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April 20, 2018+Ian Storey 
+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

How Critics of Intersectionality (Often) Miss the Point

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:30.

As “identity politics” has become an increasingly major flashpoint for political debate, the idea of intersectionality has come into the crosshairs of those concerned about the political meaning and place of identity. In an understatedly important piece in The Atlantic, Connor Friedersdorf suggests that intersectionality is being misleadingly lumped into an ambiguous blanket category that mashes together “identity politics” and certain illiberal movement tactics — yet nothing about intersectionality makes it inherently hostile to open speech and debate.

In fact, there is something profoundly ironic about claims like critic David French’s, that intersectionality is “identity politics on steroids”: intersectionality as a concept was invented to combat the kinds of essentialisms and divisions that academics and activists worried had become entrenched in the New Left of the 1970s. Intersectionality was about using empirically “grounded specificities” to interlink different kinds of claims about legally-verifiable discriminations, and it remains an important language through which people can relate their experiences across lines that might otherwise harden into static camps.

The question that critics like French should be asking is not whether intersectionality is inherently dangerous, but how it is that an academic debate about how different identity characteristics structurally intersect became tied to certain kinds of protest French and others abhor. That is a question not about intersectionality itself, but the growth of particular movement tactics.

Very roughly speaking, in the study of movement politics, any given movement can be descriptively divided into three constitutive parts: its issue area, its constituency, and its tactics. Although the three are often profoundly intertwined, no individual component mandates anything in particular about the other two. The fact that certain student groups embrace certain tactics like disrupting speakers is not something inherent to the issues they take themselves to be addressing, and shouldn’t be treated as such. That is ceding far too much legitimacy to the tactics themselves.

I have been fortunate to have a number of colleagues at Bard College, at Harvard University, who were staunch believers in the intellectual importance of intersectionality and its claims, but who were equally firm in allowing those with opposing viewpoints to fully air their arguments (if nothing else, in order to subsequently savage them). It’s easy, when you’re looking at the ways in which complicated arguments like intersectionality get taken up by social movements, to focus on the form you find the scariest; the reality is almost invariably much more complex.

Indeed, any given movement can be seen operating with different tactical templates, at different times, for different conditions on site. There will, of course, always be relations of intimacy among the three dimensions of social movements: if the issue area is a broad understanding of the “domination” of a social group, that is clearly going to have the most resonance with certain people and seem to make some kinds of confrontation more appealing.

However, this intuition actually doesn’t go very far in explaining the way that specific movements form and evolve. Consider, for instance, the racial diversity of the American Civil Rights movements or the tactical plurality of contemporary global environmentalism. Coalition politics and tactical innovation are, as practical facts, much more diverse than you’d expect just from a set of basic assumptions about who movements attract and why.

Mass protests are one tactical direction a movement might take; “shutdowning,” or disrupting opposition speakers, another. Because of the reach and eloquence of the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have come to identify the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-Twentieth Century with the particular tactic of non-violence (or as King preferred, “direct action”), as if the two were synonymous. King, however, not only understood that the conjunction of the two was the result of deliberate tactical decision-making on the part of movement leaders, but in speeches and works like “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” actively played on the possibility that the movement make take up other tactics, including violent ones, if direct action was not successful. In fact, instability in tactical choice and organizational form has been one of the hallmarks of successful American social and political movements, from the early women’s suffrage movement to the opposition to the Vietnam War.

Shutdowns and no-platforming are tools that have indeed been increasingly used over the last several years in student contexts, and in turn (and entirely by design) receive attention disproportionate to either their prevalence or the actual numbers behind the action. The one breeds more of the other: the more disproportionate the social-media-supercharged attention given to shutdowning, the more appealing it is as a tactic, and Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” can have a particularly pernicious effect in the university environment where attention can be quickly and hotly generated.

There are many complicated and interlocking reasons why the tactic of shutdowning has become all the rage in the last few years – the effect of the media landscape on how students conceive of making themselves heard, the effects of national attention on the profile of incidents, perhaps affective differences in what kinds of actions these student bodies emotionally respond to – none of which have succeeded in entirely poisoning the academic polity, but all of which are cause enough for concern in themselves without conflating the tactics chosen with the movements they represent.

Still, if you are a concerned critic of the effect that shutdowning has on the carefully cultivated public of intellectual curiosity that the modern university can be, it is worth remembering that the cantankerous impulse shutdowning represents is as old as the liberal public it disrupts, and that public space has managed to thrive nonetheless.

Perhaps by virtue of their political heritage from the British, whose House of Commons has long elevated it to an art form, Americans are past masters of heckling and disrupting in the most innovative of ways. A read through the transcripts of President Andrew Johnson’s speaking tours is a study in the sometimes hilarious inventiveness of the American when it comes to disrupting public speech. Johnson was perpetually flustered by his hecklers, often derailing his own talk entirely to go off on tangents of invectives, but rhetorical masters like Stephen Douglas and Lincoln himself simply rolled with the punches, and were all the more persuasive for it.

The best response to the tactic may be precisely remembering that it is only a tactic, and a rather ineffectual one at the end of the day if starved of the attention it craves. It is true that if not properly planned for, severe events like those that erupted around Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College can get seriously and dangerously out of hand, but events of that severity, as Friedersdorf notes, are still very much a rarity even in the present hyper-charged environment. Dealing with shutdowning is a matter of planning, of defending and having faith in the resilience of the public space, and more than that, of an active and aggressive reinvesting on the part of America’s academic institutions in the values of pluralism and an open speech environment conducive to multiple, conflicting opinions.


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