Intersectionality, the seemingly newest political trend (hold on, there might be another one in a week, stay tuned!) is in some ways like a one-night hookup: It seems fresh and exciting when there’s only one thing on each person’s mind, but the next morning, when the complexity of life rears its ugly head, maybe it doesn’t look quite as enticing.
The concept of intersectionality is that citizens who support one cause should show solidarity with those who rally for another. We’ve seen it most notably in the last year: Many in the Black Lives Matter movement have accepted that the history of Palestinian suffering is akin to that of African Americans, and thus the otherwise parallel cause merits crossover advocacy.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept in theory; it’s perfectly sensible that those with a strong sense of social justice would want to reach out in support of those with seemingly similar goals. But in practice, a variety of real-life considerations can result in a big, hot mess that not only impedes constructive dialogue but ultimately tampers with the prospects of success.
A recent flareup at Creating Change, a major LGBTQ conference in Chicago (see related commentary on opposite page), paints an example of the negative side of intersectionality. Anti-Israel protesters wreaked havoc on a reception put on by A Wider Bridge, which builds relationships between LBGTQ people and communities in Israel and America. The gathering featured members of Jerusalem Open House, a gay activist group.
The protesters weren’t simply drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians; instead, they took over the stage and prevented the visiting Israelis from talking to those gathered. The effect was a denial of the ability by the speakers to express their viewpoints.
This result was slammed by those from A Wider Bridge, who in their statement after the incident said:
“Last night the values of free speech and respectful communication that we all value and that should be the hallmark of the Creating Change conference were replaced by a disgraceful authoritarian-like action that seeks to silence the voices of anyone the protesters feel don’t adhere to their rigid dogma.”
To some who support the notion that intersectionality can provide a powerful tool for change, this incident may come as a disappointment. But it’s hardly a surprise.
First, there are structural issues that can make intersectionality troublesome. Take the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a springboard for this discussion. People who support BDS (which we don’t) do so for any number of reasons, ranging from a belief in non-violent social change and alleviating suffering, all the way to anti-Semitism and the desire to destroy the State of Israel. The movement is, as many movements are, an amalgam of interests.
Then try to integrate a cause like BDS that itself comprises any number of constituent parts with another movement that also represents a wide range of perspectives. So, for instance, pair BDS with LGBTQ, which as its name indicates, already encompasses a wide array of gender and orientation interests. It’s easy to see the factors multiply and the challenges of coalescing around the core issues intensify.
But wait, it gets worse. Because even among like-minded groups, there’s often disagreement not only about mission but about tactics. Some believe in peaceful and non-disruptive protests. Others are militants perfectly willing to storm a stage and stifle a speech. Some adhere to tactics of reason and logical persuasion. Others operate from the platform of visceral and emotional engagement.
Put it all together and it’s very easy to see how even the most well-meaning of change advocates can, when locked in a multiplied matrix of missions, produce results that are ineffective at best and suppressive at worst. Instead of building upon the best and most enlightened aspects of the constituent parts, the result can often more resemble a modern-day Tower of Babel. And it’s often those whose tactics comprise shouting the loudest whose agendas include bullying down their more collaborative ostensible partners.
It’s truly disappointing when those who purport to make our society a better place – especially those who think they are synthesizing different movements for common cause, as intersectionality purports to do – don’t have the capacity or stomach for open and engaging discourse within their ranks.
Any cause of meaningful and progressive sustenance must seek to build respect and encourage dialogue among partners. Because if it cannot, then the hope of persuading those outside the intersectionalist alliance is truly slim indeed.