Intersectionality and Individuality
A still novel, if not yet wholly newfangled term, intersectionality requires of us our attention. More than that, though, I think it demands from us an explanation. It has, after all and over the course of the past few years, made a quiet transition from the rear to the fore. It’s gone from ill-studied university theory, one largely confined to the spaces hollowed out between the sociologist’s and the feminist’s ears, to being an actual, redoubtable, and pervasive political idea. We turn to its meaning, so far as it can be grasped, here.
So conceived, intersectionality—an especially Democratic word du jour—is the notion that the individual is indistinguishable from his or her group and that these groups are valued in different and measurable and hierarchical ways. No longer does a person exist as anything more than the sheer amalgam of her constituent, socially-defined parts. Gone are the days of the sanctity of the individual; arrived are those of the primacy of the group.
A person’s parts, accidentally endowed by dint of birth, have become in this intersectional world the ultimate determinants of her life. Be they gender, color, incapacity, disability, sexual predilection, socioeconomic status, religious allegiance, intelligence, or age, these facets meet, converge, and determine one’s victimhood and fate.
If we’re to take seriously such a deterministic way of thinking, the whole bit of it has a way of subverting agency. Not only that, it restrains liberty and dampens personal responsibility. All of these were once uniquely and staunchly American ideals. It makes one beholden to her parts, embedded in them, and incapable of achieving their transcendence. In varied hues, these socially-constructed parts bleed one into the next and create the image upon which our oppressive society turns its gaze. They also enclose the subject within a certain frame from which she can’t, without reclaiming her non-intersectional sovereignty, escape. The final product on display is a victim—of society, of our patriarchy, of our country.
Intersectionality intends for the person in question to be regarded in toto with other victimized groups, rather than individually and piece by piece. Thus, a person is restrained from being more than the sum total of her parts. She’s nothing grander than that which those constitutive pieces allow her to be. She’s perceived not as an autonomous agent in and of herself, unfettered by the environment from which she came, but as a pre-determined tangle of her interwoven social fibers. Sown into her every thread, each strand of her physical, emotional, and societal being become the highlights that will stratify her in the world’s eye. And, so positioned on Earth, this stratification will lead to inequality, and this inequality to oppression, and this oppression to a fundamentally immoral society that must be improved.
But what becomes of individuality in a world so radically obsessed with intersectionality? So far as I can tell, the former appears well-neigh incompatible with the latter. The individualist will argue that her essence, her je ne sais quoi, is indeed more than the sum of her parts. She’s not to be received and hence judged as—in order from the least important trait to the most—a woman; a woman of color; a woman of color and of homoerotic tastes; a woman of color and of homoerotic tastes and of a Mohammedan creed; nor a woman of color and of homoerotic tastes and of a Mohammedan creed and of a transitory inclination from one gender to the next. She’s to be received as a singular being. She’s to be considered, valued, and heard as a member not of some mélange of victim groups striving toward a redress of imaginary sins, but as a member of American society, unique and empowered in her own right.
Her identity—be it indelible or adopted, granted by biology or grafted by philosophy—should have no bearing on the value of her opinion. In that regard, conversation and evaluation ought to be blind. The polychromatic woman described above shouldn’t be privileged because of her affiliations to those groups—nor should the white male because of his sole, increasingly embarrassing attachment to his. Their respective ideas, rather than their identities, should be the only manner by which they as citizens are ranked. The many and eclectic victim groups to which they belong should be nugatory things. One may have encountered on the basis of his color or her creed a plight with which I can sympathize, but that doesn’t mean, for the mere fact of having suffered, his or her position should be regarded as the best.
Intersectionality mustn’t trample individuality—the latter mustn’t be smothered beneath the former’s heel. Only when the second lives can society breathe and it feels as though our gasp has been rendered desperately short.