Modern Feminist Distortions
The illogicality of choice-feminism and intersectionality*
Much of the content in this essay first featured in a longer essay published on Medium, entitled The Myth of the Feminist Hijab
In her 1988 essay, Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, Karen Offen examined major historical developments and historically intertwined interpretations in feminism, before outlining a modern and more standardised definition of a feminist, inclusive of three criteria: “(1) they recognize the validity of women’s own interpretations of their lived experience and needs and acknowledge the values women claim publicly as their own (as distinct from an aesthetic ideal of womanhood invented by men) in assessing their status in society relative to men; (2) they exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over institutionalized injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group in a given society; and (3) they advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging, through efforts to alter prevailing ideas and/or social institutions and practices, the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives in that particular culture. Thus, to be a feminist is to necessarily be at odds with male-dominated culture and society.”
Offen’s definition is one of the best regarded and widely cited in modern academic feminist discourse, but the definition is not without one particular problem. It too readily considers a person feminist simply based on intent, and does not give suitable consideration to pre-act assessments, in terms of what Professor Noam Chomsky describes in Hegemony or Survival as, “the range of likely consequences”.
It should be self-evident that if an actor consistently fails to even consider the likely consequences of their acts, or ignores the likely negative outcomes, it would be much harder for them to qualify as a feminist, regardless of their stated or actual intent.
Sadly, however, the above argument points toward a different direction than where significant parts of popular feminist discourse is moving. It is now often suggested that the sole or primary criteria for being a feminist is simply whether you identify as one. It precludes any meaningful examination of motives, meaning and/or outcomes of actions.
When looked at through this ludicrous lens, a choice becomes feminist regardless of what that choice actually means. If someone has chosen to do something and they say that the choice is feminist then it is feminist. Never mind if someone’s acts consistently perpetuate patriarchy, that person is feminist because they say that they are. An action or choice was feminist because they say it was. An act was feminist because the choice was free. Forget about what the choice means. Forget about what that choice might signify or represent. Forget about structural analysis. Move along. There’s nothing more to see here.
One example of this absurd form of logic comes in the argument that wearing a hijab constitutes a feminist act. A key component for those making this argument is that the choice to wear one is free. It’s well-tread territory. It also happens to be completely false. Supposing a particular choice is free, that doesn’t mean we can successfully imbue that choice with any meaning we see fit.
The arguments are in keeping with the increasing absurdity of post-modern, choice-feminist arguments, where, as Megan Tyler, co-editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism writes in The Conversation, “In privileging individual choice above all else, it doesn’t challenge the status quo…. It doesn’t demand significant social change, and it effectively undermines calls for collective action. Basically, it asks nothing of you and delivers nothing in return.”
These types of false logic are part of a wider contemporary malaise which has come about from the influence of an over-extended use of intersectionalist and post-structuralist frameworks of analysis.
Although similar ideas and arguments had been raised in the preceding decades by women who felt excluded from the work of (or advancements made) by mainstream (first-wave) feminists at the time, the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in her 1989 essay Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.
Crenshaw explained and gave concrete examples to demonstrate that mainstream feminism, which was mainly led and dispensed from academics of a white middle class background (and mainly focussed on women of similar backgrounds), did not represent women of colour, nor sufficiently consider race and/or class implications. The experience of being a woman and black, Crenshaw argued, was completely different to the experience of being a black man or being a white woman because, “She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms, which link together to make a double, a triple, multiple, a many layered blanket of oppression.”
Intersectionality revolutionised feminism and changed the way many feminists approached the subject, making them justifiably more wary of making cultural or classist assumptions. However, despite its successes, the feminist movement is now suffering from its over-extended use and the way in which it has been distorted, largely due to how closely it owes its origins to the post-structuralism.
As you might expect, structuralism focusses on structures (and systems) as a basis for behavioural and conceptual understanding, arguing that human phenomena can only be understood when seen within its structural context. It owes its origins to the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that language was only understood within the system of language itself and through the hidden rules within its governance. Claude Levi-Strauss took this analytical framework and used it in within the field of social anthropology, arguing that human processes of thought and behaviour did not necessarily dictate culture as much as operated within culture.
Post-structuralism differs from structuralism in that structuralism can still be understood as searching for “universal truths”, whereas post-structuralism has no qualms about questioning common interpretations, concrete concepts or absolute truths. Post-structuralism emphasises truth as always being subject to complex power relationships between the human phenomena in question and the experience, culture, society and individuality of the person/people exhibiting such phenomena.
In the interview, Truth and Power (from the collection Power/Knowledge), Foucault says, “Truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.” Foucault goes on to suggest the intention and emphasis of any analysis should be on attempting to “[detach] the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.”
Hence, there is a conflicting assertion of the existence of truth and rejection of the notion of universal or absolute truth. Thus, for some post-structuralists, every proposition may be considered a sort of Schrodinger’s cat of veracity — in a state of multiple truths and non-truths at the same time. Here, an obvious criticism of post-structuralism arises because the analyses are themselves arguably self-refuting (e.g. ‘if you claim that there is no such thing as universal or absolute truth then this claim itself cannot be universally or absolutely true’).
Professor Susan Archer Mann points out the similarities between post-structuralism and intersectionality in a 2013 essay, Third Wave Feminism’s Unhappy Marriage of Poststructuralism and Intersectionality Theory as thus:
The epistemologies of intersectionality theory and post-structuralism both embrace a strong social constructionist view of knowledge. This means they highlight the relationship between knowledge and power, as well as how people construct knowledge from different social locations, such as their race, gender, class, and global location. Because all vantage points are socially situated and perspectival, both of these epistemologies embrace polyvocality or the inclusion of many voices or vantage points in their construction of social reality.
The problem that arises from many post-modernist and post-structuralist analyses (when they are over-extended) is the end result is form of intellectually masturbatory navel gazing, with frameworks that have everyone grappling over concepts of power relationships and the complexities of individual experience and meaning, in place of any tangible conclusions to challenge the status quo — reducing or limiting knowledge itself to Socratic assertions of, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
Similarly, as you might expect, intersectionality has often become a victim of its own success. What first started as a healthy, pragmatic and nuanced reminder — to consider the distinct cultural, political and hegemonic differences between women of different demographics and cultures and to be more aware of our own cultural and political position when we think about these issues — is becoming increasingly perverted by its postmodernist roots, to the point of being, what Joan Hoff had forewarned in her 1994 essay, “a category of paralysis” which “casts into doubt stable meanings” and “reduce[s] the experiences of women… to mere subjective stories”, “disconnect[ing] women from any material experiential base”, leaving them “annihilated through disassociation.”
Worryingly, both post-structuralism and intersectionality frequently serve as catalysts towards a form of relativism which hijacks relevant and important debate or discourse by automatically dispensing an author from that debate by virtue of their privilege, rather than the strength of their argument.
Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things to Me presented the idea of mansplaining (although the term actually came about a few months later) with fairness, nuance and excellent examples (indeed, a recent study seems to confirm that men are more likely to consider themselves as experts). But the bigger lessons we could have taken from this work have already been distorted to allow for increasing numbers of people being actively discouraged from speaking when they may have something important to say. In fact, rather than engage in conversations or debates, male individuals, writers and critics are all too frequently accused of mansplaining simply for discussing or holding an opinion on a feminist topic (or even a topic in general).
Significantly, it’s not just men being attacked, Michelle Goldberg superbly highlights how the perverted use and understanding of intersectionality is leading to discussions in feminism being drowned out in anger or being silenced from even happening, such is the ‘toxic’ nature of online rage linked to these misunderstandings.
In essence, there seems to be an increasing movement advocating for opinions or arguments to be ignored based on who holds them, rather than their content. If such a logic prevails, it only serves to limit our opportunity for relevant debate, discourse and, ultimately, development in almost any conceivable subject, providing an immoral protection to subject matter by notions of identity.
Prominent contemporary (and usually Western) feminists present the argument that Western views are entirely irrelevant (except, presumably, to say when their views are irrelevant). Take, for example, Roxane Gay. In one of her essays from her best-selling and well-received book, Bad Feminist, originally published at The Rumpus, entitled How We All Lose, she says: “We don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.”
It is a point she elaborates on in the introduction to her book, Bad Feminist, asserting her belief that, “Women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but [I] know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
When you really examine it, the logic is patently absurd, but I do have an element of sympathy for her and those that hold such views. However, as Professor of Philosophy, Allen Wood, puts beautifully in his essay, Ethical Relativism, there is often an extension beyond exercising “prudence” and “moral decency” by considering matters with “care and sensitivity”, towards holding the view that “if you want to know whether an action is right or wrong, simply find out what the agent’s culture believes about it. If they think it is right, then it is right; if they think it is wrong then it is wrong.”
Ultimately, such arguments end up serving as illegitimate protection for patriarchal practice under the guise of demonstrating cultural sensitivity. Not only are such arguments an example of the obfuscation that intersectionality can heavily influence, they can contribute to a highly irresponsible position when one might have an opportunity to prevent or limit something harmful, but, instead, cowardly refuse to do so for fear of being perceived as so culturally insensitive to define an act as harmful in the first place. As feminist scholar and assistant professor, Arati Rao, put it in 1995 in The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse: “No social group has suffered greater violation of their human rights in the name of culture than women.”
Gay and others might consider an opinion by a Western commentator on a non-Western topic to demonstrate “narrow cultural awareness” but it sets her up as the thing she rallies against: an arbitrator and gatekeeper of feminism. And, ironically, if this logic prevails, it precludes an awful lot of humans from having a voice about feminist issues. Essentially, this logic, as Wood explains is “totally incapable of combating any form of culturally entrenched imperialism, racism or ethnocentrism. For whenever we find these ugly things built into a culture’s beliefs, cultural relativism is committed to endorsing them.”
To fall for such intellectual dishonesty is, to use the title of Gay’s essay, how we all lose.
It’s time that we seriously re-assessed the distorted use of intersectionality and post-structuralism for the damage that it has done and continues to do. Otherwise, in our attempts to defend the oppressed, we will end up supporting the oppressors.