where this movement begins and ends: the rights-bearing autonomous individual of “classical” liberalism.

      The Founders managed to keep African slaves and women out of the magic circle of rights-bearing autonomy, along with the poorer among the otherwise blessed white males.

      The long march of liberal history has been the gradual enfranchisement of ever-widening circles enclosing more and more folks of all kinds and dispositions.

      Of course, at each stage of the march, the already-enfranchised have banded together and attempted to call a halt to the expansion. These folks lately like to call themselves “classical liberals” and label those calling for the march to continue “cultural Marxists”.

      What will Yan’an look like, once we finally get there?

      • bb says

        I don’t understand why this comment was a reply to ga gamba.

        Where is the march continuing to? Who needs to be enfranchised? And isn’t your framing of the march of enfranchisement internally inconsistent in that the “already-enfranchised” would include basically everyone now? Including the alleged cultural Marxists?

        • My comment is simply expanding on my agreement with ga gamba’s observation “You fractionate enough and you’re back to the individual.”

          I am using “enfranchisement” to mean more than “legally has the right to vote”, on the assumption that in order to actually function as a “rights bearing autonomous individual” in a given social/political context requires more than a formality in law.

      • Giant fish says

        A classical liberal calls for the halt of group identity as a means for obtaining expansion.

        Where there is individual liberty, there is no franchise.

        • I’m under the impression that John Locke was speaking for a whole “class” of people when he called for the dismantling of pre-liberal “aristocratic” social-political structures.

          But I suppose he might have just wanted to overturn the traditional basis of European structure, which had been around for centuries, for himself and himself alone.

          • ccscientist says

            In the time of the US Revolution, the class system in England was held up by law. You could get arrested for “impersonating a gentleman” if you were a commoner and dressed up.

  4. ccscientist says

    The illogic of intersectionality goes further:
    The small fraction (2% of the population?) of rich white hetero men who seem to be oppressing everyone are mostly unaware of their heinous deeds, are often liberals, and run the businesses that employ everyone else. They sure must be busy running everything while oppressing everyone, all while not knowing it.
    The incoherence of the belief system becomes evident when on college campus’ the radicals issue demands, which consist of things like they want a black student union (raise their own tuition), more black professors (quotas), and separate dorms. This is their revolution? Sounds like a special interest group to me. It is all rage and no platform for reform. And it is rage about nothing in particular.

    • ga gamba says

      And it is rage about nothing in particular.

      It’s simply the exercise of power politics. Our claimed ‘weakness’ is our moral power, and we’ll use it to bully and trample.

      As previous power groups such as white heteronormative males have given up dominance to answer the call for equality it appears this created an unstable power vacuum in the dominance hierarchy. Those who think themselves to have the most moral authority are staking their claim. The progressive stack is an inverted dominance hierarchy, and demands for “listening” aren’t calls for opinions to the considered, rather it’s the instruction to submit and comply.

      I recall seeing a documentary about a tribe of chimps, and a low-status male started tumbling a large 5-gallon tin amongst the members which caused quite a racket and terrified them all. An empty tin represents no threat whatsoever, but because the distress it caused it upended the hierarchy and the low status became alpha in a matter of moments. No others challenged him for control of the tin. All the other members attached power to a powerless item because they saw it as significant. It was simply an empty tin.

      The same thing is happening. Post modernism is the empty tin, but it’s making a lot of racket and people are cowering before it. It’s astounding this isn’t recognised, but if you’ve spent $80,000+ on an education that told you this racket is meaningful, you’d feel kind quite foolish disputing it once your wallet was empty. No one wants to admit to being a dupe.

      • TarsTarkas says

        Lost in all the shouting about which fractionalized victim group deserves more free stuff than the others is WHY the WAHMs (White/Asian/Heteronormative males, to use an acronym for a stupid jargonistic slur) are on top? Not just what did they do to get on top, but WHY are they still on top to oppress everyone else? What were their methods to gain power and what are their methods for remaining in power? Obviously whatever methods they used are successful. Shouldn’t the disenfranchised victim groups study their methods for retaining power in the hope of gaining it? Like not dropping out of school, not running up debts, getting a job, getting and staying married and having children AFTER you have achieved financial stability? Isn’t that method of gaining and retaining power worth imitating? After all, that is what every other disenfrachised immigrant group did in centuries past to gain power and wealth, up until he 1960’s, when moral equivalency became cool. When did imitation is the sincerest form of flattery go out of fashion (except for fashion)?

        • ccscientist says

          I believe the problem arose with “black power” back in the 70s/80s. The idea was to be proud of your identity but it became tribal/exclusionary and anti-white, so that any white traits (stay in school, work hard etc) were the traits of the enemy. You will notice that successful immigrants from India, Iran, China, Korea, Nigeria etc DO imitate the dominant culture and succeed because of it.

          • ga gamba says

            You will notice that successful immigrants from India, Iran, China, Korea, Nigeria etc DO imitate the dominant culture and succeed because of it.

            I think the new immigrants don’t imitate, rather these thoughts and behaviors existed prior to their arrival. Heck, if a Korean-American were to imitate an American s/he would study less, commit more crime, divorce, eat unhealthily, stop attending church, etc. Immigrant parents are often more worried about their children becoming too American rather than not American enough. The American socio-economic system allows many immigrants to maximise pre-existing thoughts and behaviours, ones that are viable in a free(er) economic system.

            In their homelands the rewards for successful behavior are more difficult to acquire due to reasons such as economic distortion and hyper competitiveness amongst shopkeepers and students. A highly studious Korean of average intelligence in Korea will have a much tougher time rising to the top in Korean school than s/he will have in the typical North American school.

            Korean immigrants also bring with them cultural practices such as the kye, a group-based rotating saving and credit scheme where each member contributes a defined sum each month which is given to one member. What’s to prevent a member from stop attending and contributing after s/he received his take? Social pressure and the fear of being stigmatised. These kye members often live in close proximity, attend the same church, share social relationships with others outside the kye. To violate the obligation would be to burn one’s reputation in the larger ethnic community and result in isolation.

      • Pill ‘em All says

        Ha ha, I’ve seen that documentary with the chimp… but I always remember it being gorillas. Anyhow, I think about that scene every now and again. Good analogy.

  5. Your points are well taken, but I think you went somewhat past the goalpost on this one. Intersectionality, as a subset of identitarianism, posits that the defining trait by which we should judge people is their group membership, and that individuals matter only in contrast to other members of their specific group (or intersecting groups). Denying individuals the right to be judged by the content of their character alone should be enough to conclusively prove intersectionality illiberal.

  6. I tend to agree with Nicholas. i don’t think it’s helpful, for example, to argue about whether black people are “oppressed.” I think it’s fairly obvious that there is a practical racial inequality that is the legacy of slavery and racism. Economics and culture greatly influence how any individual black person will be effected by this, but it seems like a case of what rationalist circles call “not your true objection.”

    Generally, this line of thinking says it’s not worth arguing about things that, even if you were proven absolutely wrong, wouldn’t change your view on the matter being discussed. For example, many advocates of the right to gun ownership spend time arguing about the effect legal gun ownership has on violent crime rates. The thing is, even if it were proven beyond all doubt that making private gun ownership illegal lowered violent crime rates, it wouldn’t change their position on gun ownership, because that is the fundamental motivation for their position, In fact, in that case they are letting their opponent define the debate.

    Arguing that structural racism isn’t real as an argument against intersectionality is similar. It implies that if structural racism was real, then intersectionality would be an appropriate response. The manner in which the author challenges the intersectionalist claim of oppression lets intersectionalists frame the debate. Just because “oppression” may not work in the reductionist way intersectionalists claim it does doesn’t mean that something like that does exist; if there was nothing there intersectionality wouldn’t have the appeal that it does.

    Rather then saying that structural racism or sexism doesn’t exist, or requiring some rigorous scientific proof that could serve as a “spotlight effect” confirmation bias, it’s better to argue that intersectionality is the wrong response to racism/sexism, and actually serves to reinforce the pardigm it supposedly intends to invert.

    Just like one does not have to deny economic inequality to be opposed to communism, and more importantly, just as communism is not the right solution to economic inequality.

    • Daniel PV says

      Dave Kinard – When you refer to “structural” racism / sexism, can you define structural? I’m not really sure what that means. Can you give examples?

      • KD says

        I can give an example. The Jews in Europe under the Nazi’s were subjected to the discriminatory Nuremberg laws, and ultimately rounded up and held in slave labor camps, and then, after 1942, 6 million or so were gassed.

        Accordingly, Jews in Europe show profound testing gaps in contrast to other Europeans, and require affirmative action in order to gain proportional representation in higher education and elite professions.

        In contrast, slavery in America ended in 1863, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination, and billions were spent on remedial education to close racial gaps in education. Because of the lapse of time, and the intense proactive measures, Blacks in America test higher than their other races and nationalities, and if anything, are over-represented in higher education and elite professions without affirmative action.

        Or maybe I have it backwards.

    • Emblem14 says

      Just want to second your analysis here. Great points, which are ignored by way too many people. Isn’t it depressing when you realize how much breath is wasted arguing over proxy controversies when the foundational or “real objections” as you put it, go unaddressed? How much energy is spent on “coalitional signaling” that doesn’t actually advance any argument or reveal any new insight? One might conclude that most public debate is just an absurd sport.

      Also great point on the stupidity of staking indefensible positions and denials of reality in a misguided attempt to tactically undermine your opponent’s framing of an argument, or avoid conceding any credibility to their point of view. It doesn’t do credit to your “side”, it makes you look either completely cynical, delusional, or fearful of acknowledging something obvious, all of which are way more corrosive to sensible discourse than conceding a political opponent might not be totally insane. People are so afraid that if they give their enemies an inch, they’ll get steamrolled or be branded as a traitor to their side. Sad!

      The folly of conflict-oriented, collectivist identity politics in a pluralistic democracy can be clearly described and opposed without engaging in cheap rhetorical maneuvers.

  7. Hutch says

    Great article.

    Great ga gamba comments again.

    In my view Intersectionality is predicated on generalised assumptions of prejudice and oppression. Instead of meeting each individual act of oppression and prejudice on its own merits, intersectional theory simply states that because an arbitrary amount of “oppression” has occurred and has been perpetrated by another class (or classes) of people, that perpetrating class of people needs to be labelled as oppressors.

    Then we need to arbitrarily stack the victims and perpetrators of the oppression relative to the degree of oppression and privileged. Depending on the crystal ball on who decides who is more oppressed, steps need to be taken to decide how to take action (and to what degree) to stop the oppression and in what order. This could take the shape of a redistribution of resources, opportunities or, as mentioned, the ability to even be heard.

    This stacking and then action is somehow supposed to reorganise society into a more equitable place.

    The problem has and will always be that people have varying views on what is considered oppression and what are the right steps to alleviate it equitably. Intersectionality does not solve that dilemma, if anything, it only exacerbates it.

    Worst of all intersectionality does not look forward, or have any mechanisms to limit, the oppression it creates itself.

    It’s a no brainer that people should be mindful of other people struggles and should endeavour to end unnecessary oppression. We don’t need intersectional theory for that.

  8. markbul says

    I’m struck by the use of the word ‘illiberal.’ It comes up quite often in various guises when this subject is discussed. Let’s clear up this matter – liberality is despised by the people being referred to. Their lack of liberality isn’t a matter of good liberals gone astray – the are the same class of people who explicitly sought to smash the liberal bourgeois states of Europe one hundred years ago and more. And the fact is that those who could be reasonably and accurately categorized as liberal – in the American sense – have chosen to align themselves with the very radical left that sees their moderation as a sin, not a virtue.

    The problem isn’t that liberal America is becoming less liberal. The problem is that those who consider themselves liberals have become fellow travelers to a new leftist extreme – not Marxist class warriors this time (history has spoiled that play), but oppression-motivated social justice warriors.

    • Antony says

      Hello, sorry my bad english, but I’m italian and I use google translator.

      All over the world, with the exception of the United States, those who call themselves liberals are people who want a light state, few taxes, few rules, etc. etc., while those who want state intervention measures, in the economy and in society, similar to those of US liberals call themselves social democrats or socialists, instead in the United States, after the October revolution in Russia, socialist socialists Democrats, in order not to be associated with the crimes that took place in Russia, by the Bolsheviks, have invented this term, out of pure opportunism, already Friedrich von Hayek noted that the US liberals were in fact socialists and that the conservatives were in liberals.

  9. Jack B. Nimble says

    I liked Chris Martin’s article better than this one.

    Martin makes the good point that intersectionality is better understood as interaction. As a hypothetical, suppose one dose of drug A raises BP by 10% as a side effect and one dose of B lowers BP by 10% as a side effect. You can’t assume or predict that one dose of each taken together will have no effect on BP–there could be an A-by-B interaction! You have to look specifically for an interaction effect by measuring the effect of a combined dose, and not just focus on the main effects.

    Intersectionality [AKA interaction effects] are all around us, not just in medicine. As a side observation, I note that the US would be a better place if courts allowed interaction effects and correlations as evidence of discrimination against certain groups.

    I am NOT a big fan of identity politics, however, which is a completely separate issue. Using another mathematical formalism, the UNION of sets A and B is almost always larger than the INTERSECTION of sets A and B. And unions have played an important part in American history, whether’ e pluribus unum’ or labor union solidarity. Basically, splitting voting blocs into smaller and smaller chunks is a losing strategy.

    Right now, unconventional Democratic candidates like Richard Ojeda in WV are ditching identity politics and trying to build coalitions that can win elections even in deep-red states. Only time will tell if this approach will work.

  10. MS says

    Intersectional studies do much to complicate social scientific studies and popular discourse alike, but consistently underestimates (to put lightly) the complexity inherent in any social interaction let alone social systems. As I see it, intersectionality studies (from Crenshaw onwards) fundamentally misunderstand one important concept: emergence.

    Human society is best viewed as a complex system (which include any system based on non-linear interactions and hierarchical organization; summarized well by the often-evoked, simplified definition, “a system whose whole is more than the sum of its parts.”) More specifically, human society is a complex adaptive system (as opposed to complex physical systems), which while constrained by a certain number of fixed physical laws, are largely composed of interacting agents which can adapt to their surroundings in a variety of ways. Like many projects framed by ecology, those studying complex adaptive systems have been forced to abandon the reductionism inherent in most positivist projects. Instead complexity studies focus on the interactions between agents and the phenomena which emerge from those interactions. A major aspect of the complexity perspective is noting the often-paradoxical relationship that forms as the local interactions between agents generate global phenomena that come to constrain local agents, while at the same time remaining dependent on those same local interactions. It is for this reason that complex systems must be approached from both top-down as well as bottom-up perspectives.

    Depending on the questions you’re interested in answering there can be several ways you can differentiate useful subunits in social scientific analysis, but I tend to find an individual-community-institution framework to be the most productive. Again, regarding the term emergence: this means it is from the interactions between individuals that communities emerge, and from the interaction of communities that institutions emerge. While the higher-order phenomena of communities and institutions emerge from lower-order interactions, they can not be simply reduced to those individual agents. Likewise, while the higher-order phenomena and the structures they manifest act as constraints to lower-order agents (individuals) they do not constitute that individual.

    Yet, this is often precisely the starting point for most intersectional studies. In spite of using terms like “mutual shaping,” most intersectional academic work I have seen tend to frame the individual as a product of their various identities (think a Venn diagram “race: black” one circle, “sex: women” other circle, individual identity = black woman). Again, (without going into the immense evolutionary complexity of it) individuals in the complexity perspective are actually the emergent result of billions of interactions cells-organs-and environments. While I would agree that the higher-order social organizations (like communities) form essential aspects of our environment (not mere epiphenomenon), they still represent emergent results of our individual engagements with the world and therefore are only constraints.

    So… if intersectional studies were interested in delineating the potential constraints placed on individuals by higher-order (community and institutional) structures in specific times/places (instances)(as they claim) I would be on board. But when they cross into the territory of defining individuals based on the “immutable” community or institutional groups they can be said to be affiliated with, the framework becomes not just counterproductive, but fundamentally illiberal (as this article argues!). Unfortunately, this illiberal place is where most academic uses of intersectionality and certainly most popular rhetorical uses of the concept can be found. Really what intersectionality has been used for (like most interpretive frameworks, turned ideological calling card) seeks to create hierarchies of legitimacy for suffering, which is something I cannot be on board with.

    We are complex beings engaged in complex networks of complex organizations in an ever-changing complex world. Of course, we are always simplifying, we must, but we must come up with ways to think with and through this complexity.

    • MS says

      I’ve taught an undergrad course themed around complexity and use this article when talking about social inequalities and ways productive ways to interrogate those issues:

      http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0038038511416164

      The authors identify six “dilemmas” with intersectional projects and attempt to identify ways to reconcile these issues (they are decidedly pro-intersectionality by the way). While I think the authors fail to truly remedy most of the issues they identify (specifically those dealing with complexity), they are at least fair in their analysis. Worth checking out if you’re interested

  11. Morti says

    There is yet a problem with intersectionality: how oppression is supposed to be measured and compared? When a certain identity group is supposed to start checking their privilege? There is and can be no clear answer for reasons mentioned in the article. It’s all down to subjective claims with scant if any evidence.

    That leads to another issue. It’s almost always missed, but how an idea can work out if used as a tool of a malevolent individual, who wants to exploit it to gain an advantage or power? With intersectionality there are plenty such cases when a person tries to shut down a speaker as irrelevant because he’s a white male, so the minorities can speak.

  12. yandoodan says

    “…the 1976 Emma DeGraffenreid case.”

    This brought me up short. Where’s the legal citation? Where’s the link to the decision?

    But above all, where’s the context? This was forty-two years ago. Inter-racial marriage was illegal in some states in 1976. “Sodomy” was illegal as well. Lots of courts make lots of bad decisions. Some are overturned but most are simply ignored as the law evolves in different directions. I wonder if this decision has had any influence beyond post-modernist in humanities departments.

    Here’s one thing I can tell you about its influence. A decade after it, when I was assisting the Affirmative Action Officer at a very large police agency, we were ignoring it. We had never heard of it. Instead, we were following federal guidelines that required workforce analysis and goals be made by race X sex, instead of analysis and goals for race, and then separate analysis and goals for sex..

    If we had followed DeGraffenreid, when we hired a black woman we would, for Affirmative Action purposes, have been able to classify her as a black police officer or as a female police officer arbitrarily, at our discretion. But we couldn’t have been able to give her the classification “black female officer”, because no such classification would have existed. This would be stupid.

  13. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    Oy Vai!!! Can these nouveau Marxists in the Oppression Olympics not see their contradictions? They keep fractionalizing and dividing and see this as unifying?

    Main point though is that all these minorities they identify based on superficial criteria are always leaving out the smallest minority anywhere, the individual. This leaves that solitary someone adrift and always defined by their group mantra as laid down by the most committed. No room for dissent only compliance.

  14. Greg says

    Excellent article. The best way to combat this dangerous, divisive and intrinsically hollow ideology is with in depth, well researched facts. It will become self-evident that, largely, one’s own actions and choices are the primary determining factors in having a good, successful life. I’d also love to see a widespread psychoanalysis of how impressionable, naive young minds are affected when presented with an opportunity to stand and proselytize from a supposed moral high ground that’s given credibility by ‘authority figures.’

  15. Andy says

    I am not well-versed in the fine details of intersectionality, but two things seem clear at this point 1) there are valid intellectual arguments to be made on its behalf, and 2) it is often used as a crutch for radicalism and censure. What’s frustrating to me about the theory is that the more vocal members of the left have essentially given up on finding common ground, and instead are obsessed with pointing out the oppression and ‘microaggressions’ occurring even in their own caucuses, meetings, and rallies. Worse still is the idea that so many types of intersecting identities can claim such unique and troubling oppressive existences, when the plain truth is that, in the long history of civilization, just being poor is overwhelmingly the most difficult identity. Rather than figuring out a way to raise people out of poverty, the intersectionalists choose to bicker over race, gender, and sexual orientation.

    • KD says

      “I am not well-versed in the fine details of intersectionality, but two things seem clear at this point 1) there are valid intellectual arguments to be made on its behalf,”

      Really, name one? We should enact a strict race and sex-based hierarchy based on some college administrators assessment of who won the “oppression olympics” because. . .

      • Andy says

        Why go directly to a hypothetical policy enactment scenario? How about an understanding of why certain people get treated differently from others? I believe it makes valid arguments toward that end. I don’t believe it creates a plausible platform for social activism.

        • It’s just stating the bleeding obvious. Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey is more oppressed than some white male retrenched steel worker who gets minimum wage and ekes out an existence in a trailer park in South Carolina.

        • KD says

          Maybe certain people get treated differently from others because they are different?

          For example, Christian missionaries in Papua New Guinea had a tendency to end up in the stew pot.

          Well, they probably deserved it, showing up as a complete outsider in someone else’s territory and then exhorting the locals to abandon their customs and way of life.

    • MadKangaroo says

      “I am not well-versed in the fine details of intersectionality, but two things seem clear at this point 1) there are valid intellectual arguments to be made on its behalf,”

      No there aren’t, you’re over-thinking it. Intersectionality is constructed in a way that inevitably obfuscates and complicates issues until resolution is impossible and conflict inevitable. There’s nothing defensible about that. It’s really that simple and, in all likelihood, intentional.

  16. InterSECTIONality is just another way of opening divisions in society. It becomes like a Pokemon card game where a Black Lesbian has a massive advantage over a Gay Jew or even a White Female. Middle Aged White Working-Class Man is the card that you can’t give away. Some of the White cards have a superpower of “Wokeness” that bumps them up a level or more depending on how many MAWWCM you are prepared to sacrifice.

  17. It seems to me that this very insightful piece falls short of intellectual rigor in that it makes some stretches to attribute examples of poor implementations of intersectionality theory to the theory itself. In responding to the “three constituentive parts” explanation, the author claims that because the “area” is defined so as to impose a moral burden to enact changes, including changes in our patterns of thinking, that it inherently gives rise to the “tactic” of censorship.

    However, enunciated more broadly, intersectionality is an acknowledgement of TWO concepts:

    First, that power asymmetries exist, and that they are systemically leveraged by the empowered to marginalize or further disempower those on the other end of the asymmetry. But also,

    Second, that there are many, many different spectrum (actually, the author’s term “axis” is better) along which assymetries exist and are leveraged, which may in fact reinforce each other (i.e., black women) or one may be leveraged to overcome the other (i.e., a wealthy, black male).

    The point of intersectionality is then to be aware of, and fight the current of, those asymmetries and the habits of oppression that exist along each axis. And in fighting oppression on one axis, to be careful not to perpetuate it on another. The chief struggle of intersectional social justice warfare is internal. As a white male who ascribes to this theory, I must avoid the deeply programmed instinct to deploy my white and make privileges against, for example, a black woman who may argue against LGBT protections, for example.

    Some of the SJWs the author notes show, through their behavior, a failure to internalize intersectionality. They see the fight as a fight against oppression of [a list they have of specific oppressed groups]. Rather than as a fight against oppression.

    Censorship is oppression. individuals who have views, however arrived at, and however vile, that are rejected by the majority (or even by a majority within a certain subgroup) find themselves on the wrong end of a power asymmetry, however temporarily. And the instinct, programmed into all of us, including those on the receiving end of oppression, is to leverage that advantage to push them down harder. Especially if they are perceived as the operators on some other axis – especially if that other axis is the topic of conversation.

    I submit that the author’s complaints about intersectionality are mistargeted. The problem is not intersectionality. Like the United States itself, this set of ideals has only recently been articulated, and those aspiring to practice it are at this stage blind to the fact that their ownership of slaves and treatment of women as property contradicts the lofty ideals they have recognized, but not found a way to internalize.

  18. Jonathan says

    This article is extremely helpful for explaining how the left has moved so far left and become so radical. I was unaware just how big a role intersectional theory played in all of this. I can’t thank you enough to helping me understand their side more clearly, but thank you!

  19. hardcorps says

    The concept of intersectionality reminds of the saying that “in politics, each person is a special interest group of one”. Or, in statistics, how if you add enough variables, you eventually narrow the range down to one. So basically, it becomes the oppression olympics to determine who is the most oppressed. Who is the most oppressed, the poor disabled white guy or the moderately intelligent black girl whose parents where upper middle class? More importantly, what if neither of these consider themselves oppressed? Are they in need of re-education?

  20. AAp says

    This is a well written critique!

    More general feedback to Quillette, recently there have been some glaring and distracting errors in otherwise excellent pieces. Is copy-editing not a thing here?

  21. Bill says

    “In other words, the court found that U.S. anti-discrimination law protected blacks and women, but not black women.”
    I don’t get it. If she is not member of set A (discriminated women) and not member of set B (discriminated blacks) she can’t be member of the cut set of A and B.
    There might be another set C “Black Women”, but in this case there must be some kind of proof that set C is indeed a set of discriminated persons. You cannot deduce discrimination of C from A or B if C is said to be not a part of A or B.
    And if C is part of A or B then the first part holds true, she is not dicriminated.
    Please advice.

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