Jon Haidt on intersectionality and identity politics

December 21, 2017 • 11:00 am

City Journal has published the text of a recent talk  (the Wriston lecture at the Manhattan Institute; video below) given by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “The age of outrage: what the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities”.

Here’s one except:

Let us contrast King’s identity politics with the version taught in universities today. There is a new variant that has swept through the academy in the last five years. It is called intersectionality. The term and concept were presented in a 1989 essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, who made the very reasonable point that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience. She analyzed a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors, even when the company could show that it hired plenty of blacks (in factory jobs dominated by men), and it hired plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by whites). So even though GM was found not guilty of discriminating against blacks or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. This is an excellent argument. What academic could oppose the claim that when analyzing a complex system, we must look at interaction effects, not just main effects?

But what happens when young people study intersectionality? In some majors, it’s woven into many courses. Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile. Anything that a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don’t have it. A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.

And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: all of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.

This means that on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout-downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country. It’s schools such as Yale, Brown, and Middlebury in New England, and U.C. Berkeley, Evergreen, and Reed on the West Coast. Are those the places where oppression is worst, or are they the places where this new way of thinking is most widespread?

Do read (or watch) the whole talk. Haidt does end on an optimistic note, but it doesn’t make me very optimistic.

Here’s the whole lecture if you want to watch it:

h/t: cesar

37 thoughts on “Jon Haidt on intersectionality and identity politics

  1. It seems to me intersectionality – as a concept – fits the definition of a meme. As Dawkins said re religion, a meme can resembles a virus. It infects minds and if it “clicks” it begins to spread and mutate.

    1. Any idea that gets transmitted from one mind to another fits the definition inion of meme as formulated by Richard Dawkins.

      I find it interesting that the concept of “meme” has changed away from Dawkins’ definition and is now often focused specifically on what we might term parasitic memes. i.e. those that have no beneficial effect on their hosts. You might say that “meme” is a meme that is evolving.

  2. The seemingly explosive development of intersectionality on campus is a kind of network effect. Anyone in the connected graph of privilege and oppression can feel aggrieved when anyone else in one’s neighborhood feels aggrieved. It’s no doubt enabled by social media and the internet in general. I predict it’s unstable and will burn itself out, but probably doing a lot of damage to institutions and reputations along the way.

    1. It’s a zero-sum game, competition for a positional good. It spawns other zero-sum games too. It’s not hard to spot people playing “most woke white body”.

    2. It’s like one of those puzzles about islands and bridges.

      If identities are islands and and axes of oppression are bridges you could draw a network in which everyone is oppressed by everyone else – except all the bridges from cis white hetero shitlord island have turnstiles so oppression can only radiate outwards.

  3. Right now, left identity politics with all its grotesque inflorescences is the single greatest hurdle to a meaningful and effective fight against the ongoing rapid dismantling of American democracy. It also stands in the way of concerted action on the threats to our planet’s health. Our children and grand-children will ask this generation: “didn’t you have much more important stuff to worry about?”

    1. Nope. By light years, Trump and the Republicans are the main source for the dismantling of American democracy. Left identity politics is a minimal hurdle in fighting this.

      1. I don’t think you’ve understood correctly. US democracy is being systematically dismantled by the Republican Party. That is undeniable.

        However, the single greatest hurdle to fighting this is alleged by the parent post to be the regressive left. The regressive left is one of the things that drives poor white voters to the GOP, for example. If you are a poor white man living in a trailer with no job and no prospects, being told that you are privileged is not going to make you sympathetic to the political group telling you thay.

        1. “The regressive left is one of the things that drives poor white voters to the GOP, for example.”

          This is a premise that is open to serious challenge. White people voted more Republican than Democratic long before the “regressive left” ever existed. That is, one can just as easily say that white racism is what drove some people into the regressive left. There could be a chicken-and-egg situation here. The election of 2018 will tell us a lot. If, as some predict, it will be characterized by a “blue wave” then the notion that previous Republican success was due to the regressive left will be exploded. This is because the big, bad regressive left should have induced even more people to vote Republican, which will not have been the case.

          It is my analysis of the American electoral scene that the regressive left, as annoying as it is, is hardly a root cause of the rise of Trump (a minority president) and his minions. Those who blame the regressive left are right wingers or people who are misled by them.

          1. Many people who previously voted for Obama voted for Trump. That suggests the traffic is going from Left to Right. If people were turning Refressive in response to Trump the numbers would be going the other way.

          2. White people voted more Republican than Democratic long before the “regressive left” ever existed.

            But US general elections seem to me always to be won by fine margins. This time around, it only took a few hundred thousand people in a handful of states who previously would have been expected to vote Democrat changing their minds to vote Republican.

            2018 will not tell us much about the regressive left at all since people will be voting with two years’ experience of Trump’s government under their belts.

          3. However, with the narrow margins in many elections, it will not be necessary for Democrats to switch and vote Republican to dash Democrats’ hopes of securing congressional majorities in 2018. It could easily result from enough disillusioned Democrats simply not voting. For some, the identity politics, irrationality, and concomitant propagation of injustice (e.g., the misguided and sanctimonious demands that Al Franken resign) may be enough to depress Democratic voter turnout.

      2. Identity politics and assorted social engineering schemes have alienated a large segment of the population.

        Trump is a symptom, not a cause.

        1. Precisely. The Regressive movement started years before Trump was a serious candidate for President. Democrats thought they would win; Clinton thought she didn’t even have to campaign in America’s heartlands.

  4. Yep, and the Democrat’s abandonment of the white working class is a major reason they lost the election.

    (The African hostility to the powerful white woman is also egregiously self-defeating.)

    And isn’t this sort of thinking reflected in the Republican tribalism of the sort that backs Roy Moore just because he is one of their own??

    What was that thing MLKing said about “content of their character”?

  5. I can vouch for the fact that intersectionality can also work the other way. Long before 1989 when Crenshaw is said to have named the concept, it was well understood by one colleague who did a lot of hiring in an outfit where workplace diversity goals (virtually minority hiring quotas in this case) were very much in vogue. Much-sought-after candidates that could boost both his department’s gender balance and the racial balance were deemed “twofers”. His assistant, herself a self-described twofer, used to speculate about how many categories of historical disadvantage one could plausibly hope to find in a single candidate — the search for the ideal N-fer with N >> 2. At least in this environment, while being black or being a woman could be of some benefit, being a black woman might be very beneficial indeed, perhaps more than twice as beneficial as being a mere onefer.

      1. Sorry. Wrong politics. No intersectionality for this one
        In fact, as an islamophobe she is one of the very few black people that can actually be racist.

        1. Are you sure she is not rather an islamofascistphobe? Is it not the islamofascist mentality which thinks female genital mutilation (which she herself had to endure) quite a fine thing?

  6. Brilliant lecture by Jon Haidt,
    There is nothing wrong with intersectionality per se, but is has to be seen in it’s reasonable light. The example of black women at GM is enlightening. However, the resulting hierarchy of oppression is not reasonable or even helpful.
    Same goes in fact for POMO, it is true that, say, Darwin’s ideas were coloured by his capitalist background. But there is nothing in that to dismiss his ideas. And it is true that we Western ‘civilised’ societies may have been too dismissive of ‘primitive’ tribal ones. But that does not mean their cosmogenies are equally valid, or that all ‘truths’ are equal.
    “the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male.” If the intersectionaists would have said “…able-bodied Christian, Islamic or jewish…” I might even go with it. 🙂

  7. Very good lecture. I like his idea that He is a pessimist but he has a low confidence in his pessimism. That is about as good as I can get, if that. The fix to correct what has been done to create the creatures we have in the schools now, cannot be done overnight and it is possible that damage done to the current batch cannot be corrected. So it is to future kids coming up that the “fix” must be attempted. However, for our national political disaster, what is his formula for that one??

    Some of the findings by Madison when he was studying for the Convention in 1787 was that a democratic form of government had only worked in very small regions or countries (almost city size). This made his biggest challenge at the convention to convince others that this form of government was worth trying. Today it looks like a bad call.

  8. Intersectionality is a valid concept but potentially damaging in application because only a simplified version of it can ever be considered. The “network of oppression” is really all the ways life can affect an individual, which can include experience, mental illness, attitude, etc. No cursory inspection can ever reveal all of it, so it’s impossible (and wrong) to rank identities from underprivileged to superprivileged. A white cishet male conceivably can be less privileged than a POC, depending on the specifics of the facts at hand and the oppression calculus.

    So it’s a theory that can never really be applied without stereotyping, bias, and often actual bigotry.

  9. One item in the speech that caught my attention was the notion that Newt Gingrich, when he was speaker of the House, changed the House schedule so business could be done in a 4 day week leaving a long week end. Supposedly he encouraged republican lawmakers not to move to Washington but to stay home and fly in for the business part of the week. Thus, there’s no time to hobnob with the enemy and risk possible chances of compromise. If true, it must be one of the most insidious attempts ever to subvert democracy.

      1. The point of it was to force a decrease in the opportunity for cooperation. You know, the way compromises are made in a republic. That’s pretty unprecedented. It was an early milestone in the steps toward the disastrous level of animosity and polarization that characterizes current culture.

  10. I find it extremely and utterly offensive that the handedness (right handed versus left handed) has not been included in the oppression matrix.

    Because it doesn’t suit someone’s agenda?

    On the other hand it’s already more than enough to give me a splitting headache.

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