Thoughts on Intersectionality

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and a lot of writing on social models and related subjects lately, but today I read something that prompted some reflection on issues I’ve been wrestling with for some time now. That would be this article by Phaedra Starling from 2009.

Let’s start with this preface: I think this is a good article. It is concisely written and very readable and easy to digest while simultaneously illustrating an extremely commonplace yet complex social dynamic that the layperson probably doesn’t think about that often. I personally believe this article (as well as the discussion in its comments and other articles like it) makes a strong case for teaching more direct lessons on socialization and interpersonal interaction in public schools. At the same time, however, I feel like there are issues with the stance this article takes, issues which I think are reflective of pretty pervasive thought patterns within the progressive/feminist community in general that have yet to be adequately addressed, and I’m hoping that maybe I can shed some light on those issues here. This is not a direct criticism of the article, but more a critical exploration of issues the article touches on; I am simply using the article as a starting point.

That, at least, is my intent.

Ok. Let’s get started.

First, it’s extremely necessary to spread the information Starling laid out in her article, since a better understanding of gender issues will help dismantle the patriarchal social model that dominates society. Tl;dr for the article: women are socialized to protect themselves from aggressors by screening for social cues that a man who approaches her gives off. If she exhibits cues to be left alone (this must be done largely through body language since women are frequently verbally and sometimes physically assaulted for being “bitches” because they stated their request plainly) and he persists in bothering her ignoring those cues, he is labeling himself a potential threat (as per the socialization women receive growing up), which leaves many women in a near-constant state of guardedness and anxiety over their safety. That is a gross over-simplification of the case made, granted, and I would definitely recommend reading Starling’s article for a more complete understanding, but if you’re that crunched for time them you’ll just have to go off this summary (but I really do recommend reading the article).

The comments section shows that the article’s readership largely agrees with the points made here, but there were some consistent criticisms made with regard to interesectionality theory that got me thinking about how this issue is playing out in the feminist community as a whole. One commenter specifically made the argument that the article’s stance that the burden of responsibility is on men to make themselves less threatening exhibits an unfair bias against non-neurotypical individuals (such as those with Asperger’s syndrome, for example) who are merely poor at reading social cues and not intending to impose themselves the way a potential aggressor would. The argument was that these men were being unfairly labeled “creepy” and “threatening” when it would be more humane and considerate to treat them as “awkward.”

The counterargument posed to this was that a woman has no means of discerning the intent of a stranger who approaches her, and that in the interest of her safety she must behave as though all strange men who approach her when she is feeling compromised (ex. while riding public transit) as a potential threat. In return there was discussion about the social obligation to endure otherwise unwanted conversations (ex. Awkward/uncomfortable small talk on planes or in line) and whether this blanket approach the self-protection in the public space didn’t violate certain feminist principles and so on down the line.

For my part I think there is definite merit in this last idea, and the conflict between these arguments is a space that absolutely needs to be addressed. On the one hand, the patriarchal social model has given rise to the insidious rape culture, which is the cultural subsystem largely responsible for this issue. At the same time, though, the same patriarchy that socializes women to be constantly on guard is also responsible for socializing men to take the objectifying attitude that leads them to approach women this way in the first place; it is, consequently, responsible for those men who proceed to assault and rape women.

This is not to say that being socialized to regularly fear for your life is equivalent to being socialized to disregard personhood and commit gross violations like assault and rape. It is an established feature of feminist theory that men experience greater privilege than any other group of people in this country (with white men at the top of the social pyramid), and it is definitely our responsibility to educate ourselves on how and why we should check that privilege when it threatens another person’s basic rights like their right to safety and right to life. However, I think it needs to be at the forefront of the feminist mind going forward that patriarchy is not perfectly beneficial towards anyone, and that we should not be casting aspersions from either side when the enemy is not the individual but the social structure that educated them. Women are not at fault for being guarded anymore than a man is at fault for being unintentionally creepy. Intentional creepsters like flashers, grinders, shouters, abusers and rapers (intentional here meaning their intent to force their will on another person, not necessarily to just to be creepy, but them too), however, do share fault with the patriarchy for complying with its prescribed social model.

With regards to the idea that we are socially obligated to keep the public space pleasant by engaging in otherwise unwanted small talk, I think this idea needs to be considered as well. Granted, that expectation is likely a result of the patriarchy (what isn’t, after all), but the principle doesn’t necessarily strike me personally as a bad one by any means. The argument could be made that such an expectation would be an infringement on personal liberty ala a social libertarian perspective, but I do think than an expectation of pleasantness and noninvasiveness from all individuals while in public still reasonable and definitely has social advantages; at the very least it’s safe to say that any given individual deserves some sort of clear response upon approaching someone, even if that response is simply, “I’m not feeling up to a conversation right now.” In that instance the impetus shifts to the approaching party to respect the request, and persistence that amounted to anything other than an apology and some form of good-bye could be seen as a violation of social contract.

This is, of course, all assumed to occur in a post-patriarchal social structure that does not reinforce rape culture and would need to be completely pervasive to be regularly functional. I think part of the disconnect when discussing this sort of issue now is failing to differentiate between the ideal end and the current state of affairs, which can be characterized either as wholly patriarchal or in a transitional state.

At any rate, the point I think I’m trying to get at is that the only real solution to this is to take the conversation outside the feminist community and try to get it as widely accepted as possible. Granted, I think this point has been made ad nauseam and I’m just beating a thoroughly degraded equine carcass here, but the other thought that struck me while reading Starling’s article was that what seems to be dividing the feminist community the most (from my perspective, at least) is the discussion over the means by which patriarchy theory and feminist reform can be spread and accepted by the public at large.

This, I think, is where I will end up drawing the most flak. Most feminists I know and speak with regularly are of the opinion that the burden of responsibility is on non-feminists to educate themselves about their privilege, patriarchy, etc. Specifically, they don’t see it as their responsibility to explain to non-feminists who transgress—such as creepers on the bus—why they are in the wrong; they see it only as their right to call the creeper out for being wrong (which is fair), but not to explain why, and that is the part that confuses me the most.

Before I was a feminist I really hadn’t given the philosophy much thought. I knew it existed and I knew a couple of jokes about it, but I was not politically inclined or otherwise interested in learning about it; my attentions were focused elsewhere. However, it was only because of feminist friends who took the time to explain the basics to me when I asked them after I had accidentally said something sexist that I was able to begin fixing what I was doing wrong.

This is not to say that my words being sexist on accident excuses the behavior, just that being sexist and oppressive wasn’t something I set out to do when I went about my day since I knew, I theory at least, that sort of thing really sucked for people who experienced it.

But I had no idea what it looked like.

For a good while after the initial explanations, even, I didn’t fully make the connections between my actions and patriarchal socialization.

But in spite of my friends’ repeated insistence that it wasn’t their responsibility to educate me, their input was the most vital part of my feminist education. I would never have known what to read or where to look if it hadn’t been for what they taught me, and as such I would never have come to the understanding of feminism and sociology in general that I have now.

This is anecdotal, granted, so I can’t speak to its pervasiveness, but its an issue I’ve grappled with and I think the conclusions I’ve drawn from it carry some merit worth sharing (though I could always be wrong). In principle, yes, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to fix the oppressors. In practice, however, I don’t believe they will fix themselves without our input. At the macrolevel I think this relates to how we should be running the penal system with an emphasis on reformation rather than retribution, but that’s a digression for another day. It’s probably just and fair that the burden of responsibility to better the oppressing classes doesn’t fall on those they are oppressing, but practically speaking you aren’t going to see the changes you want to see unless you engage with them.

This is all speaking in generalities of course. Day-to-day I recognize that we all have busy, exhausting lives, and when these opportunities present themselves we might not be up to task every time, and that’s ok. You shouldn’t be faulted for being human. I also recognize there’s a lot of internal debate over the level of diplomacy vs. unfiltered frustration that should be involved in these sorts of discussions (personally I favor diplomacy since people tend to respond better than when it sounds like they’re being accused being horrible, even if that is the fact of the matter; ). But I do think the direction of discussion within the community does need to be focused less on a “shit sux” attitude and more on a “let’s fix shit.” That’s largely the reason I loved Starling’s article so much as to write this response; on top of everything else, the execution and aim was extremely positive and focused on self-improvement, which to my mind speaks volumes and is very admirable. I really don’t have any qualms with the article itself, as I said before; I really only wanted to try and organize my thoughts with regards to issues the article raised in my mind and felt needed to be expressed.

At the end of the day, of course, I’m still a straight white boy, so I’ve got more privilege than I know what to do with and any flak I do catch for being a crappy feminist (if that’s what I’m doing here, though I hope that’s not the case) I should be able to shake off without too much trouble. One of the many benefits of privilege, I guess. I really do hope I’m not too off-base with this or overstepping any serious bounds, though; I don’t do a lot of writing on the subject and I’ve only been studying it for a few years now, but I’m hoping this wasn’t all a complete waste of time. We’ll leave it up to the tumblsphere to decide, I suppose.

  1. jimtopia said: You need more followers so this can spread around.
  2. jacobplette posted this