Further adventures in intersectionality

On the hounding of Laurie
Penny & Richard Seymour
James Heartfield

“White settlers” who “cut off indigenous people’s hair as part of genocide”; you make “a lot of erasing statements,” to “silence” and “exclude,” in the name of “white solidarity.”

— commenter, discussing a piece
about women with short hair

How fucking dare you…turn around and put the word “racist” in quotation marks like the accusation is a trivial or silly one…your response has been at all times to try and define this racism out of existence…your response at all turns has been to argue, essentially, we’ve got a moral chip on our shoulders. YOU FUCKING CRACKER.

— commenter, discussing the
racism of an advertisement

Who could they be talking about? Are these perhaps some racist white settlers exterminating indigenous people, and degrading blacks?

Well, no. In the first paragraph are tweets to the New Statesman columnist and feminist Laurie Penny, and the second paragraph are replies to the Guardian columnist and self-styled revolutionary socialist Richard Seymour. Both Penny and Seymour have made a point of arguing, moreover, for the latest fad in leftist thinking: intersectionality. “Intersectionality” supposedly means taking seriously the many different oppressions, and how they intersect. “My socialism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Seymour has made a point of saying. Given that they are so keen to speak out against oppression in all its multi-layered forms, it seems really bad luck that they should be accused of being “racist crackers” and “white settlers.”

Why are they the ones denounced? And who are the critics who judge them so harshly? They are their friends. Yes, that’s right. That is what their friends think of them. In Richard Seymour’s case, it is what his own comrades in the International Socialist Network — that he recently helped to set up — think of him: that he is “a fucking cracker.” Laurie Penny says that the woman who tweeted or re-tweeted all of the posts above — about her being a settler engaged in genocide — is someone she takes very seriously: “I care what you think,” Penny reassured her.

Laurie Penny got into trouble before when this attempt at solidarity with Pussy Riot was misinterpreted as her putting on "blackface"

Penny got in trouble in June when her show of solidarity
with Pussy Riot was misinterpreted as “blackface”

When they were called out for what they said they were both surprised, even offended. “You would struggle to cite a single example of me doing that,” objected Seymour; Penny was being attacked for “things I did not say.” Protesting innocence, for some reason, only seemed to make their critics angrier, and more vociferous. Seymour was told that he was “bending over backwards to defend white supremacy,” while Penny was a “defensive white woman” (in the words of another white woman, Penny Schenk).

At that point, anyone sensible would have withdrawn, or told their accusers to get lost. Sadly for them, Penny and Seymour were already deeply invested in the ideology of “intersectionality.” To have withdrawn at that point would — according to the etiquette of that outlook — have been evidence of a failure to learn from others.

Because their critics spoke for “People of Color,” the argument runs, then Seymour and Penny were obliged (regardless of whether the arguments made were any good) to sit down and be quiet, and be taught a lesson. One critic, Tim Nelson, put the argument like this to Seymour: “When I’m in a discussion and every black person involved says what I’m saying is racist, I try to shut up and listen rather than tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.” So it was that both Seymour and Penny tried to adopt a penitent stance, and to promise that they were indeed listening to the criticisms, in the hope that that would assuage their accusers. “[T]hat’s something I’ll have to work on,” said Seymour. “I’m thinking about how to mitigate this in my future work,” said Laurie Penny.

When the Anglo-Saxon kings of the eleventh century agreed to pay the invading Danes money, it did not stop the invasion. They came back for more “Danegeld.” When Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour tried to mollify their critics it did not stop the criticisms — they just got stronger. But…wait a minute. You might ask: What was it that Seymour and Penny did to bring down this rain of criticism on their heads? Did they invade a country? Or did they lynch someone?

"Is it because I'm a woman of color?" asks Laurie Penny's critic, Flavia Dzodan, a marketing expert from Holland

“Is it because I’m a woman of color?” asks Laurie Penny’s
critic, Flavia Dzodan, a marketing expert from Holland

No. Seymour was talking about that chair — you know, the one that looks like it is a black woman, that Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend had herself photographed sitting on for the Evening Standard. Seymour did not say he liked the chair. He said it was racist. But he made the terrible error of pointing out that some sex play involved racial acting out (which is a bit outré, but not actually an endorsement of racial oppression). Penny’s crime was even greater: she wrote an article in the New Statesman about short hair being (a bit of) a feminist statement…except that she did not say anything about the hair of “Women of Color.” Yes, that’s right. Laurie Penny’s article “does not include any mentions (even as a side note) of WoC hair issues.”

Onlookers were amazed. Padraig Reidy asked whether it was really true that Laurie Penny was “being harassed because of a piece about her hair cut”? Penny’s editor parodied the critics, writing: “Why is this piece about what it is about and not ABOUT EVERYTHING?” Most left-wingers watching the argument among the “International Socialists” were laughing. They knew that the far left were given to splitting over arcane debates about property relations in the USSR, or the correct position to take on the Syrian conflict — but they had never seen a Trotskyist grouplet split “over a chair” before.

But neither Seymour nor Penny were in a position to make light of the criticisms. Laurie Penny said that “she was trying to stay in the room with people’s anger without freaking out,” and that she was “literally…having a panic attack.” Richard Seymour finally had enough, and said his critics were engaged in “moralistic browbeating,” and it was wrong that some subjects should be ruled off-topic, or that people should be anathematized in the debate. These were the wisest things said, and maybe if they had been said earlier on, the row would not have gotten out of hand. But actually they were said in a letter of resignation, co-signed by six of his supporters. And so it was that the terrible event came to pass: the International Socialist Network really did split over its position on BDSM sex.

Neither Seymour nor Penny understand that these dead-end arguments come about because of their own commitment to “intersectionality.” They think that “intersectionality” just means anti-racism. But it does not. In fact, it means the opposite. Intersectionality is not about opposing racism. It is about institutionalizing racism. It is about negotiating the differences between people that arise because of their race and their sex. What it rules out is that it might be possible to rise above such differences. It works the other way around. To get influence in this world, you have to emphasize your differences, and amplify them. Currency for the intersectionalists is ever greater offense at the things people say, even — especially — the people closest to them.

Richard Seymour has  anathematized others, like the late Christopher Hitchens, whom denounced in a whole book as an "apostate"

Richard Seymour has anathematized others, like the late Christopher
Hitchens, whom denounced in a whole book as an “apostate”

The arguments put up against Seymour and Penny were absurd. But they got traction because Seymour and Penny themselves have both used similar allegations. They joined forces to attack “Brocialists” and alleged “rape apologists” such as the Marxist professor Alex Callinicos, the comedian Russell Brand, and left-wing MP George Galloway. Using “moralistic browbeating” themselves, loudly proclaiming themselves “intersectionalists,” Seymour and Penny only succeeded in laying themselves open to similar criticisms.

It is the person who most loudly proclaims their own rectitude, and so extravagantly dismisses the faults of others, who is most likely to be exposed themselves for wrong doing. The temptation to hunt out hypocrisy — to magnify the slightest thing to find it — is just too great. And if the evidence is not there, so what? You can always just make it up.

Further reading:

Intersectional, or Just Sectarian?,
Billy Delta of Redfriars and
Bash Street Trots by James Heartfield
The Oppression Ouroborus: Intersectionality will Eat Itself and
Recognising No-one: the Politics of Recognition by Jason Walsh
Live by Intersectionality, Die by Intersectionality by Ross Wolfe
Exiting the Vampire Castle by Mark Fisher

28 thoughts on “Further adventures in intersectionality

  1. ‘Most left-wingers watching the argument among the “International Socialists” were laughing. They knew that the far left were given to splitting over arcane debates about property relations in the USSR, or the correct position to take on the Syrian conflict — but they had never seen a Trotskyist grouplet split “over a chair” before.’

    Hilarious! I burst out laughing here.

  2. The Penny article was atrocious. She picked up on some chauvinistic mutterings from a dark corner of the internet (women with short hair are bull dykes, real women look like Rapunzel type nonsense) and constructed an easy oppositional argument based on her ‘politicised’ haircut. Alongside a rather fetching album cover type image of Penny herself a picture of a black woman was used to illustrate the piece: this is partly why the argument started. The debate on Twitter did not @ Penny, she sought it out and soon enough the usual suspects (Helen Lewis, CCP) etc were piling in to defend her against the intersectional ‘bullies’. The gist of their complaint is that you cannot universalise female experience which is exactly what Penny had attempted to do, alongside a stereotyped view of what ‘all’ men think to boot: this sort of gender essentialism is lazy and reductive. It was a bad article, she deserved criticism.

    • Wasn’t it a response to that whole Return of Kings article about how women with short hair are supposedly “damaged”?

      Perhaps it was a bad article, and thus deserved criticism. Do you think the criticism it received was on target, however?

      • As I said, some dark corner of the internet. These arguments about women’s appearance, from MRAs or feminists, are all too familiar and I can only think that a new generation believe they’re inventing the wheel by regurgitating them. I’ve read Dzodan’s storify of the debate, it’s linked to at her website ‘redlightvoices’. I certainly have more respect for her than the likes of Helen Lewis and so does Penny if she were being honest. I’m not a great fan of neutered intersectionality and can see that the focus on identity at all costs is a blind alley. But Penny’s piece was reactionary and reductive.

  3. She of the “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” quote? Very influential, worth a read if only to see how to ‘do’ intersectional politics properly. Penny fell into a trap, but it was her own fault for contesting a rigid position with an outdated binary opposition: short hair bad, short hair good etc. No article can possibly hope to represent all positions but to counter a universalising philosophy with one that is equally reductive is silly.

  4. An interesting case-study in the logic of this line of argument. In my day, this was called race-baiting, and the worst race-baiters were always the hangers-on trying to win influence. Absolute poison to political discussion. The problem is not criticism of other left currents per se (as you seem to imply by your reference to Seymour’s attacks on Galloway, Callinicos et al), but rather the framework in which that criticism takes place. As you said earlier, “To get influence in [their] world, you have to emphasize your differences, and amplify them. Currency for the intersectionalists is ever greater offense at the things people say”.

    I have written about the evolution of an advocate of the ‘white privilege’ idea in New Zealand in the 1980s in my blog

  5. Paranoid as I sometimes am, I keep having the thought that intersectionality, and whatever else is associated with it, were maybe originally developed as an intelligence community plot. Maybe not engineered directly, but certainly supported (especially in supporting teaching positions in the academy), like Pollock’s work was promoted or certain strands of the British Labour party. I guess originally this would coincide with the Reagan/Thatcher contra-reformation push.

    If you look at the impact of these ideas and their earlier incarnations in the form of eurocommunism, the practical result has always been that parties that adopted them went out of existence soon or watered down to become collaborators of the system. Certainly there’s a motive.

    Also, going to mansplain this, these intersectionality idiots do not achieve anything for women. Where are the practical positions with regard to violence, family life, economics and so on, which are actually relevant for those that are not bothered by high theory? Not there. Hence very few care about this bitching.

    • I’m not familiar with ‘their earlier incarnations in the form of eurocommunism,” and would like to read more about this. Can you point me to some expressions of this from the eurocommunist currents?

      I doubt that these ideas were directly developed by the intelligence community – the intelligence community doesn’t really take any interest in ideas. They were certainly promoted and acted on by sections of academia, as part of the effort to draw more women and people of the oppressed nationalities into the petty-bourgeois bureaucracy, including academia. I don’t know how it played out in the UK, but I think this was an international phenomenon.

      • Hi James,

        I think the Laclau & Mouffe book ‘Hegemony and socialist strategy’ is a good starting point. Must say that I haven’t studied the current so much that I can connect it with intersectionality, with which I haven’t bothered at all (life is short!).

        Fact is for all their talk about hegemony, these people only achieved it for neoliberalism (and within their own personal niche).

        My point about the intelligence services being involved was a bit tongue in cheek. I do not think it was a direct, fully planned conspiracy, but rather one of supporting one current over the other. Certainly they had (and retain) a lot of support in academia (conference communism) and the public sector (third way), which full-blooded Marxism hasn’t. I do not think feminism and minorities necessarily have much to do with that, as they are also mainstream left/centre movements, or perhaps better just of society in general.

        Personally I have a very strong dislike for ‘them’ for two reasons: a) they cannot talk sensible economics, history, or (geo)politics, and b) they constantly pretend to ‘move on’ from old-fashioned ideas, based on stupid criteria like the popularity of ideas or empty theory.

  6. The concept of “intersectionality” is not “postmodern” as suggested here, or indeed an invention of the intelligence services!, it was developed in 1978 by the Boston based Combahee River Collective. Intersectionality is a concept developed out of the experiences of black feminist activists as an attempt to negotiate the racism that was inherent within feminist political movements in the US in the 70s and the misogyny black women experienced in counter-cultural, Left and black-power movements. The Combahee collective argued that the “liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy.” The ongoing work of Angela Davies is perhaps the best example of intersectional thinking. Understanding the history of this idea/ideal is I think useful in understanding the ongoing struggles around it in the political present tense.

    • Knowing what I do about proponents of intersectionality, I strongly suspect that the racism and misogyny the Combahees experienced was mostly in their heads.

      At any rate, by their fruits ye shall know them and intersectionality has brought the left nothing but irrelevance.

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  15. Given that your article does not otherwise refer to Flavia Dzodan, I’d be very interested to know why you included her photograph and a caption noting that she is a ‘marketing expert from Holland’, who referred to herself as a woman of colour in an exchange with Penny….

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