I’ve been avoiding wading into the more-heat-than-light discussion about feminism and intersectionality, partly because more than enough bytes have been expended on the topic, but mainly because I don’t really fancy the backlash. But the pedantic, smart-arse side of me can’t keep quiet any longer, and I’m arrogant enough to think that what I have to say might fall into the light-generating rather than heat-generating category, so I’m giving it a go.
There’s clearly some deep misunderstandings going on amongst feminists and other lefty progressive types about what intersectionality is and what it demands. After all, the people who are troubled by the discourse of intersectionality are not white supremacists or Westboro Baptist style homophobes, but tend to be people with egalitarian political principles and a strong commitment to social justice. The more vocal proponents of intersectionality often explain this unease the rest of us have with it by reference to our implicit biases, and by the fact that those with power and privilege are usually reluctant to give it up, or feel uncomfortable having our prejudices pointed to out to us. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, I think the intersectionality sceptics do have valid reasons to resist the doctrine, or at least, to resist it in the form in which its proponents usually present it. Privileged though white, middle class feminists may be, it’s rather uncharitable to assume that any discomfort with intersectionality is merely a symptom of our desperate (albeit implicit) desire to hold on to that privilege.
As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial. It would be pretty difficult to deny that even though I experience some societal oppression as a woman, I am also advantaged by being white, middle-class and non-disabled, and that other women who don’t share these features of my identity will experience forms of domination and marginalization that I do not. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many people, feminist or otherwise, who would argue against this specific part of the intersectionality story.
I don’t agree with those who say that the problem with intersectionality is that it’s a difficult, academic concept that ordinary people can’t possibly be expected to understand. It’s true that I don’t much like the word ‘intersectionality’. It’s a big, new, difficult sounding word to describe something that is actually a remarkably straight-forward and common sense idea, and that always gets my hackles up, as I suspect it’s often done in an attempt to make the obvious and mundane seem complex and profound. But I’m not going to fight with anyone about that. It’s useful to have a phrase to describe this simple idea, and if intersectionality works for you, then that’s fine – and, for better or worse, it looks like we’re stuck with it now. (It also seems worth mentioning that in my time as an academic I have never heard or read the word. Perhaps other academic disciplines use it, but it is never used in my field, and I had never encountered it until I started reading feminist stuff online.) So while there may be some initial resistance or confusion when meeting the term for the first time, I don’t think the reason to object to the discourse of intersectionality is that it’s just far too academic and complicated for normal people to understand. It’s actually incredibly obvious and easy to comprehend that if you’re a non-white woman, you’re going to be subject to both sexism and racism, which is a different experience from being subject to only one of these, and so on and so on, for other forms of prejudice.
So if this is what intersectionality is about, then I don’t believe many people on the left have any problem with it at all. I think the problem lies not with the idea of intersectionality itself, but with the identity politics that some of its proponents believe follows from it. We are told that if we accept intersectionality – which we ought to – then we also ought to accept a radical form of identity politics that says we can never generalize from people’s particular experiences, can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and where personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity. This is an unattractive – indeed, an incoherent – picture of what politics should be like, which followed through to its logical conclusions is entirely self-defeating. And as we are sold this vision of politics as part of the intersectionality package, if we can’t accept it we are told that we must reject the intersecting oppressions story too. But this is a mistake.
Starting from the uncontroversial idea that our identities are comprised of many different elements, resulting in complex, possibly unique experiences of oppression for each individual, comes the quite plausible sounding claim that each individual is the best judge of her own experiences. Given that we all have these multifaceted identities and experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, each person is likely to be best placed to recognize and understand the oppression she faces. I think this is likely to be true, or at least, most of the time, we should assume it to be true. And if we believe that, then we ought to pay close attention to people’s testimonies, listen carefully to oppressed people, and let them use their own voices to share their experiences and understandings of the injustices they have faced. This is all very sensible and attractive. Any attempt to eradicate injustice and improve the lives of oppressed people ought to begin by listening to those people and learning from their experiences.
But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better. Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles.
Suppose two women disagree about whether a certain action is sexist or not – one experiences it as discriminatory or oppressive, while the other does not feel this way about it. While it is useful to know how they feel about it, it doesn’t get us very far in deciding how to judge that action and whether to allow it or not. If we want to do more than satisfy people’s desire to be listened to – if we actually want to eradicate unjust practices – then we need to determine who is right and who is wrong. The two women presumably don’t think they are merely expressing their personal preferences about the action in question, in the way they might express a preference for tea over coffee. They both believe there is a right answer about whether the action is sexist, and that the other is mistaken. They can’t resolve this by reference to their personal testimonies and experiences alone. They will inevitably have to appeal to some beliefs they share, some general principles about what makes an action sexist. And as soon as they do this, they are having a discussion that anyone can contribute to, including men. They are appealing to abstract considerations and invoking a general argument that is in principle available to anyone, regardless of their personal experience. Once we’re doing that, men can contribute to a conversation about whether something is sexist, white people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is racist, cisgendered people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is transphobic – and they won’t necessarily be wrong, just because they lack personal experience of these forms of oppression.
Some intersectionality advocates seem to jump from the reasonable and probably true premise that people are best placed to recognize their own oppression to the unreasonable and clearly false premise that people can never be mistaken about their own oppression. It may well be true that women are best placed to define and recognize sexism, and that non-white people are best placed to identify racism. What is clearly not true is that women can never be mistaken about whether a particular phrase or action is sexist or not, or that whenever a non-white person thinks she has been the victim of racism, then she has. I may be accused here of erecting a strawman argument, that no intersectionalist actually thinks this. And yet in practice, I see this assumption at work all time, when men who question whether something is sexist are dismissed as ‘mansplainers’, or when accusations of racism are believed without evidence because it is a person of colour making the accusation. The danger with this line of thinking is that it really does lead to an Oppression Top Trumps, where we have to preface all our arguments with extensive details of our identities and past experiences to prove our oppression credentials before we are entitled to an opinion, and where personal feelings and experience trump abstract arguments and general principles.
While we ought to begin with listening to people’s stories, we cannot stop there, for on their own, people’s stories tell us nothing about what we ought to do, what policies we ought to prefer. And yet the logic of the intersectionalist’s identity politics tells us that we must stop at listening to people’s testimonies, because to do any more would be oppressive and unjust in itself. As soon as we start to abstract away from those stories, and form general principles, we risk oppressing the people who would disagree with those principles because they don’t quite fit with their own experience. But this is a totally fruitless and nihilistic approach to politics. On this logic, we couldn’t implement laws against sexual assault, for example, as all victims of assault will experience the harm of it differently, and indeed some victims might not experience it as harmful at all. On this logic, we couldn’t have a rule that punished breaking someone’s leg more severely than pinching someone’s arm, because there may be some people who find arm-pinching as distressing as a broken leg. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, in this vision of politics there could be no room for movements like feminism at all. For feminism assumes some degree of commonality among women, which the logic of this identity politics must deny. As soon as you call yourself a feminist, you are identifying yourself as part of a movement that speaks for and represents others. And yet these others are all radically and irreducibly different, from you and from each other.
It’s not obvious to me why speaking for others is inherently oppressive. Perhaps it would be better if all people could clearly and accurately express their views and experiences. But some people are always going to be more skilled at doing that than others. For some especially weak and vulnerable people, it may be physically impossible for them to speak for themselves. And crucially, it’s inevitable that some people are going to be better than others at highlighting the relevant connections between different stories, at drawing out the general features of people’s experiences that will enable us to construct our principles and guide our action. While one person may well have the best understanding of her own experiences, it’s possible that others will be in a better position to draw general conclusions from those experiences about what we ought to do.
Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. The implication of this is that sometimes, we may have to tell an oppressed person that they are mistaken in their judgement about particular cases of injustice. But the payoff is a vision of politics that allows us to do more than just listen to people’s stories, but actually implement policies and engage in action that makes people’s lives better.