Intersectionality

Posted by on March 18th, 2014

I’m sure the last thing anybody needs is some straight, white, cis, middle class, able-bodied male giving his opinion on this subject, but fuck it. Over the past few months I’ve seen friends deride the concept of privilege and the basic idea of checking it, and intersectionality, and I’ve watched various online communities who share 99% of the same goals tearing themselves to pieces for no obvious reason, and finally I think: fuck it. Might as well throw myself to the lions and give my opinion. It’s the last thing anybody needs. Here it is.

Let’s start with privilege. It seems a really useful and obvious concept to me. Men and women – say – experience the world differently. They have different options and limitations, some of them intrinsic and some of them socially constructed, and we have different expectations of men and women as a result of those things. We might fight against them as individuals while interacting with each other, but on the level of a society I think they’re obviously there.

In the context of a discussion about, say, abortion, a woman telling some blasé male commenter to check his privilege is understandable. A man’s who’s anti- (or even pro-) abortion may well be arguing in the abstract; whatever the outcome, he doesn’t have to carry the foetus to term, have his body and career impacted, and so on. Telling him to check his privilege is another way of saying show some fucking empathy. That’s what it boils down to. Appreciate that things might well affect other people in ways in which they don’t affect you. Privilege is being in a position to argue about the weight of a backpack you’ll never have to carry. I’m not sure what’s controversial about that.

Ah, people say, but the idea that women have it tougher than men is ridiculous because I work in a supermarket, and just look at Naomi Campbell and Kate Middleton. They’re right – and that’s intersectionality. It’s the idea that certain characteristics exist more-or-less on lines. Man/Woman. Straight/Gay. White/Minority. Cis/Trans. Able-bodied/Impaired. Rich/Poor. Etc. Taken individually, the further you are to the left of those definitions, the more positive the expectations, the more society is geared towards you, the easier your life will be. But it’s not as simple as saying “I am a woman, therefore I am more oppressed than you”. The different characteristics, with their benefits and defects, all intersect: the clue’s in the name. A black woman will face the same negative expectations as a white woman, but also the negative expectations associated with her colour. A gay disabled man faces additional difficulties to a gay able-bodied man. And so on.

That’s all intersectionality means, and – again – it strikes me as a really useful and interesting way of looking at the world. We all know those power differentials are there. It’s an imprecise model, to be sure, and also a simplistic one, but it’s certainly not a bad attempt. It feels like an approximation of the truth, or at least a genuine effort at moving towards one. I think that’s a good thing.

A lot of the recent online arguments have centred around cis/trans issues within feminism. For what it’s worth, I saw Suzanne Moore’s (now ancient) comments about transgender people, and then her double-down defence of those comments, and what I saw was someone being told to check their privilege and baulking at the idea of doing so. That’s more-or-less what I’ve seen since too. It’s a very human response, I think; not only have I seen men do it on feminist blogs, I’m sure I’ve done it myself. When you’re attacked, you huddle – and perhaps even more so when you’re attacked with artillery you’re more used to deploying than receiving. But it’s not rocket science; it’s just empathy and openness.

Of course, while I might have my own opinions about the debate, I also have the privilege of not being affected by the outcome. So it goes. And like I said, nobody’s waiting for my opinion there anyway.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 at 10:38 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

 

4 Responses to “Intersectionality”

  1. Sophie Hannah Says:

    I’m glad you posted this, Steve! I have felt for a long time felt that, of all the possible disadvantages a person might have/face, surely the very most disadvantageous of all has to be poverty/lack of access to a decent education? If you are born into a desperately poor family where no one is educated, nor has the financial and intellectual resources to secure a life-changing education for their children…it seems to me that escaping that poverty/lack of education trap is virtually impossible. All other ‘lacks of privilege’, it seems to me, can be more easily overcome, at least in western democracies. Plentiful dosh and an education that enables you to be articulate and professional/middle-class-seeming go an awfully long way, I reckon.

    Which is interesting because there’s been a lot on Twitter recently about ‘What is a feminist?’ Lots of people have pointed out that a feminist isn’t merely someone who believes men and women are and should be equal; a feminist should mean someone who believes women are innately oppressed by patriarchal structures and that that is the main/worst oppression out there, and the one they choose to focus on. So, someone who believes that white western educated affluent women are actually an *incredibly* privileged group – privileged over poor, uneducated white men, for example – is not a feminist. Which is fine, I guess. Though I used to think feminist meant ‘doesn’t believe women should be disadvantaged in any way’. I have altered my definition!

    I don’t know if you’ve been following the same rows on these issue that I have (I’ve been following all of them; the Suzanne Moore one is only the tip of the iceberg) but one thing does strike me: at no point does anyone on any of the sides say, or appear to think, ‘You know what? Who cares any more who’s right or wrong? Let’s just stop fighting – just stop it, altogether, and just be kind to each other, whatever the hell we might think about porn, gender reassignment surgery, Page 3 etc.’

    Now, going back to all the different perceived groups that you listed; rich, poor, white, of-colour, trans, cis, male, female, able-bodied, differently abled…. all those groups, right? Of course, it’s only natural that humans will divide into groups as there are so many of us, but…until we can get to the point where we ALL (or at least more of us) value being kind more than we value being right, and where more/most of us say, ‘You know what? Who cares what I or you think about anything? Let’s just be friendly and kind first, and worry about our opinions later, once we’ve got the friendliness and kindness in place?’….until we get to the point where we’re mostly saying that as a matter of course, isn’t it crazy to divide ourselves into little groups and argue with other little groups? We are all one big group – people – and we are laying into each other every second of every day – and to what end?

    I guess the point I’m making is that watching all the bitter and acrimonious fighting makes me, eventually, blind to the issues. The arguments go round and round, and all I see, eventually, is….people who are willing to spend day after month after year being hostile, self-righteous, cross – fight, fight, fight, endless negative energy released – and this is bad for ALL HUMANS: white, trans, fat, thin, asthmatic, cocaine-addicted, bridge-playing… All of us.

    I believe there is a real crisis – a kindness deficit – and that this is the main thing making everyone’s lives more miserable. Everyone feels aggrieved and embattled all the time. There is only one way out that I can see: we all forget about what groups we’re in, so that instead of this:

    X: You implied cis-women didn’t have the right to call themselves simply ‘women’. Disgusting!
    Y: If you refuse to identify as cis, you’re claiming to be the norm. Bigot!

    we would/could see this:

    X: You implied cis-women didn’t have the right to call themselves simply ‘women’. Disgusting!
    Y: I might well be wrong. What do I know? 🙂 I care more about us being nice to each other than I do about my opinion. Let’s forget this fight and chat about Breaking Bad instead? Because, do you know what? Even if we carried on arguing for four years, we’d never agree. I also have a feeling that our great row would make zero difference to anything, apart from to upset us both. So let’s agree that opinions about issues do not define a person. Let’s really like each other even though we see the world in different ways!
    X: Oh, okay. 🙂

    Yes, I know this seems naive. With the world as it is and people as they are, it IS naive. But it’s also the only hope: realising that none of our fights matter more than simply putting an end to all fighting.

    To misquote Mamma Cass slightly: ‘I’ve been fighty and I’ve been non-fighty, and believe me, non-fighty is better’!

  2. stevemosby Says:

    Sophie – thanks for this. I mean, I agree with most of it, especially about the kindness deficit, but I also think it’s just rephrasing the problem. Because when you say –

    “Now, going back to all the different perceived groups that you listed … all those groups, right? Of course, it’s only natural that humans will divide into groups as there are so many of us, but…until we can get to the point where we ALL (or at least more of us) value being kind more than we value being right, and where more/most of us say, ‘You know what? Who cares what I or you think about anything? Let’s just be friendly and kind first, and worry about our opinions later, once we’ve got the friendliness and kindness in place?’….until we get to the point where we’re mostly saying that as a matter of course, isn’t it crazy to divide ourselves into little groups and argue with other little groups? We are all one big group – people – and we are laying into each other every second of every day – and to what end?”

    – those groups exist simply because people are different, but the different treatment they receive on the whole isn’t simply down to individual decisions or attitudes. It’s down to social structures, history, education and so on. Some differences don’t matter – brown hair versus blonde – whereas others have come to for a variety of reasons, and people within that group are treated negatively. Saying we should all be kind and everything would be okay is true as far as it goes, but it’s like saying racism wouldn’t be a problem if everyone stopped being racist. Yeah, but they don’t. And so it seems completely reasonable to say “as a white man, I have white privilege” because it’s true, and it will be true until that wonderful day when being a person of colour is no longer disadvantageous, at which point white privilege will no longer exist. But we’re unlikely to get there without some degree of shouting, especially if that particular privilege is repeatedly sidelined in conversation, or if it feels as though it is to those affected by it.

    The rows on twitter and elsewhere … yeah, I’ve been following most of them. I imagine I know the people you’re referring to. In terms of something like pronouns, I’m happy to defer entirely to the individual’s preferences, and even if deep down I thought a transgender woman wasn’t a ‘real’ woman (which I absolutely don’t think), I would still defer – because why be hurtful to or diminish somebody for no reason? But that’s easy for me to say; again, that’s an example of my privilege. Because I can understand that if you were running a women-only space and felt differently, the issue might be far more problematic. And since that’s a debate that doesn’t affect me at all, I’m wary of giving any real opinion on it. Certainly, it would be nice if everyone was a little calmer with each other but given the attacks on both sides and the intensely personal component to the issue, I can understand why they’re not.

  3. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Thanks for reply, Steve! I think we agree about most issues, apart from possibly two:

    1) what is the best thing to do in the face of other people NOT behaving well? Pacifism/Be Nice Anyway versus fighting back/shouting etc. I’m pretty convinced that pacifism is the way to go, though it has certain short term disadvantages: e.g., someone yells at you horridly and you still have to be nice to them so you perceive them as ‘getting away with it’ – though I would argue that in a crucial sense no one gets away with anything – the mean things we do cannot help but impact negatively upon us. But..from a justice p.o.v., fighting and shouting back seem irresistible a lot of the time, I can see that. However, I would still argue that we should resist when we can. I’m not only advocating kindness because it’s nice, in a soppy/wet kind of way! – I also believe it’s the strongest possible device/mechanism by which getting rid of all unpleasant things can be achieved. Obvious riposte might be: ‘Try being nice to a gunman intent on shooting you!’ Yes, in the short term, of course – I’d get shot. But the more people subscribe to a pacifist giving-benefit-of-doubt value system, the more it becomes the norm/general emotional climate, and then – for sure – there will be far fewer people who want to shoot anyone. We only want to shoot people because we’ve been conditioned by a society that takes hostility for granted.

    Other thing we might disagree on:

    2) whether people not personally involved in/affected by a thing need to be particularly humble when arguing about that thing. If you and I were arguing about an issue like abortion, or sexism, I would think you were every bit as entitled as I to have a view and to express that view without an ‘of course I’m only a man’ caveat. I would, similarly, feel free to have a view about an issue that mainly affected men. But I could be wrong about this – I generally have difficulty seeing things in structural terms, since I’m never even remotely typical for any structural group I’m rumoured to belong to! I think, actually, this is a key point in *all* political arguments on Twitter. I see everything from a ‘How might this affect a person?’ point of view, and never from an ‘oppressed group’ point of view. I am sure this is because I have never felt that group identities are real…but that’s a whole other discussion! 🙂

  4. stevemosby Says:

    Thanks again, Sophie. (And it’s nice to have a discussion where we can thank each other for engaging, even when we disagree a bit. It should be the normal state of affairs, but of course it isn’t).

    To take your second point first, yeah, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, ad hominem arguments are generally fallacious, and so it shouldn’t matter whether a man or woman is making the argument; all that matters is whether the argument is valid and sound. At the same time, while I feel totally free to have my own opinion about abortion, I’m aware that if I were arguing with a woman the outcome of the argument affects us in very different ways. I happen to be pro-abortion (or pro-women’s right to choose, or whatever), but if I wasn’t then I can imagine the woman I was arguing with saying “yeah, but it’s my body we’re talking about, and you’re saying I should have to do something that you’ll never have to“, and that seems fair enough to me. Or at least worth doing that dreaded privilege check: am I sure I’d be saying this if I were the one who had to deal with the consequences?

    Of course, one argument is that if you do have privilege you should use it to speak out. But in the current rows, I’m not sure that would be helpful. If I started telling feminists what I thought they should do to be better feminists, I’d rightly be hauled over the coals. And that’s basically what it would amount to. Sometimes your views won’t be welcome or helpful.

    Your first point, I don’t really agree. It’s nice in theory, but there’s a danger it becomes people who generally get listened to telling people who generally aren’t listened to to be quiet. When the status quo excludes you – and the issues important to you – from conversation, sometimes the only way to be heard is to shout. If everyone were being kind and open then it wouldn’t be a problem, but they’re not. And if you’re polite and wait your turn in a conversation then sometimes you just don’t get a turn, so you have to hammer the table instead.

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