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.)