Essences or Intersectionality: Understanding Why We Can’t Understand Each Other
MARCH 1, 2020BY ADAM J. MACLEODA major source of political division in America is the difference between those who believe in essences and those who follow intersectionality. Those who hold theories of intersectionality believe that human identity and much of reality itself is a construct that they can revise, not an objective reality that we can all know. This limits the possibility of political discourse: we cannot reason together if one side no longer believes in the capacity of reason to discern what is true.
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren threw kerosene on the culture war’s embers with a recent quip about marriage. An official for a sexual-identity activist group asked her what she would say to someone who believes that marriage is “between one man and one woman.” Warren answered, “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’ Assuming you can find one.”
It seemed that half of Americans found this a hilarious and devastating critique of traditional convictions about marriage. Celebrities and journalists took to social and news media to praise Warren’s comment with fire emojis and endorsements such as, “the ultimate response,” “choice words,” “deeply meaningful,” and a “zinger for opponents of marriage equality.”
The other half of Americans found Warren’s quip bizarre. Many intelligent women who don’t post their views on social media believe that marriage is a man–woman union. One of them, an accomplished, Ivy League–educated lady I know, reacted to Warren’s comment this way: “That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that men are not naturally monogamous. That’s what marriage is for.”
Warren’s quip titillated a class of people who exercise increasing dominance over America’s cultural and educational institutions. They encountered her comment live on television, on social media, or in discussions in the faculty lounge. They cannot believe that anyone other than a (heterosexual, white) male loser still clings to the notion that marriage has a nature. That notion is unintelligible to them, so they conclude that it must be unintelligible.
On the other hand, Warren’s quip baffled many ordinary Americans. They encountered it on the radio while on their way to coach football or soccer practice, or commuting home from work to attend their children’s piano recitals. They cannot understand what being a “guy” has to do with perceiving the essence of marriage. Nor do they understand why Warren thinks that women would find it a turn-off.
Our problem is not that these two groups disagree, but that they cannot even manage to achieve disagreement. We do not understand each other. This essay examines one reason why. It goes by different names, because it results from the convergence of different trends and ideas that we can succinctly call “Intersectionality.”
Intersectionality is many things. It is a group of theories that join at the confluence of postmodern philosophy, poststructural social science, and critical cultural and legal studies. It is also a movement, which brings spokespeople for minority races, gender- and sexual-identity activists, and socialists together with a certain kind of feminist. And, as Warren’s quip illustrates, it is also a pose. It is a way for “woke” people to demonstrate their intellectual, social, and moral superiority over the unwoke.
The most essential tenet of Intersectionality is that nothing is essential. There is no essential human nature, nothing essential about reason or logic, no essential meaning of “man” or “woman” or “white” or “efficient” or “liberty” or “law.” At the deepest point in the Intersectionality pool, the very center of the confluence where all of its tributaries come together, everything is invented by those who hold power. Not only cultural norms and language, but also natural rights and duties, biological definitions, religious convictions, economic and scientific rules, and logic are all constructed “discursive practices.” Everythingis a social construct, built by those who want to leverage their superior economic, cultural, or political positions to preserve their privileges and keep others down in the zero-sum contest for power.
This is one of two convictions that all Intersectionalists share in common. They are all, to varying degrees, against essence. They are all convinced that some term or feature that unenlightened people take for granted is both artificial and unjust. They do not always agree on which terms and features must be torn down. But they all share a motivation to tear down some aspect of the apparent essence of something.
Socialists and critical legal studies theorists focus on the constructs of “law” and “economics.” They teach our young people that “due process,” “price,” and “liberty” are suspect artifices imposed upon the poor by the rich. Critical race and dominance feminist theorists teach our young people to reject traditional notions of natural equality and equality before the law. Gender-identity and queer theorists go after the assumption that there can be anything essentially “masculine” or “feminine.” And so on.
The other conviction that all Intersectionalists share is that the most privileged people, who are responsible for the construction of most of the oppressive discursive practices, are heterosexual, white males. This is why Warren assumes that anyone who believes in natural marriage is “a guy” (her viewer’s imaginations supplied the dude’s obvious race and sexual orientation). A transgender, black female (for example) is too far down the Intersectional stream, and therefore too righteous, to believe that marriage has an essential nature.
Now, regular readers of Public Discourse will immediately notice that the two convictions shared by all Intersectionalists are in tension with each other. It seems that they cannot both be true: Either there is a white male (or black female, lesbian, transgender, etc.), or there isn’t. Either there is an essence-of-male or there isn’t.
But a hard-core Intersectionalist would reject the rules of your discursive regime. Your reaction presupposes an arbitrary concept of meaning. And it employs logic, which is another invention of the oppressive powers. The signifier “white male” need not correspond to any real person, or any real, signified thing. And critical claims are not logical proofs of what is necessarily true in the world. Everything is power relations, and so all assertions are tactics.
Read a little Intersectionality scholarship and you will discover that it is not a domestic product. The headwaters of Intersectionality sprang out of the ravaged soil of post-war France, and were fed by the post-Structuralist thinkers Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. Their disciples, especially Judith Butler and Kimberlé Krenshaw, directed post-Structuralism into English-speaking academic institutions (a move that the leftist, literary critic Camille Paglia has sharply criticized as unnecessary and counter-productive) where they developed it into Intersectionality theory.
Poststructuralists taught that ways of producing knowledge, such as literature and science, are not ways of pursuing truth. Rather, to produce knowledge is to participate in what Foucault referred to as a “discursive regime.” Each discursive regime was built by powerful people (mostly white men), who adopted rules to govern the regime from within, and thus to exclude those who refuse to play by the rules.
For example, the scientific method is a set of socially constructed rules that governs the regimes of science. The axioms of logic are also artificial, governing the regime of philosophy. And authority is the set of arbitrary rules that govern the regime of religion.
Even one’s own identity is constructed. Lacan taught that human identity is not an ontological existence or presence. It is, instead, an absence. One Lacan expert explains that a person in Lacan’s theory “is almost entirely defined by lack,” especially by the lack of the other gender. In Lacan’s account, no human being has an independent existence. A human subject only comes to be real when it expresses itself to another and is realized by the other’s affirmation of and desire for it.
A person’s identity therefore has no inherent nature, and no external referents except for the discursively-constituted reference point of another person’s desires and affirmation. There is no human nature. There is no single human being. To identify as something is to project a subjective, inner experience out into the world, where it must be realized in discourse with others.
This is why everyone must affirm the identities expressed by sexual-identity minorities—by coercion if necessary. Someone who acts or refrains from acting because of her conviction that a man is biologically a male, for example, is thwarting the efforts of a transgender person to exist in the discursive practices of the world. The vendor who objects on grounds of conscience must still bake the rainbow cake. The customer’s existence is at stake.
When Intersectionality claimants protest that public expressions of traditional American principles erase them or do violence to them, this is what they mean. To the unwoke, it seems bizarre to say that affirming equal liberty, the rule of law, or the essence of masculinity or femininity is equivalent to killing someone. But according to the Intersectional way of thinking, bodily existence is not itself reality. The realization of identity in discursive practices is what makes one really exist. To refuse to affirm another’s expressed identity is to erase them from existence.
Needless to say, this raises the stakes for freedom of expression and the enterprise of education. Our civic and educational discourse is, from the Intersectional perspective, existential. That all discursive practices are artificial is also one reason why many students now perceive no obligation to adhere to the principle of non-contradiction. One particularly woke student informed me, “Aristotle invented logic, and Aristotle was a misogynist.” In her mind, therefore, the entire discursive practice of logic was invalid. Except to recite what the professor probably wants to read on the exam, such students have no need for the first principles of reason.
Because they see the practices of “justice,” “law,” and “science” as discursive regimes, Intersectionalists can claim their authority when useful, and do so without irony or scruples. By using those terms, they are not appealing to objective references. Having built strongholds at the summits of every social-science discipline and gained power in natural sciences, they adjust the rules governing each discursive regime to suit their ends. And they make further adjustments when their ends are achieved and new ends come into view.
Intersectionality is a way to gain power without responsibility to manners, law, facts, or reason. So, one can readily understand why young people find it attractive. But it has certain costs. One is the incessant need to find unequal effects of law. Indeed, Intersectionality requires inequality to rectify, and it will invent inequalities in order to justify its program. For example, it contorts non-discrimination laws to punish business owners for causing disparate effects, even when the owners act with no discriminatory intent and their policies apply equally to everyone. Intersectionality assumes that all unequal effects result from rigging the discursive regime.
A more profound cost, and one that we have not yet begun to understand, is the loss of reason as a means of discerning what is true and deciding what is to be done. We cannot reason together about truth; we do not all share a commitment to it. And it is not clear whether we can reason together about our “discursive regimes,” such as science and logic and religion—for the end of Intersectionality is either the deconstruction or appropriation of those regimes.
What would be left if Intersectionality were finally to triumph? The essence of Intersectionality is anti-essence: anti-culture, anti-nature, anti-reason, anti-being. It is not difficult to see where these ideas lead. If we accept the premise that all ways of pursuing knowledge of truth are mere discursive regimes, then all discourse between incompatible regimes becomes zero-sum warfare. Understanding is not possible, or even desirable.
Particular strands of Intersectionality might offer something constructive, but only to the extent that they reject the anti-essentialist assumptions of other strands. For example, feminists might propose ways for women and girls to flourish, but only if they defend the essence of femininity. That would prove intolerable to gender-identity activists.
It appears that Intersectionalists are right about one thing: these conflicts are existential. Each new stream that flows into Intersectionality erases the essence of the one before it. It seems unlikely that any identity group will survive this. In the end, victory will belong to the most ruthless eraser of all.
In short, no one can make peace with Intersectionality theory. Its demands are totalizing, and it sweeps everything caught in its currents relentlessly downstream. It requires either complete rejection or willingness to accept its most radical implication—the end of knowledge of what is true. The resilience of socialist and totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century, and their recent resurgence, should remind us that the triumph of reason is not inevitable. We must choose it.
About the Author
Adam J. MacLeod is Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and a lecturer in the Witherspoon Institute’s graduate seminar on the Moral Foundations of Law. He has been a Thomas Edison Fellow in the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Prope… READ MORE