In the last few weeks, taking a stand against intersectionality has become a talking point for embattled white men. Toby Young spouts 4Chan-caliber drivel about “Social Justice Warriors”, “worshippers at the altar of intersectionality,” who “start out wanting to help the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and end up herding people on to trains and transporting them to the Gulag.” And then with a ‘hold-my-beer’, Jonathan Haidt concern trolls intersectionality as being the “bad” kind of identity politics. Haidt praises “the good kind of identity politics” that Martin Luther kind and the civil rights moment offered because “it was an effort to fix a mistake, to make us better and stronger as a nation” and it “drew on the moral resources of the American civil religion to activate our shared identity and values.”
But Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional feminism is somehow doing social justice wrong. Of course, don’t get him wrong, Haidt is concerned about social justice; he just has some thoughts on how to do it the right way. Concern trolling is insidious because it takes the tone of ‘I share your concerns, but I’m disappointed in your behavior.’ You see, there are good, unifying moral resources and bad, divisive moral resources to draw on. For Haidt, the Founding Fathers are good and unifying. But doing as Crenshaw asks us, to “train ourselves to ask the other question”, to say “I see the sexism in this, but do I see the racism in it?”, is a bad and divisive moral resource. Clearly, there’s a danger in asking more questions in the pursuit of justice and peace.
To divide up the good from the bad moral resources, Haidt links to a wikipedia article about American civil religion, a theory developed by Robert Bellah (1967). But as Bellah was well aware, “The civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes. On the domestic scene, an American-Legion type of ideology that fuses God, country, and flag has been used to attack nonconformist and liberal ideas and groups of all kinds.” “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” Bellah explicitly links the civil religion to America’s settler colonialism and imperialism:
“With respect to America’s role in the world, the dangers of distortion are greater and the built-in safeguards of the tradition weaker. The theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history. It can be overtly or implicitly linked to the ideal of manifest destiny that has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism since the early nineteenth century. Never has the danger been greater than today. The issue is not so much one of imperial expansion, of which we are accused, as of the tendency to assimilate all governments or parties in the world that support our immediate policies or call upon our help by invoking the notion of free institutions and democratic values. Those nations that are for the moment “on our side” become “the free world.” A repressive and unstable military dictatorship in South Vietnam becomes “the free people of South Vietnam and their government.” It is then part of the role of America as the New Jerusalem and “the last best hope of earth” to defend such governments with treasure and eventually with blood. When our soldiers are actually dying, it becomes possible to consecrate the struggle further by invoking the great theme of sacrifice. For the majority of the American people who are unable to judge whether the people in South Vietnam (or wherever) are “free like us,” such arguments are convincing.”
While Haidt argues that Crenshaw’s original theory of intersectional feminism makes sense, he quickly turns the argument against youth on campus for largely the same kind of reason that James Madison feared popular governments who could challenge the ‘opulent minority’ who owned land: “the danger lies in an undue sympathy among individuals composing a majority.” And so, “the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” The dispossessed might rise up. Here’s what Haidt says:
“But what happens when young people study intersectionality? In some majors, it’s woven into many courses. Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile. Anything that a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don’t have it. A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.
And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: All of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.”
So, when LGBTQ groups join Black women, Palestinians, and people who are disabled, they become like NATO, the largest and most institutionalized armed alliance ever? (incidentally, NATO is on the side of Israel by any measure) This simile competes with Thomas Friedman in the category of ‘most-ironic-bullshit-use of figurative language’. Haidt also acts as if the intersectionalists invented these binaries, as if they weren’t always woven into America’s civil religion and the fabric of daily life. He should heed Bellah’s caution that the Ameican civil religion has also worked on ‘tribal circuits’ to divide the world up into a clear ‘us’ and ‘them’, worthy and unworthy victims, and good & evil.
Haidt’s NATO simile also makes clear that he is not worried that intersectionality is divisive, splitting the country apart, but potentially unifying, gaining power through alliance, and threatening the version of American civil religion that benefits the special interest group of white, cis, het, ‘able’ men. Conveniently, Haidt leaves the oldest and most dangerous ‘identity politics’ out of his analysis.