It’s been brewing for a while. The backlash is on, and this time it’s coming from inside what is nominally “our” camp. The problem? Some people, it seems, just don’t get intersectionality. They hate it when they’re called out on privilege, and they try their best to shut down or derail any of the discussions. It’s hard to work out where it started, but I think it’s something to do with the festival of rightful criticism thrown at Mehdi Hasan (thinks he has a right to peek into our uteruses) and Caitlin Moran (more on her later). Those with the double whammy of privilege and platform have all closed ranks, and entered onto the offensive.
First of all, we have Vagenda Magazine, a feminism-lite blog with a platform in the New Statesman. Vagenda today published a defence of Caitlin Moran. It wasn’t exactly a very good defence, as they completely neglected to explain why Moran was being criticised, which includes but is not limited to that awful, awful book, casual transphobia, comparing gay men to sea monkeys, liberal use of words like “retard”, and, the latest offence, saying she “literally couldn’t give a shit” about representation of women of colour in the media. All of these actively contribute to the oppression of people. Some of these people will, inevitably, be women.
But no. Vagenda Magazine think it’s unfair to criticise Moran for this, because taking an intersectional approach to feminism is too hard. It’s too academic, apparently, and one could never go into a school and explain, Vagenda complains. Yes, they actually said that:
Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse (what are they going to do? Protect or feed themselves with theory? Women cannot dine on Greer alone.)
So much wrong with this sentence it’s hard to work out where to start. They’re repeating a tired old criticism which has always been levelled at feminism–that people won’t understand it and that it’s too academic. We all know that argument is bollocks. Vagenda have also managed to imply that young women at a state comprehensive are somehow too stupid to understand intersectional feminism, which is again patently bollocks.
The thing is, intersectionality is fairly intuitive when one experiences intersectional oppression. Things suck harder. I only learned the word for the fact that things suck harder when you’re not just a woman, but also black, or gay, or trans, or disabled, and so forth fairly recently. And it delighted me. I was glad there was a name for this phenomenon I’d noticed. I also only learned the word privilege fairly recently, and the word “cis”, and do you know what? Again, I was glad, because there was a word for these little things I felt that actually gave me a leg up in life.
It’s not difficult at all. In fact, one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.
I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.
Vagenda think we shouldn’t be too hard on Moran, though, because:
Caitlin Moran may not be perfect, but she has come closest thus far… Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand
If by “we”, they mean the privileged women with a national platform, then yes, they understand it. But not if you’re one of the groups Moran doesn’t give a shit about. At best, it’s dismissive. At worst, it’s actively oppressing others. I mean, fucking hell. Imagine if Jeremy Clarkson had said some of the shit Moran said. Imagine if David Cameron said it in a speech. We’d be rightly yelling at them, at best.
Vagenda didn’t like the criticism they received, though. They were dismissive, saying it was “the same clique of angry people“. They wanted me to shut the fuck up explaining intersectionality in under 140 characters, so said I should email them instead…
Which brings me on to the other ghastly article about privilege I’ve seen this week. The Guardian ran a piece entitled “Online bullying–a new and ugly sport for liberal commentators“. What is this online bullying from liberals, you ask?
It’s publicly calling someone out for using problematic language or forgetting to check their privilege, apparently. Basically, the author thinks that we should always criticise for email rather than publicly, we shouldn’t be angry, and we should stop suggesting to put trigger warnings above potentially triggering material, because she’s trying really hard. Again, imagine for a second Jeremy Clarkson had written such an article. We’d be nailing his balls to a wall for such a tirade.
It’s ultimately a method of silencing criticism, of pointing out unchecked privilege. Now, bullying in my book has always involved someone exerting their power over another. And here’s a relatively privileged woman using a national platform to silence people who are levelling rightful criticism from those with less privilege. Not cool.
There’s good reason for criticism to be public. If the problem is public, why shouldn’t the criticism be public? While banging my head against the wall with Vagenda earlier, a fair few people saw my tweets and thanked me for explaining what intersectionality was in 14o characters or fewer. We all learn from one another, and criticism of something public can and should be public.
As for the tone policing, I’m always aghast when people don’t want to understand why others are angry. Guess what? Oppression is kind of infuriating. Furthermore, the anger often comes from frustration: from hitting a brick wall where a privileged person says “yeah, well I don’t see that so you’re wrong”. It’s OK to be angry. It’s natural to be angry. It’s not cool for privileged people to say you have no right to be angry.
I’m fucking furious, and proud.
Ultimately, I don’t get why some people don’t want to hear criticism. There is a huge difference between criticism and personal attacks, between criticism and misogyny. Criticism, if we learn to embrace it, makes us stronger. It is not the job of others to check our privilege for us, but it’s our own, so it’s, frankly, a fucking favour when people call us out on it. And if we listen and engage, it will make us all the better.
And what does that entail? It’s actually fairly simple. It involves a willingness to learn–not to say you don’t give a shit about something you don’t know about, but to want to learn about. It involves thinking about your own privilege, watching your own language, and not getting pissed off at others when you slip up. It involves knowing when to shut the fuck up.
Yes, we all fuck up, and nobody’s perfect, but embrace that criticism and learn from it and it will make you a better person.
Sometimes it’s hard to confront your own privilege, particularly when your life sucks because of one form of oppression you experience. But know that there are other forms of oppression that you are lucky not to have a fucking clue what the experience is like. Fuck the radfem mentality, or the privileged queer “let’s get married, everything else is fine” mentality, or the “no war but class war” mentality. All of these oppressions overlap, and fucks people over in different ways.
It’s telling that those rejecting intersectional oppression also happen to be the ones who probably don’t experience it. It’s also hugely fucking unfortunate that these are the people controlling the discourse.
In terms of the life lottery, I can hardly say I’m a winner, but I’m not doing too badly all things considered. Yes, I’m a woman and I’m queer and I have a chronic medical condition, but I’m also cis and white and thin and have enough money to survive. I think I’m reasonably aware of my privileges, but I know I’m not perfect. So if you see me fuck up, if you see me cissplaining or using problematic language or failing to check my white privilege, then call me out on it. Publicly, if you want. Loudly, if you want. I will do my best to understand how I fucked up and try to be a better ally.
Calling out privilege isn’t a threat. Intersectionality isn’t a threat. Instead of calling for unity around the privileged few to stop the infighting, why don’t we try to mitigate privilege and try to be better?
Flavia Dzodan: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit
blackfeminists: Dear Vagenda editors…
sian and crooked rib: It’s not infighting to call each other out
Boldly Go: “Liberal bullying” nonsense
Interview with Kimberle Crenshaw on intersectionality. She coined the phrase, and it was referring to roads!
Ally Fogg: Intersectionality? It’s been a privilege.
Mad propz to Mediocre Dave for the Clarkson analogy. It’s a very good way of thinking about it and I like it so much I put it in my blog.
Also, I left a comment on the Graun article, and I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been upvoted as much as I’d like, so if you love me, get clicking. /shamelessselfpromotion