Saturday 12 January 2013

Intersectionality, Solidarity and Sense

Sometimes one knows that an idea has finally made it into the public consciousness only when newspaper articles appear and attack it. For me, after years of slogging away in silence, the sudden fuss about intersectionality is itself rewarding. But though it is now visible, it is still poorly understood, and it's a shame to see so many smart people floundering over it. It's also a shame to see it being treated as antithetical to solidarity, when in fact they are mutually supportive concepts.

Perhaps the mos bizarre part of the debate has been the argument that use of the term intersectionality is inherently problematic because it excludes the uneducated. The very fact that this debate is going on means it can hardly continue to be considered obscure. Furthermore, much of said debate is being conducted across a vast international network of computers which would seem to offer the option of just going and looking it up. It's pretty insulting for any of us to suggest our readers aren't capable of doing so. And whilst I'm not about to suggest we all start writing like Judith Butler, she has a point when she notes that sometimes we need to be precise about concepts. Not everything can be effectively explained in words of under three syllables.

I also find it bizarre that intersectionality is supposed to be such a difficult concept to grasp. I've now seen several people argue that people are being asked to waste time trying to understand it when they could be devoting themselves directly to The Struggle. That's like advising an army to go to war without wasting time on training. Anti-intellectualism is never pretty but in this case t borders on the ridiculous. The public is now largely familiar with the concept of people potentially being members of stigmatised groups. The average person understands that some people have a harder time in life because they're female or because they have dark skin. Is it so tricky to grasp that a woman might be black or that a gay man might be disabled? Is it so hard to understand that we all have advantages and disadvantages, and that these might sometimes compound each other? The angst about privilege obscures the real point – that if you're not a dick to people, and if you apologise when you upset someone unnecessarily, you'll get along just fine. Want to avoid causing accidental upset in the first place? Then, as journalists should know, there's this thing called research.

It's particularly ironic that the most recent fuss should have kicked off over trans issues because this is actually one of the easier areas in which to get it right. My charity, Trans Media Watch, is always ready to give free advice and support in this area. We have lots of resources for journalists on our website. We don't expect the people who come to us to understand everything at the outset and we don't get offended if people use clumsy language in their approaches to us. Whilst there are naturally disagreements about things like language between different trans individuals, we can let you know what the majority think and where there are areas of sensitivity. We're not saying that working with us is proof against getting shouted at – there's always someone on the internet looking for a fight – but most people will cut you some slack if they know you've made an effort.

Among other things, we can advise on how trans issues intersect with other areas – for instance, what it might mean to be trans and elderly or trans and a Muslim. These are not trivial issues, not silly little details getting in the way of some greater agenda. They can each bring up specific problems that limit people's ability to participate in wider society – and, if they are so inclined, to participate in political activism.

As a disabled person, I find myself at the sharp end of this quite a lot. I've often been excluded from political events simply because I haven't been able to access the venues where they've been held. When there are a limited number of venues for lgbt people in my home city of Glasgow, it matters that I can't get into most of them. I can't be part of a wider movement if it's shutting me out and this – often in subtler ways – is what happens to a lot of people with intersectional issues. Faced with this, it’s pretty frustrating for us to see ourselves treated as the butt of jokes – examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad – first by the right wing press and now by the left. This crops up everywhere from hiring decisions to health service access to safety discussions around 'non-lethal' weapons. We are treated as if, because there are fewer of us, our rights don't matter. The irony is, of course, that whilst there might be fewer of us in any one group, together we constitute the majority of the population.

If we are the majority, we are asked, why do we need special treatment? The answer is that rather than crafting rules with multiple exceptions we need to be better at creating simple rules in the first place – a good rule will take into account people's varied needs. Much of it simply comes down to respect and good manners, and to asking people when we're not sure about things – but there is an underlying responsibility and that is the responsibility to be aware of the diversity of human experience. To not simply assume that one's own experience can be extrapolated to everybody else. To apply a little sensitivity – not just for the sake of trying to look good, but for the sake of becoming better at social interaction.

What works for the individual works for the movement. When we talk about solidarity and the importance of togetherness, we need to understand what that togetherness means. Feminists have complained for a long time about approaches to inclusion that expect women to behave just like men – approaches that take no account of the differing issues they are likely to have to deal with in life. Such approaches end up excluding women and the movements that use them thereby end up missing out on the talents individual women might contribute, as well as the perspective their shared difference of experience might bring. This weakens those movements. An inclusive movement – one that acknowledges and makes room for diversity – is a stronger movement. This is real togetherness.

It is time for people to realise that there need be no conflict between recognition of social minority issues and of class issues, between fighting or social change and upholding liberal values. The belief that such a conflict is necessary has been a gift to the traditionalist right. It is not giving due consideration to intersectionality that divides us – it is getting into petty arguments over it. The way to avoid this is not to shut down minority voices but to listen, learn, and move on. To respect that those voices matter, that they are part of us. To show solidarity.


  1. We've been talking about intersectionality for years. It was what we aimed to achieve with the concept of dual discrimination in the Equality Act (a part the Tories immediately dumped). I have never met anyone who found it hard to grasp that women experience disadvantages, asian people experience disadvantages, but asian women experience the product of the two

  2. Thank you. Yes. *follows blog*

  3. This, so much. All of it.

    I'd say more but you've already said it so perfectly. :)