Earlier this week, an auditorium of young people at Lewis & Clark Law School was prevented from hearing the ideas of a speaker whom a student organization invited to campus when protesters exercised a heckler’s veto to bring her remarks to a halt. “Most of the students, conservatives & progressives, were civil,” the speaker later declared. “A noisy minority was willing to impose its will on everyone else.”
Because the law students who planned the event were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, and the speaker was Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the free-enterprise-oriented think-tank AEI, the story garnered attention among conservative intellectuals, the most thoughtful of whom support free speech for all when events planned by their ideological allies are met with tolerant protest, but who abhor the trend of intolerant event shutdowns and “no-platforming.”
Their objections are well-founded—while shutdowns remain the exception rather than the rule, the effect of the violence directed toward Charles Murray at Middlebury, the blockade of a Heather Mac Donald event at Claremont KcKenna College, the Yale activists who spit on folks leaving a conservative event on their campus, the Antifa protesters who set off pyrotechnics on the edge of UC Berkeley, and numerous other incidents has been to increase the bureaucratic hurdles and security costs of hosting any prominent right-leaning speaker on campus dramatically.
But lately, seeking to identify the wrongheaded ideas motivating speech shutdowns, several thoughtful commentators, from the heterodox Andrew Sullivan to the down-the-line conservative David French, have identified the culprit as “intersectionality.”
I think they’ve got that wrong—and that the words of the law students behind the shutdown at Lewis & Clark offer a clarifying illustration of the ideas that do fuel intolerance.
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.
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.
What’s more, the statement that activist law students published prior to hijacking their classmates’ event shows that their errors are not rooted in intersectionality’s core insight, whether or not they understand their actions differently.
First, the activists egregiously misrepresented the speaker, inaccurately labeling her “a known fascist.” They did so in service of their attempt to conflate her speech with violence—her appearance would constitute “what we believe to be an act of aggression and violence toward members of our society who experience racial and gendered oppression,” they wrote, though Sommers has made countless speeches all over the country without ever perpetrating any act of violence.
Later in their statement, the activists wrote:
We live in an age when we have come to an understanding of how power works: those calling for “debate” of marginalized people’s humanity fail to recognize how unevenly political power is able to be wielded.
Therein is another misrepresentation—the speaker has never called for a debate of marginalized people’s humanity—but more telling is the claim that “we” now understand “how power works,” a statement that both implies a consensus where none exists and that is staggering in its hubris, as the next passage helps to make clear:
We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs.
Instead of recognizing this and moving forward, some in our community choose to remain in denial of this truth and act to stifle progress in an attempt to preserve the status quo. Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.
The insights of intersectionality would cast doubt on the notion that a small group of cognitively privileged, Anglophone Westerners admitted to a top-100 law school after earning undergraduate degrees in one of the richest countries in the world have surpassed the rest of humanity in achieving a definitive understanding of matters as complex and sweeping as “how power works” and “how language works.”
Truly intersectional thinkers would be highly suspicious of the ostensible “truths” offered and the notion that “there is no debate here”—for they would be attentive to the perspectives of people subject to different kinds of oppression, want them all to have their say, compare their views to the law students, and learn that the vast majority of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans, immigrants, Muslims, Hindus, non-Westerners, non-cognitive elites, and socioeconomically disadvantaged people (among others) hold different, contrary views about how power and language work. To declare that “there is no debate” would preemptively exclude their perspectives
And it is a mistake to cede intersectionality to those who so misapply its insights.
Neither mislabeling people as fascists nor conflating speech with violence nor asserting a tiny, privileged elite’s understandings of power and language as settled truths are rooted in the insight that oppression operates in interlocking ways.
Applying that insight to historically or presently marginalized groups in the United States is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, and not inconsistent with the belief that excessive focus on group identity can rob individuals of their humanity.
Finally, when properly understood, intersectionality is not inconsistent with the liberal project or the truth-seeking mission of the university—unlike the authoritarian conceit that a small faction in a law school can declare “how power works” and “how language works” to be settled facts about which “there is no debate.”
It may be tempting to cede linguistic territory to those who say they are motivated by “intersectionality” or “social justice,” but doing so cedes too much to the most misguided activists who invoke those labels, short circuits dialogue that could help refine those ideas, and deprives everyone else of insights and projects of substantial importance.