An editorial in the New York Times on Wednesday March 8th, a feminist who is also Jewish
wondered if she could really join in the international women’s day movement. After all, the organizers were linked to groups promoting the “decolonization of Palestine,” which effectively means putting an end to the nation of Israel. (https:/www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/opinion/does-feminism-have-room-for-zionists.html)
She wasn’t the only person to wonder. A strong pro “reproductive rights” agenda was bound to exclude those who believe that human life begins at conception and abortion should be legal only under strictly defined circumstances. (In other words many Catholic and Evangelical feminists.)
And the organizers also tossed in solidarity with Native Americans resisting pipeline construction. So if you supported a woman’s reproductive rights but had issues with Native American claims you were out of luck. And visa-versa.
One could go on. There is a theoretical basis for linking these apparently different social action agendas. It’s called intersectionality. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality) Intersectionality theory proposes that a wide variety of different forms of oppression intersect to create a system of oppression and marginalization.
Thus a woman denied an equal wage is facing the same oppressive system as a Palestinian denied a housing permit by the Israeli authorities. And both face the same oppressive system as Native Americans, African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals; all struggling for equal rights and justice.
Now as the article above points out, this gets very complicated very quickly – but serves the very useful purpose of showing simplistic approaches to discrimination that just address individual cases of oppression are often inadequate. They don’t get to the structural roots of the problem.
Those roots are usually characterized by the terms colonialism and empire theory. State and non-state allies (typically corporations) are linked through participation in neoliberal economic structures that inevitably divide the world into those who colonize (physically, economically, culturally, religiously) and those who are colonized. There is the Empire (often treated as an abstract almost metaphysical entity) and those whom it subjugates.
So we can also see the problem for a Jewish feminist. On one hand she recognizes and has experienced the oppression of women. On the other she has experienced anti-semitism as another ancient and virulent form of oppression, and knows that in its contemporary form it is often in the guise of being anti-Israel. But in her this case inter-sectionalist analysis ends up pitting two forms of oppression against each other rather than illuminating the relationship between them. In the intersectionalist analysis Israel is seen as an neoliberal, colonialist state, and even a puppet of the American Empire. Next to American society itself Israel is seen as the apotheosis of systemic oppression.
And this means that Jews have a stark choice. If they want to be counted among the oppressed they must abandon their support of Israel and understand anti-semitism as yet another manifestation of systemic oppression of which Israel is somehow ironically a part. Put more bluntly, they must abandon a fundamental part of Jewish identity in order to be counted among the oppressed.
And what about disabled persons who have a strong interest in the marginalizing effects of the present American health care system, but who are deeply opposed to abortion because it is a means of getting rid of potentially disabled children? If access to abortion is the sin qua non of feminist advocacy for health care then the disabled find themselves on the side of the oppressor.
Or minority religious groups (like Sikhs and Muslims) who oppose same-sex marriage. Well they also have an ambiguous place at the intersection of the oppressed even as they are suffering immediate and deadly attacks on members of their community. Intersectionality as an ideology of action rather than a description of social realities requires that these groups give up fundamental aspects of their identity in order to stand at the intersection of the oppressed.
Even the concatenation of LGBTQ as an intersection of marginalization is problematic, because while many would recognize the unique vulnerabilities of transgendered individuals, addressing those vulnerabilities doesn’t necessarily equate with supporting same-sex marriage. And as this author has witnessed, many African Americans simply don’t see the struggle for LGBTQ rights intersecting their struggle against racism for basic civil rights.
In short intersectionality has the potential to exclude from the struggle for justice and liberation as many as it includes. What was intended to help understand the complexity of identity in relation to power ends up reifying oppression and liberation into abstract, indeed nearly metaphysical forces.
And that creates several problems.
First, it’s hard to create political strategies against metaphysical forces. The result is a focus on public symbolic acts such as marches and rallies that may have little political effect. Political action (the Civil Right Act being a key example) takes coalition building. And that in turn means letting go of the requirement that everyone in the coalition agree on everything.
Secondly it’s specific political acts are weakened because couching them in ideological terms alienates potential supporters. Many Jews not only support a two state solution but some even support boycott and divestiture to that end. But they will not support “the decolonization of Palestine” as called for by the international women’s movement and they certainly won’t support the “right of return” that is central to the BDS movement. Because both terms are simply synonyms for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.
Similarly many conservative Christian groups can fully support the civil rights of ethnic minorities and the rights of undocumented migrants, but will not associate themselves with attacks on so-called neoliberal economic structures or the “American Empire.” One may regard the Christians as naive in this regard, but naive or not the voice they could bring to the struggle is lost.
Finally, intersectionality, through exclusion, too easily makes particular communities the embodiment of oppression. Certain social institution like the police, or congress, or corporations, or evangelical Christians, or Catholics, or Jews, by their failure to adopt the entire progressive package at the intersection of the oppressed are legitimized as targets for attack. And this is being played out today.
Reports of antisemitism on college campuses are on the rise, sometimes specifically in the context of excluding Jewish voices from student governments intent on pressing the BSD movement. Other times in the kind of graffiti and name calling directed against Jews.
My own Facebook feed gives ample evidence of the vitriol directed against Catholic and Evangelical Christians who do not support every aspect of the progressive agenda with regard to same-sex marriage and abortion.
Both verbal/symbolic attacks against police, not to mention violent murder of police personnel, have become more common even when the individual officers are members of just those minorities that are otherwise regarded as oppressed. And across the board the term “privileged” has become a catchall delegitimization of any voice that disagrees with any aspect of the intersectionality movement. This is far from what intersectionality theory would intend with its complex analysis of privilege, but it becomes the practical effect.
Finally, intersectionality potentially ends real dialogue. The Parliament of the World’s Religions, which now bills itself as a “Global Interfaith Movement” is an example of this. Begun so that people of many different religious could experience each other and engage in dialogue, as it has adopted a progressive agenda that excludes all those religious voices that cannot support that agenda. Quite frankly you can’t be both an interfaith political movement and a venue for serious and difficult dialogue among those with real differences in their perceptions of reality. I witnessed this in Salt Lake City in 2015, when Parliament delegates shouted down a speaker who didn’t accept their particular interpretation of Islam and the only Jewish voices allowed were those on the most leftward end of the American Reformed movement.
As an analytical framework intersectionality is both powerful and useful. But like all such frameworks its descriptive power becomes distorted when as a basis for prescribing a course of action it becomes yet another way of excluding those whose identity keeps them from the intersection of the oppressed.