Am I cisgender?

I am a woman. This is something I have never questioned. It is something I know with almost complete certainty.

A couple of years ago, if you had asked me how I know that I’m a woman, then – after I had stopped looking at you in bewilderment at being asked such a daft question – I am pretty sure that I would have given you an answer that made reference to facts about my physical body, my biology. I would have mentioned my secondary sex characteristics: the fact that I have breasts and a vagina; the fact that I menstruate, and from this can infer that I have ovaries and a uterus; the fact that I tend to carry my body fat on my buttocks, thighs and hips. This would have been an answer that is in part empirical, appealing to a scientific account of what features define females of the human species, and in part linguistic, relying on an assumption that the word “woman” has a widely shared, collectively understood meaning: an adult human female.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more feminist writing than I had previously, and become much more immersed in contemporary theories of gender. And I now know that for some people, such an answer to the question “how do you know you’re a woman?” would be unacceptable. It would be pointed out that these biological facts are neither necessary nor sufficient for me to conclude that I am a woman, because some women do not have breasts or a vagina, and some people who have breasts and a vagina are not women. So what other answer might I give? The only other response that makes any sense to me is to say that I know that I am a woman because everybody I meet treats me as if I were a woman, and they always have done. When I was born, my parents gave me a name that is only ever given to girls. They referred to me using feminine pronouns, and others followed suit. They dressed me in clothes that our culture deems appropriate for girls, and let my hair grow long. As I grew older, those I met took those markers as evidence that I was a girl – and later, a woman – and treated me accordingly. I was praised and rewarded when I acted in ways deemed typically feminine, and faced social sanction and recrimination when my behaviour was more masculine. This is what feminists call female socialisation, and its manifestations are myriad and ubiquitous. So if I had to explain how I know I’m a woman, without making reference to my female body, I would say “I know I’m a woman, because everyone treats me like one”.

Something I’ve learned from the frontlines of the contemporary gender wars is that I’m not just a woman; I am apparently a “cisgender” woman. Being cisgender, or cis, is considered a form of structural advantage, and therefore I have privilege over those who are not cis. When I first encountered this word, I was informed that it simply means “not-trans”, and performs the same function as the word “heterosexual” does – it serves to give a label to the majority group so that they are not the norm against which others are defined as a deviation. Everybody has a sexual orientation, and so we should all have a label to describe it, not just the people whose orientation makes them a minority. It seems a reasonable and laudable aim to have such a word, and so when I first encountered it, I was happy to call myself cis. But am I really cisgender? Is this a term that can be meaningfully applied to me – or indeed, to anyone?

I was happy to call myself cis, if what this means is not-trans, because I assumed that I wasn’t trans. I assumed that I wasn’t trans because I have no dysphoria about my sexed body – I can live in my female body without discomfort, suffering, or anguish. Actually, that isn’t true, and I suspect it isn’t true for most women. As a woman raised in a culture that constantly bombards women with the message that their bodies are unacceptable, even disgusting, I feel an enormous amount of distress and dis-ease living in my female body, in a way that has shaped my life and continues to do so every day. What I really mean is that I have never felt that the discomfort and unhappiness I feel living in a female body would be eased if that body were male instead. While my female body is a continual source of shame and suffering for me, I’ve never felt the desire to alter it to make it less female, to undergo treatment or surgery to make my body more closely resemble a male body. Therefore, I assumed that I wasn’t trans. And so if I’m not trans, I must be cis.

But for many people, this is not actually what it means to be cis, because this is not what it means to be trans. I had incorrectly assumed that to be trans, one must to some degree experience what is usually called gender dysphoria but would be better called sex dysphoria – a feeling of distress and anguish caused by living in one’s sexed body. However, changing discourse within transgender politics insists that dysphoria should no longer be considered necessary for a person to be trans; you can be trans, even if you are perfectly comfortable and happy in the body you were born in, and have no desire to change it. This came as a surprise to me, and it’s obviously hugely significant, because if cis means not-trans, then we need to know what trans means. And I suspect most people will have shared my assumption that it involves dysphoria about one’s sexed body. So what might it mean to be trans, if not this?

The term “transgender” seems to be used in a variety of different ways and understood by different people to mean different things. One popular definition states that “transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth”. This posits the existence of something called a “gender identity”, which is usually defined as something like “someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman”, or “a person’s private sense, and subjective experience, of their own gender”. So then trans people are trans because there is a mismatch between their internal sense of their own gender and the gender norms typically associated with the sex they were born into.

Perhaps some people have a gender identity. Perhaps some people do have an internal sense of their own gender, a subjective, personal feeling that they are a man or woman, and perhaps they can describe and make sense of this without reference to either their physical bodies, or the socially constructed norms about how people with those bodies should behave. But I honestly don’t have this. I don’t have an internal sense of my own gender. If you ask me how I know that I’m a woman, I have to make reference either to my female secondary sex characteristics, or to the social implications of being read as a person who has these characteristics. I don’t experience my gender as an internal essence, a deep and unalterable facet of my identity. Maybe some people do, although I am sceptical as to how they could describe and explain that without reference to socially constructed gender roles. But I can concede for the sake of argument that some people might experience a form of subjective mental state that I don’t.

That would all be ok, if I were actually permitted to deny that I have a gender identity. But I am not. The purpose of the label cis is to demonstrate that being trans is not abnormal or deviant, but just one of the many gender identities that all people have. In order to perform the function it is supposed to perform, cis must be a label that refers to the presence of a specific gender identity, not just a lack of one. To be trans is to have a gender identity, one that differs from those typically associated with the sex you were assigned at birth. And if you’re not trans, then you are cis, which is also a gender identity. And so if trans people have a gender identity that differs from the gender norms for their assigned sex, then presumably cis people have an internal sense of their own gender that is largely aligned with the gender norms associated with the sex they were born into.

But I do not have a deep, personal sense of my own gender. I have things I like to do and to wear. And of course, many of the things I like to do and wear are things that are typically aligned with womanhood. But I didn’t come to like those things in a cultural or social vacuum, but against a backdrop of powerful social messages about what kinds of things women ought to like, so it’s no surprise that I should come to like some of these things. And anyway, I don’t feel that these things reflect anything deep, essential or natural about my identity. They are just my tastes and preferences. Had I been raised in a different culture, I might have had different ones, but I would still have been basically the same person.

Furthermore, just like all other persons, a lot of the stuff I like to do and to wear is not stuff that is stereotypically feminine. A lot of the things I like and enjoy are things that are usually regarded as masculine. Just like everybody else, I’m not a one-dimensional gender stereotype, and while there are some aspects of what is traditionally associated with womanhood that I enjoy and participate in, there are many others that I reject as painful, oppressive and limiting. Even on those occasions when I consciously and deliberately participate in performing femininity, by wearing makeup or typically feminine clothes, I don’t see this as me expressing my gender identity; rather, I am conforming to (perhaps even while simultaneously modifying and challenging) a socially constructed ideal of what woman is. And furthermore, once it’s decoupled from traditional, restrictive notions about what it is appropriate for people of different sexes to do, it’s not clear why it makes sense to call any of this stuff “gender”, as opposed to just “stuff I like” or “my personality”.

It’s presumably due to the realisation that many people do not wholeheartedly and unquestioningly identify with the gender norms typically attributed to their sex that a whole range of other gender identities has emerged – if you don’t have a deep internal sense that you are either a man or a woman, you can identify as “non-binary” or “genderqueer” or “pangender”, which allows you to identify with those aspects of both traditional masculinity and femininity that you endorse and enjoy, and to reject the rest. (It’s not clear whether non-binary or genderqueer people are to be considered as coming under the trans umbrella or not: opinions seem to differ on that score). Again, I am sceptical as to how the case could be made that this is a deeply held and unalterable identity, because any description of one’s non-binary gender identity will inevitably make reference to socially constructed gender roles (and it’s notable that most non-binary males express this by experimenting with feminine clothing and appearance, rather than by an insatiable desire to do the domestic chores typically associated with womanhood). But perhaps there really are people who have a deep, personal, internal sense of their gender as an essence that is both masculine and feminine, or neither, in a way that is meaningfully something different from just “not being a one-dimensional gender stereotype”. But I’m not one of them. Despite the fact that I endorse some bits of masculinity and femininity and reject others, I don’t call myself genderqueer or non-binary, because none of this represents a deep, unalterable essence or facet of my identity. So since I’m not trans, and I’m not non-binary or genderqueer, then I am told I must be cis, by default.

So the only option available to me, if I want to reject the label cis, is to pick some other gender identity. I am not permitted to deny that I have a gender identity at all. But this is in itself oppressive. It makes false assertions about the subjective experience of many people – people like me who do not feel as if we have a deep, internal sense of our own gender, and whose primary experience of gender is as a coercive, externally imposed set of constraints, rather than an essential aspect of our personal identity. It forces us to define ourselves in ways we don’t accept (and, as I’m now learning, if we refuse to define ourselves in this way, this is attributed to bigotry and a lack of empathy for trans people, rather than a reasonable rejection of what being cis entails). If “cisgender” were a description of a medical condition, characterised by an absence of sex dysphoria, then I would accept that I am cis. But if cisgender is a gender identity, which it appears to be, then I am not cis, because I do not have a gender identity. I am a woman. But it’s not because deep down, I feel like one. Because deep down, I just feel like a person.

What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

As a couple of recent articles have perfectly illustrated, whenever feminists try to talk about the issue of sexual harassment – be it the catcalls and leers that women commonly experience while minding their own business walking down the street, or just good old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment – they are inevitably met with the supposedly killer objection: “but isn’t a lot of this just harmless flirtation? What’s your problem with people trying to flirt with you?”

The power of this response comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the frigid old prude who objects to friendly, good-natured, charming men paying you a well-intentioned compliment. We all enjoy being flirted with, at least sometimes. But if you say that men shouldn’t make advances towards women they find attractive, aren’t you in effect saying that we should prohibit flirting?

I think this response is usually rather disingenuous, because it’s pretty clear that objections to workplace and street harassment have got nothing to do with objecting to flirting. This is because harassment is categorically not a form of flirtation, or an instance of well-intentioned flirtation gone wrong – and we all know this. There’s an important difference being flirted with, even where that flirtation is unwelcome and inexpertly executed, and being harassed. And both subject and object know what this difference is. We all know flirting when we’re on the receiving end of it, and we all know harassment when we’re subjected to it, and we can all tell the difference between the two.

The key feature of flirting, that makes it flirting, is that the person doing the flirting – The Flirt – is acutely sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person with whom they are flirting. Flirting is a process of sending out careful, subtle, micro-behaviours signalling one’s attraction: slightly prolonged eye-contact, a quick touch of the arm, an exaggerated laugh at a joke that was really not that funny. And, crucially, flirting also involves having a heightened awareness to the micro-behaviours being displayed by the other, to try to interpret their signals about whether this attraction is welcome. Does he maintain the prolonged eye-contact, or he does he quickly look away? Does she return the playful arm touch, or does she subtly inch further away to discourage further touching? Of course, this can all be done badly, with comic, embarrassing, or even distressing consequences. Some Flirts are terrible at reading other people’s body language, and blunder on, oblivious to the discomfort and awkwardness of their target. This is unfortunate, and it would be better for everyone if the useless Flirt would desist. But nonetheless, we can all recognise that this behaviour is largely harmless, causing not much more than some mild irritation or social embarrassment. When someone proceeds in flirting with us, despite our trying to make it clear that this is not welcome, we feel awkward and embarrassed, but not usually threatened or intimidated.

Harassment is different, predominantly due to the intentions of the Harasser. The Harasser, unlike the Flirt, is not sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person he is harassing. Usually, he is not sensitive to these, because he does not care about them. He is going to proceed with his sexual advances, regardless of whether these are welcome or desired by the object of his attentions. I have written on this blog about my experience of being harassed at a conference I attended. Someone reading that account could easily respond: but isn’t that just harmless flirting? But as the object of the behaviour, I can say with utmost certainty that it was not flirting. It was harassing, for this reason: the Harasser was oblivious to, and uninterested in, my very obvious distress. Had he been flirting, he would have been making some attempt to read my body language, which was sending out very clear and loud “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME” signals. So loud and evident were these signals, that I was rescued from the situation by two friends who, witnessing my distress, intervened and whisked me away. Yes, they are my friends, and they know me. But if they could observe and correctly interpret the panic and distress in my eyes and demeanour from a distance, I think it’s reasonable to say that the Harasser could have done so – and indeed, would have done so, had he been a Flirt. But the thing that made this experience so distressing at the time, and so rage-inducing later, is that it was clear to me that he had no interest in my attitude or response to his advances. He did not care whether he was upsetting me or making me uncomfortable. Indeed, in his eyes, I was not really a person at all. He had no interest in my feelings and desires whatsoever. And it was this realisation – the realisation that he did not care that I did not want him to touch my neck – rather than simply the fact that I did not want him to touch my neck, that made the experience so profoundly dehumanising and objectifying.

Harassment is distressing and degrading precisely because the Harasser demonstrates so little concern for the wants and interests of the person he is harassing, and in so doing, treats them as not fully human – in Kantian language, as a means for the fulfilment of his own desires, rather than as an end in herself, a person with her own desires and goals and purposes. And that’s different from flirting, because even in cases where the Flirt is just not very good at this, he is at least still trying to interpret the motives and intentions of the object of his advances correctly. Presumably, if the useless Flirt had any idea about how unwelcome his advances were, he would be mortified, and withdraw them. But the Harasser would not, because he does not care. Harassment is a denial of one’s personhood and one’s agency, and as such, is a distressing and dehumanising experience. But more than that, it can also be frightening. For if someone has shown themselves to be so utterly uninterested and unmoved by your wants and desires, and proceeds to behave in a way that treats you as a mere means for the fulfilment of their own, then who knows what else they might do?

 

Woman Shaming: the scourge of the public eater

In the days following my first ever lecture to an audience of several hundred students, I was struck by an unsettling realisation. Suddenly, there were people living and walking in my city that knew who I was and would recognise me, while I would not be able to do the same. This was entirely new to me. Up until that point, I had always taught small seminar groups, so if I bumped into one of my students at the pub, I would know who they were, and could modify my behaviour accordingly (or, more likely, go to another pub). But then after one of my lectures, a student I didn’t recognise said hello to me in the street, and it occurred to me that now that I was lecturing to such a large group, things had changed. I felt a bit exposed, and unpleasantly visible. I couldn’t possibly know who they all were; but they would all know me. It felt like a tiny, microcosmic glimpse into what it must be like to be famous. For a few days, I walked around town slightly warily, wondering if the people who made eye contact when I passed by them had been in my lecture.

Almost the first thing I felt self-conscious about, and decided I would now need to be more vigilant about, was public eating. My main concern about being recognised by my students was not that they might witness me being drunk and rowdy, or that I might inadvertently push them out of the way to get served at the bar. The thing that made me really uncomfortable was the idea that they might spot me walking down the High Street stuffing a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch into my mouth. I got over it, of course. Despite this initial flurry of unwarranted vanity and self-importance, I quickly realised that the likelihood of any of them caring enough about my snack choices to take to Facebook to discuss them was very slim indeed. But that my first concern was with being observed – no, caught – eating in public reflects something I have long suspected and have now had confirmed: women are not supposed to be seen eating. Because really, they are not supposed to eat.

I’ve just read this interesting piece by Sophie Wilkinson about the relatively new trend of ‘stranger shaming’ – taking photos of people in public spaces, in order to mock, embarrass or humiliate them. Sophie herself has been the victim of this, having undertaken the provocative and threatening gesture of eating a pasta salad on the tube, and subsequently finding a photo of her taken without her consent on Facebook. Naturally, the picture was accompanied by a range of derisory and vicious comments, many of them suggesting that Sophie’s public eating displayed a lack of etiquette or decorum: “I would like the name of her finishing school”, said one particularly droll commenter.

Of course women aren’t the only victims of stranger shaming, and I find the practice extremely disturbing whoever is the target. It’s nasty, bullying behaviour to mock strangers who are innocently and obliviously going about their lives, and a huge violation of someone’s privacy to take a photo of someone without their consent and publish it online. I think this is a pernicious trend that needs to stop, whoever the target, and whatever their alleged misdemeanour. But we can learn a lot about the kinds of behaviour our society considers unacceptable, and therefore deserving of public ridicule and humiliation, by observing the types of behaviour that will leave you vulnerable to stranger shaming. One of the most noteworthy stranger shaming sites is Men Taking Up Too Much Space on Trains, the content of which is self-explanatory. In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I was once sat next to one of these men, whose legs were so far apart that I was basically pressed up against the window to avoid our thighs touching; and in my annoyance, I did take a photo of him with my phone, which yes, I then tweeted. In my defence, the photo was only of the man’s legs, so that he was not in any way identifiable from the picture. And I hadn’t given this issue as much thought back then. I probably wouldn’t do the same now. But the reason I felt this behaviour was so outrageous as to be worth sharing with my friends was because he was, objectively, taking up more than his fair share of the space. I was squashed into the wall, while his legs were splayed at a ninety degree angle, as are those of many of the men who feature on the website. While I don’t condone these men’s pictures being published without their consent, especially those whose faces are clearly visible and who are therefore identifiable, it’s interesting to note that the kind of bad behaviour that gets men publicly shamed is, arguably, objectively objectionable behaviour. The men in question are taking up more space than they are entitled to, and in so doing, causing inconvenience and discomfort to others.

But as the Facebook group that Sophie’s picture appeared on tells us, for women, one of the biggest crimes is to be observed eating in public.  Perhaps you didn’t already know this. But I had clearly absorbed this message somewhere along the way, because I knew I didn’t want my students to witness me eating. I think I have absorbed the message particularly effectively because I went to an all girls’ school that had a rule to the effect that sixth formers in the town at lunch time must not eat as they walked, because that would present a bad impression of the school. But this is clearly a rule that many people endorse on some level, or the Facebook group would not have thirteen thousand members, and many hundreds of photographs submitted.

As a currently slightly overweight woman, I am especially aware of the social unacceptability of being seen to eat in public. Women should not be seen eating, because women are not supposed to eat. Whatever else they are, and whatever else they do, women must first and foremost be beautiful. What it means to be beautiful is to be thin; and to be thin, one must not eat. Therefore, the woman who eats in public is flouting not only a convention of etiquette. She is also brazenly, shamelessly showing her disregard and contempt for the rules governing women’s proper social conduct and appearance.

Of course, the woman who should be shamed for her public eating must still be objectified and treated as a target of sexual aggression. Because food isn’t the only thing women can put in their mouths, amirite guys? By daring to satisfy her hunger, the woman who eats in public has shown herself to possess lascivious and insatiable bodily appetites of other kinds too, and has thereby invited all the inevitable “open wide, gobble down on this, she looks like she enjoys swallowing, the greedy bitch” comments. Moreover, many of the comments on the Facebook group show their thinly-veiled disgust and contempt for women’s bodies: witness their being likened to animals, engaged in “feeding frenzies”, or, as happened to Sophie, her mouth described as a “gaping orifice”. Just by existing in a public space and daring to nourish herself, a woman apparently makes her animal nature and the material reality of her body too visible, too real to be ignored. And this, as we know only too well from our societal fear and disgust of menstruation and lactation, is immensely disturbing for many people, and must therefore be discouraged through the use of social sanction – such as the stranger shaming Facebook group or Tumblr.

This is a profoundly depressing and dispiriting conclusion to arrive at. But the upside is that by simply daring to walk down the street while feeding ourselves, it turns out we are doing something surprisingly rebellious and transgressive. I hadn’t realised radical political action could be achieved so easily. So on that note, I’m off to buy a packet of Monster Munch and walk down the High Street.

A plea for politeness; or, a call for kindness

Politeness has been getting a bad rap lately. While there is widespread consensus that sending people threats of violence is unacceptable, the idea that we should also be polite to one another is a lot more controversial. In a piece on Comment is Free today, we are told that recent responses by high-profile writers to online abuse and trolling are “less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper”, and that “campaigns against trolling…are less to do with concerns about civility than they are about exercising control over public debate”. Anyone familiar with online social justice activism will be familiar with the objections to “tone policing” that arise whenever one party to an argument asks for a little more politeness or civility. The thought here is that by requesting civility, or refusing to engage until others are polite, those with power and privilege stifle dissent and silence their detractors. In turn, less privileged or marginalised people are dismissed as trolls, their justified anger falsely portrayed as harassment or abuse.

There is a genuine and legitimate worry about the potential for norms of politeness and civility to be exploited by the powerful in this way. For much of history the idea of politeness has performed exactly this function, preserving existing hierarchies and shielding the powerful and privileged from critique. This is because on one possible interpretation of the idea, politeness means something like “deference to authority” or “respect for one’s superiors”. Politeness here is something that is owed to people by virtue of their place in the social hierarchy. It is the fact that I am above you in the pecking order, that I have power or authority over you or am in some sense your superior, that makes politeness required when talking to me. This view of politeness is closely linked to conservative notions of decorum or etiquette – you ought to be polite to me because that is the done thing, given who I am and our relative positions in the social order.

Now if this is all there is to politeness, I think we would have good reasons to jettison the idea altogether. This “deference to authority” view is, as the recent critics of politeness point out, inherently conservative, operating to preserve power and privilege and to prevent those who have traditionally been marginalized or oppressed from getting too uppity and attempting to disrupt the current social structure. But what I would suggest is that this is just one possible interpretation of what politeness is, and that there is another much more progressive and egalitarian way to interpret politeness. And it is this alternative meaning that many of the people currently calling for more civility are actually appealing to.

On this other version of the ideal, politeness is something you owe to me not in virtue of my natural superiority over you, but in virtue of our equality. You should be polite to me, not in deference to my authority, but in recognition of our shared humanity, according to which I, like you, am a human being with feelings, weaknesses and frustrations; I am vulnerable and capable of being hurt, just as you are. On this notion of politeness, we should be civil to one another in our interactions not in order to preserve privilege and stifle dissent, but to protect one another’s fragile natures from unnecessary hurt and cruelty. It is an ideal of civility grounded in equality and shared humanity, rather than hierarchy and deference. Perhaps the terms “mutual respect” or even “kindness”, might be more accurate than politeness then, with all its stuffy and outdated conservative baggage. Requesting this kind of politeness and respect is not an attempt to maintain my superior position in the status quo by silencing your dissent. Instead, it is asking that you recognise my weakness and vulnerability, and behave with kindness, compassion and charity towards me; and promising to treat you in the same way, because I recognise that you share these human frailties with me.

This egalitarian notion of civility as mutual respect does not entail that those with less power and fewer resources cannot express their justified anger about the injustices they have suffered. Nor does it mean that there is no room in political discourse for passionate expressions of outrage and indignation. Many of those who rail against civility and “tone policing” do a disservice to the valuable tools of anger and outrage, by falsely equating these with insult and abuse. Anger has always been a powerful weapon in the armory of movements for greater social justice, and we should not seek to stifle or neutralise this. But even if you’re angry – even if you’re rightly, justifiably, boiling with rage and fury – this doesn’t mean you should blind yourself to the humanity of your opponents. They may be misguided, and they may be ignorant. But insofar as they are not actively hostile or disrespectful towards you – insofar as they refrain from denying your rights, attacking your identity or insulting and abusing you – they remain deserving of your kindness and compassion.

So I want to issue a plea for politeness, or more accurately, a call for kindness. I believe that all of us ought, in our interactions with each other, adopt a norm that says we will treat people with mutual respect, kindness, charity and compassion, provided they do the same for us. We should assume they will do the same for us until they give us good reason to believe otherwise. And this norm applies regardless of who we are talking to; even those more powerful and privileged than we are, are entitled to this mutual respect and kindness. The only alternative is that in every interaction, we withhold our compassion until the other person has proven to us that they are vulnerable enough to be deserving of it; that they present us with a detailed account of their weaknesses and frailties, for us to assess whether they are sufficiently fragile to be worthy of respect, kindness and concern. And really, who of us is in a position to make that kind of judgment?

The objectivity of oppression

In my post yesterday on intersectionality and identity politics, I tried to argue that the internal logic of identity politics is flawed, and though motivated by good intentions, can’t actually yield a practical vision of politics that makes people’s lives better. I now realize that there is an assumption in this argument that I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and yet is crucial to the point, namely: the fact that oppression is objective. This is a fact that many intersectionalists seem to want to deny. Yet they can’t, because the very fact that we can talk about oppression at all relies upon its being in some sense objective.

Suppose Joey claims that Chandler has broken his arm. Joey might be in the best position to know how his arm feels, and so the first thing we need to do is listen to Joey and find out how his arm feels. However, there’s no reason to assume that Joey is best placed to know whether his arm is broken. Just because he feels like it is broken, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is – Joey’s interpretation can be mistaken. A doctor will listen carefully to Joey’s testimony, but will ultimately appeal to independent criteria to determine whether Joey’s arm is broken, and it is to these independent criteria that we should appeal when determining whether or not Chandler is guilty of arm-breaking. We can all agree that Joey is not the final authority with respect to whether his arm is broken. Yet some proponents of intersectionality seem to want to suggest that he could be the final authority with respect to whether he has been the victim of oppression or not. But just because in practice, diagnosis of oppression is inevitably more controversial and appeals to less well established facts, does not mean that is in principle any less objective.

The idea that we should listen closely to people’s testimonies and try to learn as much as we can from their experiences often seems to lead people to the conclusion that this subjective form of knowledge – people’s particular narratives and experiences – is the only kind of knowledge we can have, and the only kind of knowledge that can inform political action. And if that’s true, then we shouldn’t try to generalize from those personal experiences to more abstract, seemingly objective principles, because these principles will never be objective – they will only be the particular, subjective beliefs of dominant people, and will serve the interests of the powerful. This conclusion is, I think, mistaken. Of course, we always need to engage in careful examination of our norms and principles, to try to ensure that they are objectively valid, and not just a reflection of the interests of powerful individuals or groups. But unless we acknowledge some objectivity in our definitions of what constitute oppression or injustice, there can be no foundations for eradicating these, or for making people’s lives go better.

The reason for this is that there is no way to make sense of concepts like oppression or injustice, unless we understand them as having some objective criteria – that is, criteria that determine whether an action oppressive, independently of how it is experienced by those subject to it. If it did not – if oppression was entirely a matter of whether or not a person feels they have been oppressed – then there would be no way to distinguish between action that is oppressive, and action that I just don’t like very much. And clearly, when people claim to have been oppressed, they think they are saying something different, and more compelling, than merely “I don’t like this”. There are lots of things people could do (or refuse to do) to me that I wouldn’t like very much. I might like to win the lottery, or to borrow your car. We can all agree that the fact I would like to get these things but don’t get them is not oppression, no matter how strongly I might feel about it. And when I say I am being oppressed by something you do, I believe I am saying more than just “I would have liked you to do this”; I believe I am saying, “I have a right to this, and you ought to do it”. And the fact that you ought to do it does not depend on how I feel about it, or on the fact that I would like you to do it; because if it did, there would be no difference between you oppressing me, and you not lending me your car. As soon as I claim to be oppressed, I am appealing to some objective criteria of oppression, criteria that are independent of my subjective feelings and interpretations.

Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are. And listening to people’s narratives and experiences will be very useful here, for any plausible account of what oppression is presumably needs to fit reasonably well with our intuitions and considered judgements about what oppression is like. These criteria need not be set in stone – they can be open to constant revision. And (hopefully) obviously, the dialogue where we determine what these objective criteria should be needs to be open to as many different voices as possible, especially those who have typically been marginalized and oppressed.  But ultimately, we need to try to come to a set of objective criteria about what constitutes oppression. And once we do, then we can use these criteria in specific cases to judge whether a particular claim to be oppressed is correct or not. This leaves open the possibility that the person who feels oppressed may in fact be mistaken. While she may feel strongly and in good faith that she has been the victim of oppression, this is not sufficient for it to be true that she has. She may well have been; but this is determined objectively, independent of her experience, interpretations and feelings. So therefore, it is at least possible for people to be mistaken about their own oppression. Trying to ensure that our beliefs about oppression and injustice are as objective as possible is essential, and I do not mean to deny that less oppressed people frequently fail to recognize the ways in which their beliefs about oppression are clouded by their own unchecked and unacknowledged privilege. In real life politics, this is by far the bigger problem facing social justice activists – people in positions of power and privilege frequently fail to examine the ways in which their privilege has shaped their views abut what justice and oppression are. Without a doubt, people with privilege have much to learn from the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My point is simply that the knowledge they gain is only of use if it informs general and objective principles that guide future political action.

The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.

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For a more theoretical discussion of this line of argument, you might want to read this great post by Matt Bruenig: What does identitarian deference require?