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.”