Politics, recent

Intersectionalism Is Nonsense. But the Backlash Against It Is Very Real

The campaign to silence those who question progressive ideas about race and privilege requires frequent rebranding. Labels such as “far-right” and “alt-right,” which once might have served to strip a person of his or her livelihood and personal reputation, have become such common terms of abuse that they’ve effectively become meaningless. The words “white nationalist” once were used to describe someone who actually supported the creation of a white ethnostate. But now, activists are claiming that the mere act of making an “okay” hand gesture could mark you as a “white power” extremist—or at least someone who is “alt-right-adjacent.” The goal of this perversion of language is to drive up the number of people who may be classified out of hand as extremists, and thereby disqualify even the mildest forms of dissent as de facto hate speech.

As a visible minority, I’ve experienced my share of prejudice and ignorance. I don’t deny that racism exists and that it is repugnant. But the solution is not to divide society into ideological factions, with one side being publicly shamed and banished, while the other is given carte blanche to promote its own, increasingly fanatical, intersectional doctrines.

The theory of intersectionality, now widely embraced by self-described feminist activists, maintains that non-whites, women, and LGBT individuals face systemic oppression whose scope increases according to the number of minority statuses a person holds. The fewer boxes you check (straight white men don’t check any) the more “privilege” you are deemed to possess. This privilege, which now serves as a sort of intersectional mark of Cain, is invoked to justify reverse racism (though a true intersectionalist would argue that this is a misuse of the word “racism,” since the term only may be applied in regard to the mistreatment of a so-called “person of color”).

But there is a price being paid for this belief system—retaliation from those who understandably don’t appreciate being the subject of discrimination. A recent study in Political Psychology—a journal dedicated to the “psychological aspects of national and international political developments”—discussed this growing “whitelash” (or white backlash), and the underlying psychological reasons why individuals hold white nationalistic views.

In a sample of over 15,000 New Zealand registered voters, the researchers found, perceptions of group-based deprivation (that is, the belief that one’s own ethnic group is losing out due to policies that help other groups) were associated with increased feelings of nationalism; and that nationalistic beliefs increased the psychological wellbeing of those who felt that they were being deprived. “What our model shows, for the first time, is that it is possible for a group to feel unfairly treated within a larger political entity (in this case, the nation) and simultaneously identify strongly with that entity,” the authors write. “One reason why this might be the case is that nationalism buffers well-being against the negative psychological consequences of perceiving one’s group to be deprived. These findings imply that the rise of nationalism in white-majority countries might be, in part, a reaction to a perceived loss of ingroup status.”

The term “intersectionality” doesn’t appear in the paper. But among elites, intersectionality and similar doctrines—which openly devalue white people by presenting their accomplishments as the product of bigotry instead of hard work or talent—have been primary drivers of the “perceived loss of ingroup status” described in the paper.

The study’s results seem intuitive: If a particular group (of any skin color) is constantly being lectured that they are less worthy than others—and also that complaining about such lectures is itself a symptom of privilege and racism—what other outcome might we realistically expect? Ending discrimination against minorities shouldn’t require promoting intolerance against the majority. Similarly, defending individuals of the majority group from unequal treatment isn’t tantamount to “complicity” in the oppression of others.

We are rightly skeptical of nativists on the political right who express fears of immigrants “stealing” their jobs. But progressive intersectionalists who present white privilege as the root cause of every form of social injustice are just as ideologically toxic. As Bret Weinstein put it in a recent video, “the intersectionalists may end up creating the very enemy they claim they are fighting.”

To be clear, I share the intersectionalists’ abhorrence with actual white nationalist and white supremacist ideas. I’ve realized, however, that everyone who is categorized under these labels does not belong to a single homogenous group. Some don’t, in fact, think less of minorities, or believe that white people are superior. Their political activism, in this case, is motivated by a desire to support a group (their own) that they believe has been demoted to the bottom of society’s status totem pole. To the extent that these nationalistic activists argue there should be no totem pole whatsoever, they are at least nominally basing their appeal in the liberal notion of individual equality. Their slogans and behavior often aren’t polite or excusable. But understanding how they come to their views is a more effective response than simply denouncing them as Nazis, an approach that has made it impossible to have any sort of logical or constructive dialogue.

Some well-known “intersectional” journalists have even taken to smearing mainstream media outlets that publish anything they disagree with—including Quillette—as “white nationalist” journalism. But a reasonable person might ask: If that’s the case, why does Quillette have an Asian woman (i.e., me) as one of its few regular columnists? Ask this question in a public forum, and the response from intersectionalists will be—I promise you—to bring up examples of Jews acting as Nazi collaborators. More broadly, those of us who are not white, but who question prevailing orthodoxies about race, often are dismissed as “useful idiots” and media “opportunists,” instead of being considered independent thinkers. Who is the real racist here?

“Everyone I don’t like is Hitler” used to be a funny internet meme. But it’s become a fairly accurate description of intersectionalist rhetoric—a phenomenon that isn’t funny at all. This kind of rhetoric doesn’t mend divisiveness within society. And doubling down whenever anyone questions it only serves to alienate potential allies who oppose racism and reverse racism alike—myself included.

 

Debra W. Soh holds a Ph.D. in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Follow her at @DrDebraSoh.

Comments

  1. If you push intersectionalism to the extreme you end up parsing yourself down so much you end up a population sample of 1. So we get back to people being individuals not just another member of a group.

  2. Yes, exactly. Heck you can even use the tool of intersectionality to tease out certain issues without going to negative extremes. And yes, you can also believe in white privilege without it necessarily being the root/end cause of every ill.

    We need more nuanced conversations and discussions and move away from sound bite/trolling responses to every thing.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article.

  3. Intersectionalism, and the other parts of identity politics, are incredibly toxic.

    I only hope they’ve reached their peak and that the tide is turning …

  4. What progressives fail to recognize because they are so blind, is that 99.99% of Americans want to end racism. We were making headway until about 2015 when the concept of white privilege and crying racism at every turn pushed the public narrative away from actually doing something about racism to just politicizing it and pushing it back decades.

    Even if one believes in intersectionality, who is to say that the current narrative is the most productive way of addressing this issue. Have progressives ever stopped to think about it’s not the topic that is the problem, it’s the way it’s being utilized. It is the methods, interpretations, causes and effects that have caused so many supporters of equality to abandon the left.

    Then of course their unbelievable level of hypocrisy leaves them all looking like bullies whose prime purpose is to troll, degrade, attack anything their nth degree of inequality sees as fresh meat.

    They will continue to make themselves look foolish, hypocritical, harpies and will fade with time. You can’t eat your own without finding out no one is left to eat because they have abandoned ship. These ideological social movements are led by people who have no wisdom, or desire to create true equality, but believe they can snatch whatever it is they think others have through public denigration.

  5. “…such as “far-right” and “alt-right,”… have become such common terms of abuse that they’ve effectively become meaningless.”

    I support the workers – NOT the state – owning the means of production, i support Medicare For All, i support Yang and his UBI. Yet, i am often called Alt Right. Why? Because i don’t think you can have a penis and yet be a woman!

  6. Great essay and thank you very much. One quibble. Best not to make assumptions about the motives of others. Jobs and income are extremely important to vast numbers of people struggling in the USA. The illegal introduction of millions of low cost laborers to the job market has had severe negative consequences. Calling people nativists, many of whom are legal immigrants and refugees is unhelpful.

  7. It’s interesting that this only came to a head in circa 2015. I suggest the explosion of SWJs at that time was a bitter reaction to disappointment in the Obama presidency. Obama campaigned as a transformational figure, so when reality settled in that having a black president wasn’t going to magically solve race issues, activists became obsessed with dealing with the “structural” racism that could persist no matter who was in power.

    They could have made some serious progress with that, since there are actual structural issues such as underpolicing, lack of discipline in schools, and incentivised single motherhood, which keep marginalised groups down. However, such issues of authority and nuclear family-culture are antithetical to the left, so instead they rage against increasingly “micro” aggressions and thoughtcrimes. Since they can’t allow themselves to understand the systemic source of the disparities they rail against, they can only attack individuals and attitudes they deem symptomatic of the supposedly racist system.

  8. As I saw written elsewhere:

    Who would have thought that constantly shitting on whites for being whites while lauding every other race and pushing for the limitless mass immigration of hostile, culturally incompatible foreigners would convince more white people that maybe they need to start looking out for their own tribal interests?

  9. The civil rights bill had no other destination than what we see today.

    It is not possible to make everyone equal by favoring one group and disfavoring another. It’s a corrosive, horrible system that simultaneously creates resentment in the disfavored groups while implicitly suggesting the favored group is incapable of competing fairly.

    LBJ is credited with the passage of the civil rights act. He’s also credited with having said, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.” Also, "I’ll have those n*****s voting Democratic for 200 years”. That one isn’t documented but it seems that people who knew him have little doubt it was something he would say.

    If you really wanted to lay waste to a group of people while simultaneously getting them to feel grateful for your attentions, the civil rights act combined with destroying marriage and fatherhood is a very effective way to do it.

  10. The basic idea behind intersectionality actually doesn’t seem too bad. It’s entirely reasonable to consider that some people are more disadvantaged than others because they belong to more than one group that is, or has historically been, discriminated against.

    My problems with intersectionality as it’s practiced today are::

    • If you’re going to claim that someone suffers multiple disadvantages, and then demand action on the basis of that claim, you should be able to provide evidence for the claim.

    • That evidence should be open to scrutiny and debate, from all perspectives (assuming good faith). The identity of any critics should not matter unless it can be shown to be distorting his or her critique.

    • Intersectionality today is simply used as a silencing technique: “You are more privileged than me, so I have the right to shut you up.” That’s authoritarianism and has no place in a democratic society.

    If the backlash against this type of thinking is growing, then that’s great. We need to return to universal rights as the basis for how we think about the society and how well it serves individuals and groups. But I hope the backlash doesn’t go too far, as it so often does, and end up making it difficult to see and analyse the ways in which some people suffer from a range of impediments to accessing their rights and fulfilling their potential.

  11. This article is really great and touches upon a lot of things I’ve noticed and even written about. However, I think the whole point is division. As long as this guy is a Nazi, he doesn’t have to be listened to, respected, or even treated as a human being. It’s okay to call him deplorable, tell him he has no place in this country (the Left is just mad Trump stole their line), or even threaten to punch or kill them. So if he disagrees with the extreme leftist agenda, he is obviously a Nazi.

    I got this moniker because I had the nerve to defend the rights of the alt-right to assemble, on the basis that as a leftie myself, I wouldn’t want MY right to assemble threatened by the right. Even people who know my views on human equity, free speech, classism, and intersectionality itself decided I was a “Nazi sympathizer,” and one guy even told me that it was his goal to keep all Nazis and Nazi sympathizers out of the UK (and that, of course, includes me. I wished him luck. I’m from the US, if that’s important).

    Quillette, for example, is “alt-right” because there are any associations with conservatives (because Andy Ngo = the Proud Boys in their eyes, try not to laugh too hard at that image!) and the magazine doesn’t spend every waking moment criticizing Trump. Not doing that enough is also alt-right activity. So is criticizing the alt-left, because they are morally superior and remember, anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a Nazi white supremacist etc.

    My own journey away from the loud, regressive, authoritarian left began during the 2016 primary, when I was told I was a misogynist because I supported Bernie Sanders instead of the FEMALE candidate. No irony. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

    I do see value in intersectionality. In our society, a black person is going to have a different experience from a white person, and sex and gender expression add even more layers. However, I cannot agree with how it has been used to promote a hearty season of Oppression Olympics, especially when some pigs are more equal than others. (When a rich black girl’s intersectionality trumps that of a Hispanic gay dwarf, there’s something wrong here!)

    Furthermore, I totally agree with you about people being repeatedly told your group is less worthy than others. The very same people who are screaming about oppressive white men are doing this all the time to minorities - women, people of color, and people not Judeo-Christian). They encourage a wallowing in victimhood that is a constant reminder, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as people succumb to their victim roles.

    Either way, one reason I love this magazine and its writers is because it represents my tribe. Many thanks to the lady who introduced me to it, and thanks, Dr. Soh, for another great piece.

  12. “The goal of this perversion of language is to drive up the number of people who may be classified out of hand as extremists, and thereby disqualify even the mildest forms of dissent as de facto hate speech.”

    Everything that challenges social justice theory is categorized as hate speech. That means that social justice theory cannot be challenged, no matter how ridiculous, illogical, or antiscientific. This creates circular thinking.
    Rule 1: Social justice theory is correct
    Rule 2: If you disagree and say so, you are a hater and your view is invalid. Return to Rule 1.

    This article is about when 90 percent of the population disagrees with (at least parts of) Rule 1, but the media takes Rule 1 and 2 as gospel. The exception is Fox News, but that is discounted as hate speech. Interesting times ahead.

  13. I would argue that an egalitarian society cannot emerge from intersectionality.

    First, because it creates a race to the bottom. It gives rewards based on the wrong criteria and kicks the egalitarian can down the road, preferring temporal validation instead. Like the current (broken) system, it hitches your value to your status - thus perpetuating (worsening) the system that is already in play. Your value becomes based on how shitty your circumstances are, and we as a society should exalt character, not circumstances. Currently, if you’re low on the intersectional hierarchy, you can behave as badly as you like and you get a pass. You may say, “Intersectionality was never meant to be used that way,” but when it’s the logical conclusion of the ideology, your protests will fall on deaf ears.

    Second, it obscures justice. For example, if you use intersectionality in the court of law (Crenshaw’s m.o.) then you’re saying that all people deserve justice… but older females, with dark skin, and homosexual preferences, deserve more justice than young, white, heterosexual males. This obscures justice by removing her blindfold, tilting the scales based on the skin tone or sexual preferences. Again, egalitarianism will never emerge.

    I get that marginalized groups want fair treatment, but intersectionality offers only temporal validation. It doesn’t move the ball towards egalitarianism one yard.

  14. Clearly I’m the only one here on Facebook, because intersectionalists absolutely do call people Nazis for disagreeing with them all the time. This is not a strawman. The reasonable majority who don’t do not subscribe to intersectionalism, because it is an ideology for the committed.

    Intersectionality is not a useful concept because there are innumerable social, economic, geographic, and biological factors that could be used to determine how “oppressed” someone is, and intersectionality only cares about the ones that are least important in our society. A useful framework would put those who have high IQs, who are attractive, and from a two-parent household as the most privileged, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ect. In fact, the evidence shows that black women slightly outearn white women when adjusted for parental income. Considering affirmative action policies, an attractive, high-IQ person from a stable family will find greater success if they are from one of these supposedly oppressed groups.

  15. If you are aware of the studies I’m referring to, you are aware that the simple correlations of negative outcome X with race have been shown to diminish to the point of disappearing when relevant factors are taken into account, in which case it is improper to point to the mass of correlational research in Toronto or anywhere and suggest those findings (often improperly implying causation, see the recent Quillette article on this subject) outweigh the ones I’m referring to. If you are skeptical IQ, the most powerful predictive tool in all of social science, surely you should avoid confusing correlation with causation.

    It is extremely patronizing to suggest that disproportionate black crime rates are the result of racism. Black people have the capacity to make their own choices, and if they choose to commit a crime, that is no one’s fault but their own. “Overpolicing” is the result of disproportionate crime rates, not the other way around: would you prefer that police not investigate homicides, thefts, and rapes in the black community? What these communities need is more policing, not less. Same with the crack example: black community leaders demanded higher sentencing because they wanted to get rid of this criminal element in the black community. It is extremely harmful that you are implying that protecting the black community means protecting criminals, when precisely the opposite is true. Most black people are not criminals.

    It is also inaccurate, and downright slanderous, to suggest that the astronomical single motherhood rate in the black community is attributable to fathers being in prison. About 75% of black children in the US are born to a fatherless home: are you suggesting 75% of reproducing black men are in prison?

    The wage gap disappears when you compare childless women with men. When women have children, they want to spend time with their children. The wage gap reflects the beauty of motherhood and should not be pathologized.

    Like most people processed by the Canadian education and media system, I used to be a flaming progressive as well. I changed my mind one issue at a time by looking at the evidence and deprogramming the bullshit we are constantly fed, much of it relying on racism of low expectations and denial of people’s personal agency. What are progressives right about? They’re certainly better at browbeating their opponents into silence, conquering vital institutions, and enforcing their opinions from above. But they also wouldn’t need to take such extreme measures if they had a more palatable platform.

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