Andrew Sullivan on “intersectionality”

April 3, 2017 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Most WEIT readers will be familiar with Andrew Sullivan, the conservative, gay, Catholic ur-blogger, with whom we’ve had occasion to both agree and disagree over the years. As Jerry noted, Andrew recently returned to regular writing at New York Magazine, posting a weekly “diary”, as he’s referred to it, each posting consisting of several, often unrelated, topics. It’s kind of like a blog, except he puts each day’s posts up all together, once a week.

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew, inspired by the fracas at Middlebury College, wrote about “intersectionality“. Jerry has alluded to this notion as well, although not by that name, in his critiques of the fractured and contradictory goals of at least the early versions of the March for Science.

So, what is “intersectionality”? Here’s Andrew’s characterization:

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.

Interestingly, he finds it to be much like a religion, which, perhaps surprisingly to some, he finds to be not a good thing. Here is the heart of his critique:

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

Frank Bruni, in the New York Times, also commented on the religious nature of the increasing number of protests that find tolerance repressive, noting John McWhorter’s essay on “Antiracism, our flawed new religion“, and quoting Jonathan Haidt:

“When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, the author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”

He added that what he saw in footage of the confrontation at Middlebury “was a modern-day auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.”

Andrew comments further on the religiosity of “intersectionality” in a later column, noting, among other things the connection to Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance“. He writes

The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

(One small terminological point: Marcuse dismissed the tolerance practiced in Western liberal democracies as repressive, and thus opposed what he called “repressive tolerance”. The tolerance he advocated he called “liberating tolerance”: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” (Marcuse 1965:109). When Andrew says “How about we substitute the now tired term political correctness with the less euphemistic repressive tolerance?”, I am not sure if he is just misusing “repressive tolerance” (for, indeed, the tolerance Andrew (and I) advocate was called that by Marcuse), or if he is deliberately inverting the meaning that Marcuse intended. Marcuse, presumably, would have called political correctness “liberating tolerance”. “Liberating tolerance”, by the way, is the most Orwellian phrase I’ve come across in a long time. As a candidate for incorporation into Newspeak, however, it is far too Latinate.)

62 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan on “intersectionality”

  1. Sullivan had the good sense to endorse Obama for President, and in spite of his declaring himself conservative is highly critical of today’s Republican party.

    I should probably take a look at his book “The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right” previously published as “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back”.

    In general, it’s especially troubling when a really good cause (anti-racism) gets corrupted by ideology.

      1. He was a centrist. He certainly wasn’t a conservative, but he also wasn’t a far-left liberal. He was a slightly left-leaning centrist.

        1. And I’d like to add that I imagine he would’ve leaned further left if he had the Congressional support needed to do so.

  2. I’ve always thought of this stuff as religion, and there’s another great article you left out of your post that happens to be from a new, liberal, anti-regressive online magazine that you recommended a few weeks ago:

    It’s an excellent article and goes into much deeper detail regarding the religious nature of intersectionality, social justice, and the regressive left.

    One thing I would like to add to that is the idea of original sin because the regressives have that as well. I’m a white, cis male, and am therefore burdened with original sin. The only difference between this original sin and that of Catholicism is that I can’t wash mine away through prayer or devotion to god — the best I can do is be an “ally,” constantly being berated every time I supposedly step out of line.

    1. I didn’t mean that original sin wasn’t mentioned in your post, just that there’s reallly no way for one who has it in a regressive’s mind to actually get rid of it, though Sullivan thinks there is.+

    2. I second the excellence of that article. PCC(E) actually linked to it a month ago, but it deserves to be mentioned again.

      I too would like to elaborate on the concept of original sin in intersectionality because, as with Christianity, its concept of original sin is grounded in, and inseparable from, its creation myth.

      The creation myth of Christianity (read: monotheism) is, of course, Genesis. In it, God creates a pristine garden for his children to live in. They disobey Him by eating from the tree of knowledge and thereby forfeit their cozy relationship with Him, casting themselves out of the garden and into the chaotic world which we, their descendants, find ourselves living in to this day.

      This story inaugurates the beginning of history and explains the wretched way it has unfolded, with sin and conflict and contradiction—set in motion by the exercised free will of Adam and Eve. It also functions as a morality tale, explaining how we can reclaim the pristine garden which we lost: repent of our sins and obey God, our heavenly Father, as our original progenitors failed to do.

      Intersectionality (read: modern leftism) also has a creation myth. In it, history begins in 1492, when Europeans undertook their conquest of the New World. The centuries following that event saw their conquest of the rest of the world as well, enabled and fueled by the initial exploitation of the native Americans and their land. Now, in the 21st century, we, their descendants, are living at the height of the age of global exploitation, when Euro-American (i.e., white) transnational corporations rule the world, and resource extraction is at an all-time maximum.

      As with Genesis, this myth inaugurates history at an arbitrary time and functions more as a morality tale than an objective account of how we got here. To be sure, it is more historically accurate than Genesis, but it is still essentially ideological. It identifies the righteous (the exploited) and the wicked (the exploiters). It also allows a moral cleansing through repentance, whereby an individual born into the wicked-exploiting group can identify with the righteous-exploited group and thus atone for the original sin of his/her ancestors. This is largely the function it serves—not making the world a better place, necessarily, but providing the psychological benefit of moral righteousness within a group. That’s what makes it religious.

      It also makes it confusing and incomprehensible when placed within the larger context of history. For example, modern leftists are incapable of appreciating the Islamist point of view because, to them, Islam has always been a religion of the powerless and downtrodden. Islamists, on the other hand, remember when Europe was a cultural backwater, and believe it will be again one day. I don’t think they’re right, but I think they deserve respect, insofar as their account of history goes farther back than 1492.

      1. That’s an absolutely fascinating post. I had never thought about their ideas of the west as a religious “creation myth,” but it absolutely fits. It also completely ignores the empire-building conquests of various Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and African countries/empires. It’s always the West (read: white), and only them, that ever tried to conquer or exploit anyone, and it’s only them that do so to this day.

        Again, fantastic post you made there.

        1. It also completely ignores the empire-building conquests of various Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and African countries/empires. It’s always the West (read: white), and only them, that ever tried to conquer or exploit anyone, and it’s only them that do so to this day.

          Yes, it’s a very introverted take on history.

          I wonder if there were equivalent “leftists” in those cultures when they were dominant over others. Probably. I’m pretty sure there were Romans at the height of the Roman Empire who maligned its oppression and enslavement of other people.

          But then, the Romans really did take slaves and force them to work at sword-point (like other ancient empires). The modern equivalence to globalized labor seems, to me, tenuous at best.

          1. Well, there are still places where real slavery takes place, but it’s the places the far left would rather we not notice it: parts of Africa and the Middle East. But if they admit that the West was actually basically the first past of the world to abolish slavery, and the places these people worship still have large swathes where literal slavery is practiced, that would really screw with the narrative…

            1. You and I have locked horns before, so I guess you’d consider me one of those “leftists”, and I guess I am, but this doesn’t screw with my “narrative” at all. Eastern people being shitty to other people doesn’t undo Western people being shitty to other people. People in general are shitty. Pinker likes to try to point out that we ignore a lot of the good that people do. But his examples are all extremely petty: saying hello to strangers, etc. The shittiness has a much bigger effect: not caring about the experience of others, etc.

              1. It sounds like you don’t believe the west is completely evil and everyone else in the world is oppressed by them, so it doesn’t sound like I’m talking about you.

                Also, please notice how I always say “far left” or “regressive left.” I myself am part of the left. I use these distinguishing modifiers purposefully.

          2. “I’m pretty sure there were Romans at the height of the Roman Empire who maligned its oppression and enslavement of other people.”

            Yes, there were folks like Glennus Greenwaldus, Rezasus Aslanicus, and Nomus Chumpkus running around denouncing Roman imperialism and the cultural appropriation of the Greeks.

        2. But isn’t there a matter of scale involved? Yes, there have been many cruel tyrannies & many expansionist dictators, but the scope of the mysterious global elite, the villains in this intersectional legend, is maximized. They are astride the whole world now, if they really exist. As Sullivan said, there is no possibility of salvation. You can only try to make yourself feel better about your nominal membership in the oppressing group.

  3. I thought “intersectionality” was basically the common sense recognition that movements and experiences interlap along multiple axis. A young black middle class feminist has a different perspective than that of a poor Asian feminist in her 80’s — and a feminism which includes both has to incorporate that diversity. Perhaps I misunderstood, or perhaps that’s the original meaning, which may have gotten distorted (by proponents and/or critics.)

    1. I think that’s close to the original idea, but it has changed over time. Part of the problem, is the idea that it is wrong to fight against only one type of oppression (e.g. oppression of women). Instead, one must fight against all oppression. Since this is essentially impossible, a hierarchy of oppression has developed. Therefore, since gays have been historically oppressed, it is good to fight for LGBTQEtc. rights. But since Muslims are also oppressed (both due to religion, and often, skin color), one must fight against “Islamophobia.” Since oppression of gays is literally written into Islamic doctrine, this seems to cause a problem. But if you check your hierarchy of oppression, you see that Muslims beat gays (no pun intended) and so you ignore Islamic injunctions against homosexuality. For similar reasons white gay men can be supported, but only sort of half-heartedly, since their male whiteness almost cancels out their gayness. It gets very confusing, which is how the strongest proponents like it. If no one knows the rules, they can make them up and change them as they see fit. Also, Jews always lose. That’s the one rule that never changes.

      1. It has essentially become a tool of ideological oppression itself. Only certain people are allowed to talk about certain topics; only certain people can be viewed as oppressed in any way; it elevates people’s “lived experiences” above facts when said people are high on the oppression hierarchy; it eliminated certain groups who have suffered and continue to suffer great oppression because they don’t fall easily into the hierarchy (e.g. Jews. Jews have more hate crimes committed against them as a percentage of the population in the US than any other group, and they are constantly hounded by the far left on campuses, but regressive leftists don’t care about Jews or any oppression they face (or, should I say, actively try to keep up that oppression) because they see any Jew as Zionist apartheid-supporting scum, etc.).

        Intersectionality has become just another cudgel to beat people down with. And the best part is that, even if you fall into a category that’s very high on the hierarchy of oppression, you will still be ostracized and beaten down if you in any way refuse to conform the regressive views that they think your group should hold. Black people who don’t support everything BLM does are called “Uncle Tom” or “house nigger” and “race traitor,” etc. In sum, intersectionality supports only the most superficial diversity: it divides everyone into groups based mainly on ethnicity and gender, while simultaneously banning any diversity in ideas.

        1. When I first came across ‘intersectionality’ I went and read about it, and broadly speaking it made sense. However I have come to think that in practice it is used as a fig leaf to cover bigotry about some micro sized identity pool that doesn’t show ‘enough’ victimhood.

          So, in my opinion, cries of ‘check your privilege’ and so on are trying to impose a victimhood dimension on social life, freezing social change, with the guardians of intersectionality in charge (once again).

          1. Exactly right. As you say, the cry of “check your privilege” is the ultimate way to shut out any new thoughts or ideas that may conflict with the ideology being protected. It’s the use of ostensible victimhood to eliminate any questioning or even response to one’s assertions.

            1. I just checked. My privilege is just fine, thanks.

              Now, was there something substantive you wanted to talk about?


              (Not actually addressing BJ, as I hope is evident)

              1. I feel like my privilege needs to be renewed. My secret patriarchy card is all worn around the edges and the lamination is starting to peel (hey, I’m a cis white male, I’ve had to use it a lot of times for all the oppression I do on a daily basis). I need to go get a new one.

          2. X, ” broadly speaking it made sense. However I have come to think that in practice it is used as a fig leaf to cover” Y

            Substitute almost* any ideology for X and any unhealthy outcome for Y.

            *I struggle to think of an exception.

            1. Yes, ideology does tend to do that. It is dogmatic and rigid. It can’t have the flexibility it needs to change with times, situations, etc.

        2. “It has essentially become a tool of ideological oppression itself. Only certain people are allowed to talk about certain topics; only certain people can be viewed as oppressed in any way; it elevates people’s “lived experiences” above facts when said people are high on the oppression hierarchy;”

          This is a very astute point, and tracks pretty well with the religious idea that faith makes certain facts available only to the true believers, those in the know. The “woke”, so to speak. It also makes it impossible to challenge these faith-based propositions using objective evidence, which can be dismissed as irrelevant when convenient.

          1. Reminds me:

            There is a new word out there — “wokeness” Used, you guessed it, by virtue signalling twitteraliens, facebookers, instagangsters, and many other social media addicts.

            1. Oh, we know. Although now there’s a fight going on within that community about whether white people should even be allowed to use the word “woke,” since it (supposedly) originated in black Twitter and social media circles, and is therefore cultural appropriation when white people use it.

      2. That is why some have called it the “Oppression Olympics” with different groups fighting it out to see who has been oppressed the most and therefore can claim the victim card trophy. Remember when BLM protesters stopped a gay-pride parade in Canada unless their organizers agree that blacks are more oppressed than gays?

        As a cisgendered brown Asian male, my state of oppression is quite low. If only I was an overweight, black, Muslim lesbian, then I’d shoot near to the top!

        1. Asians are basically Schroedinger’s oppressed peoples in regressive left ideology: they’re oppressed only when it suits the ideological narrative in a given situation.

          It’s also remarkable and hilarious (in a terrible way) that regressives just classify people from an enormous and diverse part of the world as “Asian.” They don’t differentiate between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Of course, the “brown” Asians are always oppressed because, as we know, skin color (and gender) trumps all. They don’t classify brown Asian peoples as Asian, they classify them as “people of color.”

          But I can’t imagine how annoying and offensive it must be to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. people to all get lumped into the same group as merely “Asian.”

          1. What about Russians? (This is important to know as I’ll be in Vladivostok in a couple of months, which so far as I know is in Asia…)

            Should I regard the inhabitants with sympathy or suspicion?


            1. Unless they’re from parts of Siberia (they have the type of eyes that make regressives call them Asian), they’re white. On the other hand, they are in the east and fought the west as the Soviet Union, so they’re partially exempt from all the evilness that comes from being white. But only partially, I mean, come on, they’re still white!

              1. Yeah, I was of course being facetious – reinforcing your point.

                This ‘Asian’ designation really is a bit absurd.


              2. Listening to the regressives, they don’t give a crap what your background is or your ancestry. Their only concern is to calculate your privilege.

                They don’t care if your white skin is from the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Caucasus, or the Balkans. Lack of skin pigmentation bestows some magical privilege for its owner. And if you pair that with a heterosexual penis, then you’re the enemy of every other identity.

              3. InfiniteImprobability — I know, I was just playing along 🙂

                Danny — Exactly. Whether you’ve grown up through generations of war and famine in the Balkans, or generations of drug-addicted, shotgun shack-living hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains, you somehow still have this magical privilege.

              4. They used to be exempt, until the 45th POTUS started to repeat 5 times a day how much he likes their country and their president.

          2. “Asian” is also variable. Even though it is geographically nonsensical, here at least Asian does not include Indian subcontinent. I actually noticed that I had internalized that meaning when I couldn’t figure out why so-and-so in Britain was described as “of Asian background”, or the like, and then it hit me that he was from India or Pakistan or the like. Grr.

              1. Technically I suppose that’s correct, if idiosyncratic. (Wondering if any West Indians – who of course are neither Indian nor Asian – get lumped in with the ‘Asians’ by mistake?)

                I’m English, but grew up in New Zealand, so to me ‘Asian’ means typically Chinese/Vietnamese/Mongolian. Not so much Japanese, not really Burmese/Thai/Malaysian/Filipino, and definitely not Indian/Pakistani or Middle Eastern or Russian.

                Inuit might qualify though.

                But then, are Moroccans ‘Africans’?

                Really, in ethnic terms, the continents are very badly and confusingly arranged.


              2. That’s odd. Why include Vietnamese but not Thai? They’re basically the same ethnically, and the more urban Thais have more interbreeding with the Chinese and even look at lot like the Chinese.

                I’m reminded of the difference between “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians”. Fancy Asians are your typical fair skinned, slant-eyed East Asians like the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Jungle Asians are the brown skinned, round-eyed Southeast Asians like the Malaysians, Indonesians, and Filipinos. South Asians are a different category.

                I’m a Jungle Asian, BTW.

              3. “That’s odd. Why include Vietnamese but not Thai?”

                I wouldn’t even try to justify it. Obviously it’s just a matter of where in a continuum one draws a ‘line’. Nobody will ever agree and it probably varies according to the context anyway.

                I usually identify as a ‘Pommie bastard’ in a New Zealand context, by the way.


        2. That’s the “next step” after the recognition (genuine) that oppression comes in various flavours and can have emergent effects when one suffers more than one way.

          The idea that somehow people have to be “ranked” is silly at best, wasteful at worst -we can only do so much. I worry about a lot of groups, but others slip by me: I hope others do care, but I can’t do everything.

          I think the biggest mistake is assuming that someone in some of the categories is somehow immune to the real effects of others. This is, for example, the source of some of the legitimate complaints of the so-called MRAs, who of course have also in some cases ridiculously overreacted (and made crap up, which doesn’t help anyone).

  4. I’ve long felt that these simplistic, extremist notions were “religious”, or “religionist” in nature: I’ve been telling people that the intransigence of the “Freedom Caucus” (as one writer put it recently, “These people would say, ‘no’ to the Ten Commandments”), the “our-way-or-no-way” of the Teapublicans (even when it costs them), and even the sudden rise of the Tea Party itself are linked to the surge in fundamentalist religion that took place in the U.S. back in the late 80s (although many other factors play a role, as well). Notions like these take advantage of human nature by dividing everyone up into a very simple, easy to grasp, “us” v/s “them” system (the old Communist version was, “revolutionary” v/s “reactionary”) with “us”, of course, being the undoubted better of the two. In the religionist’s view, we’re all either “saints”, or “sinners”, the “good guys” or the “bad guys” and, after all, why would one want to even BEGIN to negotiate, or compromise, in ANY way, with “Satan” or with those who serve him? This brand of absolutist notion has the added attraction of not only making one feel “special”, it’s also very easy: no critical thinking required; just adopt a particular belief and, BINGO! You’re suddenly better than someone else!

    1. The absolutism is all encompassed in one of the regressives’ favorite phrases: “we’re on the right side of history!”

  5. Anyone who has listened to liberal critics of SJWs would know that intersectionality has been around for some time now. The feminist philosopher Christian Hoff Summers has talked about this for at least two years now. It is time that we start pushing back against the scourge of intersectionality (a.k.a. regressive leftism) that is poisoning the liberal/progressive movement.

  6. The incredibly, willfully ignorant Lauren Nelson gave a pathetic response to Sullivan at TFA a couple of weeks ago:

    A bulk of the commenters siding with her showed that: 1) they hadn’t read The Bell Curve; 2) they rejected the concept of genetic heritability of traits in humans; 3) managed to prove Sullivan right via their protestations that he was wrong.

  7. The word ‘Intersectionality’ is practically everyone’s whipping-boy right now, and this is why:

    Imagine a workplace from the gool ol’ days, employing 100 white men. Along comes gender equality, and the new standard for the workplace is 50-50. So, ownership grudgingly adapts eventually hires 50 white women. Then comes racial equality and the new standard is 60% white, 40% non-white. Eventually ownership relents, and, taking the path of least resistance, replaces 40 white men with 40 non-white men. We now have 10 white men, 40 non-white men, and 50 white women. The workplace is 50% female, and 40% non-white. Perfect!

    Single-issue white feminists are just fine with this arrangement. So are single-issue male racial equality advocates.

    Next, intersectionality becomes the ideal. The new standard is 30 white men, 20 non-white men, 30 white women and 20 non-white women. Notice the winners and losers here? The single-issue progressives lose, compared to the previous arrangement. Non-white women gain and interestingly so do white men.

    That’s where this backlash comes from. Good liberal folks who have fought for womens’ rights or racial equality? Single-issue progressives? As righteous as they feel, they’re still not doing enough. So they bash ‘Intersectionality.’ Right-wing bigots think 100 white men deserved those jobs in the first place. They have no idea what ‘Intersectionality’ even is, but they’ll gladly bash it too because it sounds like one of them college words.

    1. Haha or maybe it’s because in your hypothetical, you are forcing people to hire employees based on superficial properties like ethnicity and gender, rather than merit.

      Or maybe it’s for the myriad other reasons that have been listed in this thread and in the original post itself, none of which you’ve answered to any degree. You’ve just come up with a magical mind-reading of all people who oppose this “intersectionality” that makes you feel good about supporting it and denigrating those who don’t.

  8. I just deride it because it’s an opaque jargon term that doesn’t mean anything like what it appears to mean.

    I would have guessed it as meaning phenomenon which occur when two disparate things cross. Such as, say, cognitive psychology and traffic flow theory being used to work out the optimum phasing of traffic lights. Or electronics and physiology to work out some new prosthetic gadget.

    What its proponents mean, apparently, is ‘inclusiveness’ – but maybe that doesn’t sound pretentious enough for them. But not only that, they use it only for a pre-defined set of fields (pre-defined by themselves). Surely the KKK, Tea Party, militias, pro-lifers and fundies should equally be subject to ‘intersectionality’ of their own where their shared interests coincide?

    But then pomos love inventing long and obscure terms, maybe it means they can feel superior by making other people look ignorant.


    1. Oops, on re-reading, I may have misinterpreted what its proponents actually mean by it. Strike my third paragraph. But the rest stands, I think.


  9. I really like getting updates on atheism/theism etc., and sometimes excesses of the “regressive left”– but this post is a deep misunderstanding by JC and company. Intersectionality is just the interplay of race, class, and gender in U.S. history. It’s not a “craze” or a “fade” at all. It has been a fruitful way to look at power in U.S. history, and has been for about 3 of 4 decades now. Nothing weird about it, nothing “out there,” it’s empirical reality: race, class, and gender really do inform one another more often than not. That’s not merely a theoretical in the slightest.

    1. I think the point was the concern had moved from “yes, people can suffer two ways at once, and also emergent effects from the combination” to some sort of (in part, by some) use where it involves some sort of “oppression ranking”. The latter is dubious, sometimes.

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