My Feminism Will Not Be Intersectional

Is an intersectional approach to identity ultimately helpful to the fight to preserve liberal democracy?

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intersectional Pussy Hat
The pussy hat, a source of conflict in the debate over intersectional identity.

And then pussy hats happened. For the uninitiated (and trust me, if you are uninitiated you probably want to stay that way), the pink pussy hats are the brainchild of Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, who dreamed up the hats in advance of last year’s Women March, a sassy response to the election of a president who boasted that he could “grab them by the pussy.” The hats, with their bright color and folksy feel, quickly caught on and became an early and visible symbol of dissatisfaction with the president and his regime. As this preparation began for this year’s march, many assumed the pussy hats would be back. They should have probably thought again. You see, for some, the hats were simply not intersectional enough. And that, my lovelies, is the greatest sin of all.

Intersectional analysis has made the way of ad hominem reasoning a point of faith.

Intersectionality (and all its derivatives) is a sociological theory, first posited by the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, which holds that various aspects of a person’s identity interact, as do various forms of discrimination or oppression. These interactions create a matrix of oppression which operates differently on each individual depending on various identities that individual might hold. Each individual then exists with unique accounts of oppression and privilege. Proponents of intersectionality argue that those with more privilege must act to give power over to those who are more oppressed and to dismantle these systems of oppression. This becomes “anti-oppressive” work. The question becomes who is the most oppressed so that this person can be “centered.” It is, like Marx or Machiavelli, an analysis of how power operates. Yet unlike most dull scholarly theory, it has managed to enter the water supply and commandeer the thoughts of a generation of political and scholarly activists. An obsession that all things at all times must be “intersectional” is what makes sane, well-meaning people scream at each other on Facebook over knit pink hats. It is what makes knit pink hats a symbol of oppression that literally reduces people to tears.

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There is, of course, much to be said for the various ways in which the complexity of individual identity alters one’s experiences. That individual people have unique individual experiences is not a great sociological insight. It’s common sense. But intersectional theory does not stop at this this truism but instead it moves its focus from the individual to the groups to which that individual belongs. This is because, for intersectionlists, it is one’s group identities that create the individual. It is, after all, these “identities” that are implicated in the matrix of oppression, whose destruction is the primary aim of both political and private life. Our humanity then is swept away in a seemingly endless series of club memberships. Our lives reduced to cartoonish tales of oppressor and oppressed, of victim and victimizer.

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What you are is not who you are.

In this reduction of individual identity it sells its most pernicious lie: As primarily members of these multiple tribes, human beings are, in the final analysis, incapable of truly understanding each other. Intersectional analysis has made the way of ad hominem reasoning a point of faith. “As a woman of color.” “As a white man.” “As a cis white woman.” Intersectionality calls on its faithful to “situate themselves” and confesses that there are some things that some people are ontologically incapable of understanding. In these cases, dialogue is fruitless — in fact it is violence. Instead, the intersectionalist must merely trust the “marginalized individual” on blind faith, ask no questions (that would be demanding unpaid labor) and concede immediately. Perhaps later one can “agree to be educated”. Any questions, any dialogue is dismissed as fragility. There is no thought to how insulting and dehumanizing it is to posit that accidents of birth somehow affect our ability to reason. How damaging to democracy it is to hold that some citizens can never understand others, that dialogue is fruitless or even dangerous. This is how the conversation began to take shape as the pussy hat controversy grew.

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And what was abundantly clear in this debate was that intersectional theory does not help to bring new perspectives to the table, diversifying the ideological climate. Instead, the harsh, reductive claims of intersectional theory regarding individuals and their ability to relate to one another silences debate. If one person or small group of people decides that pink pussy hats offend them, the hats have to go. It is forbidden to ask why. It is heresy to question whether this offense is rational or productive. And it is violence to disagree. In this way, intersectionality, which could just be a useful-or-not theory, has become a sort of self-parody, a highly unfunny one at that. For we live in a moment when the democratic world order is truly threatened and the comedy of errors that is popularized intersectional theory now prevents a cohesive opposition to this threat. By silencing debate and prioritizing the feelings of a few over reason, intersectionalists take aim at the very heart of universalist humanism, the belief upon which human rights and liberal democracy are founded. You can be intersectional or you can be a humanist.

intersectional pussy-hat-ban
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And I choose humanism. Because in the world of ideas, what you are is not who you are. “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto (I am human. I count nothing that is human as alien to me),” wrote the Roman playwright Terrence in the 2nd century B.C.E. We are not victims of our birth and if you will explain it to me or anyone else, we can ultimately come to understand. And we can understand and disagree. No one, and I mean no one, has a right to unquestioned belief. If you are offended, you must explain why if you expect anyone to care. And if you can’t explain why, perhaps the reason is not that good. Human beings each have reason and we must each engage one another as individuals with reason.

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And so, if I had braved the Chicago cold for the Women’s March (which I couldn’t), I would have worn the goddamned hat. Not because I particularly care for it (I look awful in pink). But because I reject as ludicrous an ideology that calls pretty knit pink hats violence. And I refuse to just be silenced by undefended offense. If you are offended, I am a human being and you are too. Tell me why you are offended and we can talk. Like people. Because we are just people, members of a common race of warring tribes. My feminism is universal, humanism by another name — and that will never be pulled apart by intersecting fault lines.