In defence of intersectionality (and “privilege”, and trigger warnings…)
As you have to know if you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last three weeks, journalist Suzanne Moore recently stirred up a huge controversy around transphobia, intersectionality, and freedom of speech.
It started when an essay she wrote, Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger, was reprinted in The New Statesman. It’s a strong, passionately-argued piece about the value of righteous anger in feminist campaigning. But it also includes the line, “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
This struck a sour note with a lot of people, myself included. Not only is it not actually clear who she’s talking about (there are transgender men as well as women; not all Brazilian transwomen conform to a specific body type), but it presents trans people as some kind of freak show rather than actual human beings. Add the horrific fact that more than 100 Brazilian trans people were murdered last year alone, and it comes across as insensitive. But like most of Moore’s critics, I knew this was probably unintentional — she’d just used a colourful phrase that popped into her head rather than intended to cause offence.
It was what happened next that was the problem.
Some people expressed their disappointment to Moore via Twitter. I’m sure they weren’t all polite, and while I think their anger was valid, I don’t condone any abuse or threats of violence. Even if messages were calmly stated, if there were a lot of them, and if they were mixed with tweets that were ALL CAPS and aggressive, I can understand why Moore felt she was under attack. But that didn’t give her carte blanche to be bigoted. And her response was bigoted.
Among her choice remarks:
“!) People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”
“2)Intersectionality my arse. Thats the polite word for the moral superiority of much of this discourse.”
“Transphobia is your term. I have issues with trans anything actually.”
I understand feeling hurt by criticism. Having something you’ve put time and thought into trashed repeatedly and publicly is painful. I realise some people think that being a professional journalist means you should just suck it up, but most of us are doing this job because we don’t have other skills, not because of our thick skins. But if Moore had said something like “I meant no offence, but I hear your criticism and will try harder in future” she could have nipped things in the bud.
But I guess to have said that she would have to have believed it. What she seems to believe instead is that she has the right to her ignorance, which reached its apotheosis with this little gem:
“I dont prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women. Intersectional enough for you?”
Uh, no. No, that is not intersectional enough for me. Unless by “intersectional” you mean “the most transphobic thing I’d heard a journalist say since Julie Bindel spouted some of her usual bile”. Unless by “intersectional” you mean “something that perpetuates discrimination against people who are already marginalised enough.” Unless by “intersectional” you mean “the kind of hatred that makes me feel physically sick”.
So… what do we mean by intersectionality?
It’s not intended to shut down debate or keep anyone out of the conversation. (I’m also from a working class background; I’m even living in a council flat right this second — I still cracked the linguistic code.) It’s just a useful way to acknowledge that disabled people, trans people, gay people, working class people, older people, and people of colour (and any combination of the above) experience intersecting oppressions which can leading to increased marginalisation. Instead of the second wave feminist idea of dismantling the patriarchy, intersectional feminists want to smash the whole damn kyriarchy.
I get that these terms might seem kooky to the uninitiated, and but when Moore and people who share her views dismiss the concerns of intersectional feminism as “irrelevant”, they miss the point of the struggle for equality, which is that it’s for everyone. Not only that, but feminists who are trans, people of colour, disabled, older, working class, or gay can’t separate out those parts of themselves, and shouldn’t be expected to. Discrimination based on my disability is as bad as and in some cases inextricable from discrimination because of my gender, and if the feminist movement won’t campaign against both, I’m out in the cold.
Above all, feminists who reject the idea of intersectionality are hypocrites: they use the language of oppression, then claim they’re being persecuted when people object. While everyone has the right to think and say what they like, no member of a marginalised group should have to be taunted by hate speech, and newspapers certainly shouldn’t publish it.
This week, Moore is back on Twitter mocking the term “trigger warning”, which is used to let survivors of rape, abuse and other trauma know that an article/blog post/video might be upsetting. She again makes use of the term “policing language”, as if being sensitive to other people’s trauma is somehow offensive. This seems petty at best, and it’s also a function of privilege. Yep, the dreaded P-word!
Privilege may sometimes (unfortunately) be used as an accusation, but that isn’t its intention. It’s not about suggesting that someone was born with a silver spoon or that they’ve never experienced hardship. It’s just an acknowledgement that certain characteristics (being white, straight, able-bodied, etc) are treated as the norm and assumed to be the default. While Stella Duffy might not appreciate the term “cisgender”, that’s part of her privilege as a cis woman. She doesn’t need a term to elucidate that she’s not trans, because it’s assumed. So while she doesn’t have to use the word, railing against it is hardly a worthy cause.
But despite what she or Moore or any of their fans might think, I have no interest in “policing” other people’s word use. I just don’t want to feel alienated by a movement that purports to include me — and I don’t want transgender people or anyone else to feel that way, either. Intersectional feminism understands that the discrimination we face is part of a larger system of inequality; we’re not just isolated people experiencing horrible things. It lets us know we’re not alone. That’s why we need more of it, not less.