How to play intersectionality

By Lorenzo

I recently read, in quick succession, “Whiteness as Property” published in 1993 by Cheryl L. Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1991 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” and her 1989 Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. The latter two essays essentially launched intersectionality in academe.

These essays are either Law Review pieces, or written as such; the first being in the Harvard Law Review and the second in the Standard Law Review. All are clearly written and extensively footnoted. Neither writer is therefore subject to the sort of withering demolition that philosopher Martha Nussbaum handed out to gender theorist Judith Butler in her wonderful 1999 essay “The Professor of Parody” in The New Republic. (If you haven’t read that essay, do yourself a favour and read it: preferably right now, I’ll wait.)

Flattening
The essays of both Harris and Crenshaw are grappling with serious issues, largely centred around the role of racial categorisations in US history and society. I have commented on Harris’s essay at length (probably too much length) in my previous post. That they are grappling with morally serious issues is very much pertinent to how to play intersectionalism, because a key element is to use moral concern to flatten the analytical landscape.

The game is relatively simple: any matters pertaining to the function or dynamics of things, including what constraints are operating, are ignored, played down or turned into a matter of oppression and subordination. This is important, indeed central, because it ensures that the invoked moral principles dominate the analytical landscape. This domination-by-denial nowadays extends into using a priori moral commitments to push outright and explicit exclusion of any contrary evidence or analytical framings. A professor of biology describes students attempting to impose this game on what it is permissible for her to teach:

In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true. In fact, IQ can certainly be measured, and it has some predictive value. While the score may not reflect satisfaction in life, it does correlate with academic success. And while IQ is very highly influenced by environmental differences, it also has a substantial heritable component; about 50 percent of the variation in measured intelligence among individuals in a population is based on variation in their genes. Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.

Similar biological denialism exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology. This denialism manifests itself at times in classroom discussions and in emails in which students explain at length why I should not be teaching the topic.
Attempting to explain how things work, what processes and constraints are operating, is to be overridden by the invoked moral principles. But this is the intellectual regime of identity politics and intersectionality with years of operation, interlocking support and public mobbing behind it. Crenshaw is literally operating at the start of the game, so has to operate more circumspectly. 

There are two key elements in Crenshaw’s approach in her Mapping the Margin’s essay. The first is that at no stage does Crenshaw cite any statistics on the actual scale of either domestic violence or rape. The only statistics cited pertain to (some) patterns within the phenomena. Providing no evidence of scale not only elevates natural moral repugnance about domestic violence and rape, it also allows the second key element of the identity politics/intersectionality game to proceed much more smoothly—to make grand moral claims about social significance: in this case, of domestic violence and rape. 

Nowadays, the game has been somewhat augmented by the use of highly dubious, but much invoked, statistics about the scale of sexual assault. In reality, the evidence strongly suggests that rape is a declining phenomena, though domestic violence seems to remain at a consistent level. Nor have they remotely been at the level that can reasonably be described as structural.  Especially given that rape and sexual assault can also be a crime against men and boys (who are about 17% of student victims and 4% of non-student victims of rape in the US). 

Part of the problem with rape is that, as rapists tend to be serial offenders; so a small proportion of males end up preying on a significantly larger proportion of women. This, in itself, gives men and women very different perspectives on rape. Not least because for women the salient danger is rape itself. For men, the overwhelming majority of whom are not rapists, false accusation is the more salient fear.

Rape has always been a crime although, as is a sadly persistent feature of US history, the prosecution thereof was deeply polluted by racial stigmatisation. Rape’s abhorrent and criminal status was mobilised against African-American men while being underplayed (or even implicitly denied) in ways that stripped protection from African-American women. In her Demarginalizing essay, Crenshaw cites some truly appalling comments from the bench:

What has been said by some of our courts about an unchaste female being a comparatively rare exception is no doubt true where the population is composed largely of the Caucasian race, but we would blind ourselves to actual conditions if we adopted this rule where another race that is largely immoral constitutes an appreciable part of the population. Dallas v State,(1918).

And:

A judge in 1912 said: “This court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man [concerning rape].”

As I have argued elsewhere, the denial of adequate police protection for African-American communities (particularly urban communities) has been crucial in creating a culture of bravado violence within African-American communities and, as a result, poisoning relations between Americans of different “racial” origin. The issue is not whether US history has been deeply marred by patterns of racial stigmatisation and subordination, it is how to understand and accurately characterise those patterns and legacies. 

Returning to the issue of domestic violence, Crenshaw engages in the typical feminist-led progressivist conflation of domestic violence with intimate partner violence, thereby glossing over violence against children. The obvious incentive for doing so being that women tend to perpetuate a majority of the violence against children. But grappling with the reality of female violence does not allow the intersectional game to be “played” in the correct fashion.

Except in extremely peaceful societies, most male violence is outside the home. Most female violence is inside the home. But the very notion of female domestic violence, including female intimate partner violence, is written out by the imposed intersectional framework. If, as is the case, the dominant pattern in intimate partner violence is violent men and women hitting each other, then one cannot build grand structural claims out of such a messy reality. 

Even for male perpetrators, the evidence is clear that they differ from men in general on several dimensions: hardly surprising, given the relatively low levels of domestic violence. That personality disturbance is a better predictor of domestic violence than sex (/gender) just reinforces this point.

The realities of female violence simply do not conform to the patterns intersectionality so grandly elevates. A study nicely summarises the evidence:

These include a meta-analytic study of 65,000+ respondents by Archer (2000) that found women to be slightly more violent (in terms of intimate partner violence (IPV)) than men. They also include a cross cultural studies of dating violence (n=6900) by Douglas and Straus (2003) that found college girls to be more violent than college boys across 17 countries. We could add to that the recent US National Survey (Gaudioisi, 2006) that found mothers were the most violent group in terms of physical abuse toward and lethality of children (N=718,000+) or Laroche’s (2005) (n=25,876) finding (in a nationally representative sample) that women used “intimate terrorism” (instrumental abuse) nearly as much as men.
Privileging disadvantage
Which points to the problem of the privilege rhetoric that has become such a feature of identity/intersectional politics. Talking of advantage and disadvantage incorporates the multi-dimensionality of social phenomena very easily—you can be advantaged in one way and disadvantaged in another. It also permits probabilistic analysis very easily—a group can, on average, have an advantage. An advantage can be a tendency, rather than an absolute. This all accords with the reality and complexity of social dynamics. 

Privilege, on the other hand, is inherently both categorical (you are either privileged or you are not) and moralised (it’s a bad thing to have). Even better, it delegitimises an entire society and feeds into moralised analytical flattening. Eliminating disadvantage focuses on incorporating people into the wider society: acknowledging privilege focuses on blaming, ranking and dividing. The latter is first and foremost a status game.

A recent study indicates that privilege training tended to make Euro-American (“white”) liberals less sympathetic to poor Euro-American (“white”) males but had no effect on the attitudes of social conservatives. The study indicates what little role race plays in the perspectives of social conservatives in the US: social conservatives in the study either had the same (low) level of sympathy for poor Euro-Americans and poor African-Americans or slightly higher sympathy for poor African-Americans. 

This lack of salience for race among social conservatives is not surprising if you have been playing attention to the data on social attitudes in the US. First, that overt racial prejudice is low and declining. Second, that a series of African-Americans have been popular with US conservatives. Third, that as many African-Americans identify as conservative as identify as liberal. To the extent that “white” liberals are now “to the left” of African-Americans on various “race” issues.

Diversity against variety
To grapple with actual social dynamics, one has to be both sociological (concerned with structures) and psychological (attuned to the cognitive heterogeneity of the human). But such heterogeneity within categorical groups is precisely what the grand structural claims of intersectionality cannot deal with.

Intersectionality does appear to be attempting to deal with the complexities of reality. Indeed, that its key selling point. Crenshaw has some sharp and pertinent observations about how universalising Euro-American (“white”) experience leaves out the realities of very different experiences among African-Americans (“blacks”). She is still, however, arguing for a layered application of what are still categorical structural patterns, which is why female domestic violence simply gets written out of the story. 

Intersectional analysis attempts to wrestle with the multidimensionality of advantage and disadvantage while retaining the categorical patterns of critical race theory, radical feminism and related strains of thought. Since those original categorical patterns (“black”, “white”, male, female, straight, gay) are profoundly inadequate characterisations of American (or any other Western) society, you can always find ways to “play” intersectionality, attempting to “solve” their inadequacies by adding another layer of categorical patterns (the “intersections), creating a multi-dimensional matrix (“black female”, “gay black female”, etc.). But you are still just playing with categorical patterns which are, inherently, too simple to accurately map social dynamics.

As they remain too simple, unable to cope with the diversity of the human and the social, it is not a playing with categorical patterns at all likely to lead to beneficial social outcomes. The same inadequacy that provides the room to “play” intersectionality ensures that any social gains are going to be, at best, an accidental by-product, as only social mechanisms which support the still-required-for-the-intersectionality categorical patterns are considered. Writing female domestic violence out of the analysis is both typical and predictably disastrous as a prescription for action (see this critique of the so-called Duluth model of domestic violence: a model which sees domestic violence as being an expression of “patriarchy”). 

Discrimination games
Crenshaw, being a legal scholar, is very much concerned with anti-discrimination law, critiquing various Supreme Court and other judicial decisions. Anti-discrimination law in the US is about establishing that one is a member of a relevant protected class: such classes being identified due to past discrimination and legislative action. There is therefore an inherent tension between “is one now acting in a way that does not discriminate?” and “are people affected by past discrimination?”. 

The answer to both can easily be yes, leaving it to the courts to negotiate between proper current action and past legacies. Since law is inherently future directed (what should or should not be legal to do?), there is likely to be a tendency for a yes answer to the first question to outweigh a yes answer to the second. This is not, in itself, a sign of privileging, more a natural tendency in law. But to see that requires thinking about social functionality and functioning in a way that intersectionality, and privilege and oppression talk generally, inherently tend to downplay or ignore. 

PoMo evasions
Crenshaw explicitly invokes postmodernism: 

I consider intersectionality a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory. In mapping the intersections of race and gender, the concept does engage dominant assumptions that race and gender are essentially separate categories. By tracing the categories to their intersections, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable. While the primary intersections that I explore here are between race and gender, the concept can and should be expanded by factoring in issues such as class, sexual orientation, age, and color.

One rendition of this antiessentialist critique—that feminism essentializes the category woman—owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance.

But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people–and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful–is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged by them. It is, then, a project that presumes that categories have meaning and consequences. And this project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies.

I follow the practice of others in linking antiessentialism to postmodernism.
What looks like, and parades itself as, informed and sophisticated scepticism actually rests on a series of trumping simplicities, as Crenshaw’s treatment of domestic violence nicely illustrates.

Talking of people and ideas as being instances of postmodernism raises problems of definition (what do you mean by the term?) and identification (do people see themselves as being, or practising, postmodernism?). What the various lines of thought that might be reasonably called “small p” postmodernism have in common is that they elevate the patterns and claims of discourse over empirical interrogation of reality. The moral urgency of the narrative overrides the complexity of reality. Indeed, as we can see, can preclude accurate characterisation, still less careful examination, of that reality. 

Characterising groups in racial terms has a flattening effect, as it strips away issues of cultural, norms, expectations, etc in favour of skin tone and physical markers of continental origin. Leading to such simplifying nonsense as dividing people into those who are “white-bodied” or “black-bodied”.

Use of the term whiteness by Harris and others has a revealing ambiguity: is it a state of mind, a social category, an inherent feature? It gives continental ancestry both a metaphysical grandeur and an ambiguity of nature that builds any cultural, normative or expectation effects up from one’s skin tone and physical markers of continental origin. Such ubiquitous characterisation in racial terms flattens social analysis all on its own. 

The move to make central notions of structural racism represents another triumphing of the conveniently sociological over the inconveniently psychological. It also illustrates the importance of the moralised flattening of analysis. If it is not intentional, why is it racism? Why is it not simply structural disadvantage? To protect the identity/intersectionalist narrative from criticism, and elevate the status of those pushing it, provide obvious reasons. 

Avoiding practicality
Crenshaw incorporates, in her Mapping the Margins essay, a critique of Daniel Moynihan’s notorious report on African-American families. Crenshaw attacks the idea that there is anything pathological about female-headed sole parent families. Whatever terminology one wants to use, there is lots of evidence that children raised in fatherless homes are significantly disadvantaged. The collapse of fatherhood in African-American communities has not been good for their children, particularly male children. But it is a lot easier to get huffy about terminological sensitivities if one does not interrogate the practicalities of making things work. 

If US jurisdictions were able to provide effective policing services for African-American urban communities, bravado culture could be successfully undermined and replaced. We know this not only because of indicative successes such as in Oakland but because there is no difference in homicide rates between African-Americans and Euro-Americans in rural US
But a program of more detectives, forensic services and connection-building is far too practical. It is wrongly practical, because it suggests what seem entrenched patterns are soluble if one pays attention to what is required to make things work
The grand structural claims of the identity/intersectional game require that there be profound structural flaws, not correctable disadvantages. Even better, claiming profound structural flaws means one can then play the intersectional game indefinitely. 

Molehills of truth …
There is a tendency, illustrated here, to divide statements about reality into lies (i.e. deliberate falsehoods) or claims that are seriously attempting to be accurate. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his great essay On Bullshit, points out that there are also a class of statements made without regard to their truth, typically for their persuasive effect. 

Given that morality, as social psychologist Johnathan Haidt points out, binds and blinds, it is entirely possible for people to be engaging in bullshit where the first person they are fooling is themselves. This is especially likely if various moral and cognitive commitments mark membership in a moral community or otherwise buttress a cognitive identityAn impoverished ability to self-correct appears to be a prominent feature of political radicals of all stripes. Our capacity for self-delusion is one reason why doing science well is hard. This is especially true of social science. 

It has become a standard feature of establishment (that is advocacy and institutional) feminism to create mountains of bullshit out of (selective) molehills of truth. The Duluth model of domestic violence as an expression of “patriarchy” is based on doing precisely that, for example. As is how establishment feminism wields the notion of patriarchy

So much of modern prestige progressivism, including intersectionality, arises out of feminism that it is not surprising that creating mountains of bullshit out of molehills of truth has become such a feature of prestige progressivism. Often molehills of truth about morally significant phenomena, all the better to create morally portentous mountains of bullshit. When we dig into, in this case, the actual patterns of domestic violence, we can see quite clearly how intersectionality creates its mountains of morally portentous bullshit out of (very selective) molehills of truth. 

Seeking grandeur
In all three essays, there are serious moral and social issues being grappled with. The problem is that all three essays use that seriousness and moral salience to create grand structural narratives that flatten the analytical landscape in ways that elevate the narrative but drown the practical, and the complexities of reality. 

Identity/intersectional rhetoric not only implies there has been no “real” progress since Emmet Till, it is not directed to anything that is likely to lead to generate genuine progress, just to allowing the intersectional game to be played indefinitely. One suspects that is the purpose. 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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