I find this question very vague. Apparently it is about intersectionality, but then OP Tom Ramsay offers some suggestions in a comment on the question, and for most of them I can’t really see how they relate to intersectionality. And other answers to this question come up with similar things and name problems that don’t relate to intersectionality, and talk about “third wave feminism” (I still don’t have a clue what that term even means) instead of intersectionality in particular.
I mean, sure, women feeling entitled to benevolent sexism and justifying it with feminism is objectionable, but what does it have to do with intersectionality? Corporate feminism is pretty bad, but what does it have to do with intersectionality?
If anything, some of these problems listed can be attributed to too little intersectionality. Intersectionality often means more nuance instead of a binary oversimplified classification into oppressors and oppressed, because it acknowledges that power is complex, situational and dynamic, an oppressor can be a victim (and might become an oppressor because they are a victim). Intersectionality is a counter to sweeping generalizations like “all people from demographic X have experienced Y and think Z about issue W”, because it acknowledges that people from demographic X have very diverse backgrounds and have just one property in common. Intersectionality is a counter to misandry.
A frequent objection to feminism is that many feminist analyses of male experiences and gendered power dynamics don’t take class differences into account. That’s insufficient intersectionality, not too much intersectionality. If anything, we can have a discussion about the idea of intersectionality and compare it to its actual implementation in practice, and maybe make a point that in practice the focus on class discrimination (compared to other axes of discrimination) is disproportionally low. But that’s not a problem with intersectionality per se, that’s a problem with its implementation.
Is this really a question about intersectionality or is it a broad, vague question along the lines of “name anything you don’t like about feminism these days” (no matter how heterogeneous feminism is) that just slaps the label “intersectional feminism” on it because intersectionality just happens to be a comparably recent idea that functions as a pars pro toto scapegoat for anything else in feminism that people perceive to be a recent development?
Well. I am aware of one criticism of intersectionality that is actually about intersectionality, and it is the flip side of the above-named acknowledgement of complexity, namely the idea that if you acknowledge more and more complexity and nuance because in theory there are infinite oppression axes, and every issue can be infinitely explored and analysed further and further where you take more and more demographic background and nuance into account … then you’ll never come up with a conclusive result. Then every single analysis and theory is incomplete and imperfect.
Basically, intersectionality is not pleasant for people who feel uncomfortable with ambiguity and open questions and who feel more comfortable when a final decision is made. And arguably, when you go from theorizing to taking action, you’ll need some conclusions. At least preliminary conclusions.
For instance, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has a problem with it:
We are told that if we accept intersectionality – which we ought to – then we also ought to accept a radical form of identity politics that says we can never generalize from people’s particular experiences, can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and where personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity. This is an unattractive – indeed, an incoherent – picture of what politics should be like, which followed through to its logical conclusions is entirely self-defeating. And as we are sold this vision of politics as part of the intersectionality package, if we can’t accept it we are told that we must reject the intersecting oppressions story too. But this is a mistake.
Starting from the uncontroversial idea that our identities are comprised of many different elements, resulting in complex, possibly unique experiences of oppression for each individual, comes the quite plausible sounding claim that each individual is the best judge of her own experiences. Given that we all have these multifaceted identities and experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, each person is likely to be best placed to recognize and understand the oppression she faces. I think this is likely to be true, or at least, most of the time, we should assume it to be true. And if we believe that, then we ought to pay close attention to people’s testimonies, listen carefully to oppressed people, and let them use their own voices to share their experiences and understandings of the injustices they have faced. This is all very sensible and attractive. Any attempt to eradicate injustice and improve the lives of oppressed people ought to begin by listening to those people and learning from their experiences.
But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better. Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles.
The reason for this is that there is no way to make sense of concepts like oppression or injustice, unless we understand them as having some objective criteria – that is, criteria that determine whether an action oppressive, independently of how it is experienced by those subject to it. If it did not – if oppression was entirely a matter of whether or not a person feels they have been oppressed – then there would be no way to distinguish between action that is oppressive, and action that I just don’t like very much. And clearly, when people claim to have been oppressed, they think they are saying something different, and more compelling, than merely “I don’t like this”. There are lots of things people could do (or refuse to do) to me that I wouldn’t like very much. I might like to win the lottery, or to borrow your car. We can all agree that the fact I would like to get these things but don’t get them is not oppression, no matter how strongly I might feel about it. And when I say I am being oppressed by something you do, I believe I am saying more than just “I would have liked you to do this”; I believe I am saying, “I have a right to this, and you ought to do it”. And the fact that you ought to do it does not depend on how I feel about it, or on the fact that I would like you to do it; because if it did, there would be no difference between you oppressing me, and you not lending me your car. As soon as I claim to be oppressed, I am appealing to some objective criteria of oppression, criteria that are independent of my subjective feelings and interpretations.
Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are. And listening to people’s narratives and experiences will be very useful here, for any plausible account of what oppression is presumably needs to fit reasonably well with our intuitions and considered judgements about what oppression is like. These criteria need not be set in stone – they can be open to constant revision. And (hopefully) obviously, the dialogue where we determine what these objective criteria should be needs to be open to as many different voices as possible, especially those who have typically been marginalized and oppressed. But ultimately, we need to try to come to a set of objective criteria about what constitutes oppression. And once we do, then we can use these criteria in specific cases to judge whether a particular claim to be oppressed is correct or not. This leaves open the possibility that the person who feels oppressed may in fact be mistaken. While she may feel strongly and in good faith that she has been the victim of oppression, this is not sufficient for it to be true that she has. She may well have been; but this is determined objectively, independent of her experience, interpretations and feelings. So therefore, it is at least possible for people to be mistaken about their own oppression. Trying to ensure that our beliefs about oppression and injustice are as objective as possible is essential, and I do not mean to deny that less oppressed people frequently fail to recognize the ways in which their beliefs about oppression are clouded by their own unchecked and unacknowledged privilege. In real life politics, this is by far the bigger problem facing social justice activists – people in positions of power and privilege frequently fail to examine the ways in which their privilege has shaped their views abut what justice and oppression are. Without a doubt, people with privilege have much to learn from the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My point is simply that the knowledge they gain is only of use if it informs general and objective principles that guide future political action.
The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.
The problem elaborated in this post is probably a consequence of what happens if you take the attitude that you shouldn’t ever make generalizations like “all people from demographic X have experienced Y and think Z about issue W” to its extreme. You don’t end up with theories, you end up with a lot of chaotic data without structure.
(Also, she raises a very interesting point about whether oppression is objective and whose authority decides whether something is oppressive, but that’s another matter.)
I have a slightly different take on this – I believe you can get very far without a clear definition what constitutes oppression – but I see her point.