Short Take: Conor’s Corner

At The Atlantic, the ever-thought-provoking Conor Friedersdorf ponders whether the dreaded notion of intersectionality can be a force for good as well as the scoring system for the oppression Olympics.

Here is intersectionality as David French understands it:

While there’s not yet an Apostle’s Creed of intersectionality, it can roughly be defined as the belief that oppression operates in complicated, “interlocking” ways. So the experience of, say, a white trans woman is different in important ways from the experience of a black lesbian. A white trans woman will experience the privilege of her skin but also oppression due to her gender identity. A black lesbian may experience the privilege of “cis” gender identity but also oppression due to race and sexuality.

So far, so good. He continues:

It’s identity politics on steroids, where virtually every issue in American life can and must be filtered through the prisms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

But that is a claim that the insights of intersectionality are being applied too zealously, or to the exclusion of other truths, not that the underlying idea is flawed.

And Conor drops the bomb.

The core insight is true—oppression does operate in complicated, “interlocking” ways—but reflecting on it, and using identity as one of many lenses to see the world fully, needn’t entail a commitment to identity fundamentalism any more than embracing insights of any ideology requires donning the blinders of a fundamentalist ideologue.

Is it true? Well, the word “does” is in italics, so I guess it must be. But even if we accept this premise, does it add any value to our understanding of people? Putting aside the tacit assumption that the world is comprised of systems of oppression, an assumption that is premised in a pretty miserable conception of humanity, the best that can be said of a very old, very well-known idea that group stereotyping doesn’t explain any individual in the group is that it’s been given a new jargon word, as if Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 coining of intersectionality created a notion that never occurred to anyone before.

To the extent the word contributes anything to the dialogue, it’s a more refined stereotype than the gross ones that most of us use constantly in trying to make sense of the world. Obviously, we cannot get to know, up close and personal, every person with whom we interact, so we impute things to them based on perceived characteristics. That could be skin color. It could be word choice. It could be tattoos.

If we apply a more intersectional means of stereotyping, we end up with new assumptions about people based not just on their skin color, but that plus gender, or sexual orientation as well. But does this make our assumptions about them valid? Perhaps more valid than the old style of gross stereotypes, but not the same as actually knowing the person for realsies.

It has always been known that we don’t really know other people. We paint them as one-dimensional cartoon characters because we have no other choice, forced to deal with other people without having the opportunity to spend quality time getting to know each and every one of them. We impute things to them, whether positive or negative attributes, because that’s the best we can do. We’re often wrong. Maybe extremely wrong.

So Conor has a valuable point that intersectionality, used for good rather than evil, can help us to refine our assumptions, to take into account more than the most obvious attributes we observe. But that doesn’t make the core concepts of intersectionality true; it just makes them a little less false than our gross stereotypes.

The better assumption would be that everyone is an individual. Each of us has problems in our lives that others don’t know about. We have joys as well. Maybe our intersections matter, and maybe they don’t. Maybe we prefer not to wallow in misery, and would appreciate it if you keep your systems of oppression out of our timeline.

If we accept the premise that intersectionality is true, as Conor explains it, we need not bother to consider that people are individuals, who may reflect whatever intersectionalism says about them, but may not. Even if it’s not a valueless concept, it doesn’t mean it’s real as to any individual. This shouldn’t be forgotten or subsumed by extolling the virtue of a better brand of stereotyping.

24 comments on “Short Take: Conor’s Corner

  1. Erik H

    “The better assumption would be that everyone is an individual.”

    But that is not politically convenient, therefore it is impossible.

    Intersectionality allows SJWs to define new groups of the moment, at any time. It’s the main way that they can make sure the “right” people are on the “right” (winning) side of all of their arguments.

    1. SHG Post author

      How do you know all these cool things? Are you hanging out with the SJWs and secretly recording their evil conspiracy plans?

  2. Erik H

    Well, I do sometimes spy on their blogs. They make for fascinating reading.

    But seriously, can’t you just tell by the argument style? A skilled intersectionalist can define new opposing groups as fast as they can form new sentences. If you successfully attack their battle lines, they merely redefine the battle lines rather than conceding the battle. It’s like the ultimate in gerrymandering.

  3. B. McLeod

    “Intersectionality” in any of its forms has never been more than a “better brand of stereotyping,” by which disciples of the political fads du jour seek to force replacement of some prejudices with others.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    The better assumption would be that everyone is an individual.

    Doesn’t dividing people into groups until you can’t do it any more make you a hard-core,radical intersectionalist?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        It could be a good tu quoque stance for one-upping particular audiences, except that the group divisibility stops once you get to the intersection of “white” and “man.” We’re all fungible; everybody else on the planet is a unique special snowflake, just like… well, everybody else on the planet.

        1. SHG Post author

          I suspect that some gay guys are doing better than some straight guys, and some females are doing better than some males. If you gave them the option of being fungibly oppressed or changing, they would stick with their current oppression.

  5. Ross

    I wouldn’t worry as much about this if I didn’t have the suspicion that the SJW cabals aren’t interested as much in making the lives of the “oppressed” better as they are in making old, fat, white guys suffer for the alleged sins of our ancestors.

    1. SHG Post author

      Are you calling me fat? You’re weightist.

      One of my long-standing contentions is that to the extent the powerless want things to change, they would do better to co-opt the majority than to try to shame and insult them into submission. Even if we are old, fat, white guys, what are the chances we’re going to change our evil ways because somebody screams fascist at us?

  6. Jacob Williams

    All I know about intersectionality is that everyone I meet who uses that word is consistently having a worse day than I am, every time I ask.

    1. SHG Post author

      But having a worse day makes them more oppressed, which validates their misery, which makes them happy, so by having a worse day they’re having a great day being miserable. See how that works?

  7. WAN

    The charitable definition alone of intersectionality, such that it can be defined, doesn’t sound totally abhorrent. But then again it’s the same with the definition of communism — you do the work you are able to do and get paid according to your needs. Power is flattened, and everyone is equal and mostly not unhappy because they will not want. Not my number one idea for organizing society, even by just the definition, but it sounds enticing for many.

    But then these theories are wielded in the real world and whoa, look what happens. ‘But that’s not communism, that’s not intersectionality,’ they say. ‘Mao didn’t do it right. Stalin didn’t keep to the true tenets.’ ‘These Lewis & Clark law students didn’t get intersectionality right. They failed to consider X form of oppression. Wait till you see it working how it should. There will be no prejudice. The oppressed will get a voice. Power will be decentralized,’ they say.

    How these ideas operate in the real world matters.

    1. SHG Post author

      Intersectional as a concept to “understand” a person is one thing. As a construct for “oppression,” it’s something else (though I have no clue what that means). As a point system for the victim hierarchy, it another thing. If the former, then it’s nothing but a new jargon word for an old concept. If the latter, it’s an insidious approach to an untenable ideology.

      But as words go, it’s a perfectly nice word.

      1. jyjon

        The word Intersectional is too tin-y sounding for my tastes. I prefer warm wood-y sounding words like overlord or propertied.

  8. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    Intersectionality is a weird phenomenon. At once, progressives want to recognize that we have more in common than not and that each person is unique and differences matter. What started with class based on interest morphed into minority identity groups somewhere along the way. Intersectionality is as much of an excuse for discrimination as diversity for diversity’s sake.

    You’re all wage slaves. Get it through your skulls, you all have those, too. You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call them ’cause they can’t go. They owe their souls to the corporate store.

    ¡Viva la Revolución!

  9. Billy Bob Thorninthea$$

    The more I know of people, the better I like dogs–Mencken, I believe. As true today as the day he wrote it!
    People suck, but our Fearless Leader is the Best, the Lead Dog. He won’t take NO for an answer. When will it be done? Tomorrow, Mr. Prezident. That’s what I like to hear, you lying moron. Get outta here!


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