I’ve had a bit of a sharp learning curve this weekend. The term “intersectionality” appeared on my inefficient radar. I first read a piece by Ben Mitchell, where he said this on the game of “checking your privilege”:
By the end of yesterday, we were all at it. I even wondered whether there was some sort of league table with its own points system. From the very oppressed heading the pack, to the too privileged by half, facing the threat of relegation. One point for being a ‘PoC’ (person of colour. Keep up), two for being a ‘WoC’ (yep, you guessed it. Woman of colour.) With bonus points up for grabs depending on sexuality and disability. You’d probably be on minus points if you fall into the male, white, middle class category.
Tragically, that’s me. Until it dawned on me that I’m also Jewish. A proud member of one of the most oppressed groups in history. Privilege checkmate. But, then I realised that lefties don’t regard Jews as oppressed minorities. Pesky Israel always gets in the way, and some of the stereotypes about Jews must have some grain of truth, surely? Look at Hollywood and the world’s media. I was back on minus points again.
The thing that’s most struck me about all this is how much it bears the hallmarks of the very people who brought you moral and cultural relativism: the post-modernist lobby. There is no one set, accepted, view of the world. No right or wrong, but a collection of opinions, each as valid as the other. Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.
This is what Wikipedia currently has to say on the matter:
Intersectionality (or Intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems ofoppression or discrimination. This feminist sociological theory was first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). Intersectionality is a methodology of studying “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations” (McCall 2005). The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion- or belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.
I then went to a short post on language by Helen Lewis (which Ben in his piece had quoted from). In it, and amongst other things, she says:
There’s a simple test I think any of us who have a “cause” should do. Imagine walking out of your front door, stopping the first person you meet and explaining your beliefs to them. Can you imagine them understanding? Can you imagine them caring?
Of course, I’ve already done something wrong in that opening paragraph. I’ve asked you to imagine walking out of your front door. But I can guarantee you that if I wrote that in a piece, I would get at least one comment “gently reminding” me that some people can’t walk, and some people can’t leave their houses. I’ve been ableist.
In essence, she’s arguing that in our everyday – generally understandable – language it is impossible to aim to include absolutely everyone. A process of conflict and slighting of others will be inevitable; someone’s toes are bound to be stepped on. If always using the word “he” in a conversation where both men and women might be implicated is wrong, using any word or phrase which excludes those other groupings who might also be involved is – the argument must go – equally wrong. And this, Lewis suggests, is quite clearly an unsustainable situation.
In the first instance, I’m not sure I disagree with her on this one; but this might be out of “professional deformation” more than anything else.
Most of my life I’ve carried out the role of teacher: both to earn a living and as a father to three children. Being a teacher teaches one patience; to be a teacher is not to be an evangelist for example. I’m not looking in my life to force change but, rather, to bring it about through rational persuasion. Coercion is not my weapon of choice. Education – more often that not – is. The experiences described here and here, therefore, where online bullying from supposedly progressive quarters leads equally progressive individuals to a certain – even profound – despair, is quite outside my ken. I was, as a result, quite unsure how to react to the whole issue until I read this piece by Laurie Penny in the Guardian. The concluding paragraph is what really hit home for me:
New words and phrases tend to make powerful people angry not because they are new, but because what they describe is modern and threatening. Repeatedly claiming that you cannot understand simple ideas like “privilege checking” and “intersectionality”, as people like Mensch, Hodges and many others have done, often means that you don’t want to understand. Some find it easier to argue “we don’t need this word” when what they actually want to say is “we don’t want this thing.” The conservative commentariat does not want to be asked to check its privilege – but it’s time to take a lesson from the internet and listen for a change. You never know, you might learn something.
And so it is that this paragraph from Penny is about the most perceptive thing you will read this weekend. When Ben says of cultural relativism that …
[...] Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.
… in truth he is also passing judgement on the analogous (though not analogue) noise which people who would preserve their privilege like to perceive is the worldwide web and its multifarious interactions.
In the end, it’s neither a question of giving in to a cultural relativism nor an abandoning of the right to have an opinion: rather, it’s a natural consequence of an inevitable intersectionality the worldwide web drives us towards.
For people like Ben, it’s cultural relativism; for people like me, it’s a case of a democratisation of the whole process of opinion-forming. Many people who were simply ignored by the overarching discourses of society, who believed they were to blame for their conditions and place in the scheme of things, now have an opportunity to express themselves on their own terms.
In my experience, where this works – and rightly so – it is a question not of imposition but of education: of people at the bottom finally – and ineludibly – teaching those at the top. In fact, this is exactly what the best of the worldwide web is all about: a massive Everyman’s (where not Everywoman’s!) library for the 21st century. And if some are imposing instead of teaching, this shouldn’t allow nor encourage us to bring into disgrace or disrepute the democratisation itself.
But something else strikes to the heart of all of the above: if Helen Lewis finds it so difficult to include all the people she is asked to include in her language, maybe it is because the democratisation of the whole process of opinion-forming hasn’t yet reached the levels it needs to. Let me
explain mansplain: I see nothing wrong in reading a piece by a woman where the pronouns used are “she”, “her” and “hers” when the (to date) more traditional “he” and “his” has been (a patriarchal) par for the course; neither do I see any reason to use “they”, “their” and “theirs” instead (even when I often do it myself in what is a clearly inclusive – or maybe cowardly – instinct on my part).
No. If the democratising process of opinion-forming were truly consummated by now, each of us could use the language we were most comfortable with without this meaning we were using our privilege to maintain our networks of received opinion. That we still feel maybe we can’t quite do so, that I – as a male using male language – am excluding people from my discourse rather than expressing my being with as much freedom as I deserve, is simply a litmus test and proof of the fact that the process I am describing is still not as complete as it could be.
What’s clashing here, the real and much wider clash of civilisations, is not the idea of single truths versus the relativism that says everything and everyone goes but, rather, the last-ditched attempt of those who grew up in broadcast media, politics and life in general to maintain life’s certainties as they were defined by the very few: individuals who now miss the very BBC-times of one-nation discourse; who would like to return to some (false) golden age where emotional gurus of national viewpoints reaffirmed our sense of permanence and unity.
Reaffirmed, that is, the sense of permanence and unity of those of us who benefited from the national viewpoints such emotional gurus expressed.
We can, after all, subscribe to the idea of certain universal truths and still believe everyone has an equal right to interpret them.
In no way is that noise; in every way, that is just democracy.
There was a time when our cleverness was individual and handed down; today, however, our cleverness more and more is the result of the crowd, mediated ingeniously by software constitutions which connect us outside the immediate reach of our traditional laws and ways of thinking things.
This is why intersectionality must remain, precisely because it is the cultural cauldron which our evermore virtual lives are leading us to. And the implications and power of intersectionality must not be lost in what some would prefer to interpret as little more than the noise – the mish-mash even – of such democratisation.
If we truly believe in a world where everyone has – and is – a voice, we must not allow the impatient evangelists who might bully to drown out the absolute rightness of those who would carefully – and rationally – persuade.
The Internet and all its works are intersectionality squared.
And that is something none of us will be able to fight.