So, our cognitive reliance on the internet has fostered rigid, fixative obsessions with identity and categorization. Yet we cannot deny that each human being has many different facets and fulfils many different roles in society. As we all know, a daughter may also (simultaneously) be a sister, a mother, a cousin, an aunt, and so on. Each of these roles will endow this person with different qualities, features and expectations.
In truth, different aspects of the self interact, moderating and negotiating with each other, so that individual identity is much more fluid and indeterminate, and more changeable. Different attributes bloom or dwindle in different environments or under different demands, while still being tinged by the influence of other parts of who you are.
Web-enabled Social Justice warriors are reluctant to do this, though. Fixed identities are their most valuable, realisable (or weaponizable) assets, because they allow campaigners to argue that certain types of people (usually themselves) have been persecuted and oppressed due to their membership of a particular reviled category, and that this has been done not by misguided individuals, but by our whole society and the way it has been structured. This necessitates the heroic campaigns through which they find purpose, admiration and importance.
Of course, they are entirely correct, and these reformative campaigns need to be fought, but they fear that if identities are more protean, they might morph into different ones and slip through the bars of their prisons. Not enough people could claim that their negative experiences or their lack of success was attributable to a particular type of discrimination. The mass power of a movement would break down and be squandered in individual squabbles with individual prejudiced scum-bags.
Of course, activists blame the elites and majorities for creating these constructs, but their arguments rely on the existence and maintenance of the categories. Their evidence of discrimination comes, in great part, from categorised statistics gleaned from whole populations, backed up by personal anecdotes. Taken alone, any individual’s experience is likely to be patchy and inconsistent and may be unrepresentative, with many acts of kindness and openness to confuse the picture of a prejudiced society. Luckily, the data-gathering juggernauts of social-media platforms make enormous, complex data sets available, as we’ve already noted.
To account, then, for the complexities of identity, activists have turned to the idea of “Intersectionality”, a suitably abstract term for an alienated, data-driven population more at home with computer screens than warm, human company: online experience is not grounded in the real or tangible.
Intersectionality is an attempt to explain how one person can occupy various “social and political identities” (according to Wiki) ad was, of course, coined by a sociology academic, the masters of theoretical and unreal, Kimberle Cranshaw. Theorists claim that the model helps them to discuss how these selves interact, although I see little sign of this in their debates. The concept is often illustrated with images of Venn diagrams. Where the classes overlap, so that one data point is in more than one circle, is a point of intersectionality.
Fundamentally, this theory presents us with fixed points that represent unchanging identities. However, each person can acquire an ever-increasing number of characteristics from whatever different groups they may belong to: ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, and so on.
Rather than seeing all these aspects as operating on each other to form unique personalities, activists merely bank them as items on their growing lists of grievances to use in their attacks on parts of the society they consider more privileged than they are. “Intersectionality”, from its very first iteration, has been concerned only with “different modes of discrimination and privilege” and how “intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing” (I’m quoting from the Wikipedia entry for Intersectionality, again.) In other words, the playground politics of the aggrieved.
An interesting theory has been reduced to the simplest arithmetic of resentment – adding or subtracting ways you have been wronged, like a revenge obsessed psychopath. Constructive debate has degenerated into infantile point-scoring and one-upmanship. (“You may be an unemployed single mother, but at least you’re not a BLACK single mother: etc. etc.) I’ve called it under-privilege Top-Trumps, in the past.