Athens and Jerusalem: Why You Need to Understand Feminist Theory Before You Talk About It

When a friend told me that The Gospel Coalition had published an essay on intersectionality, I rolled my eyes. When I found that the writer was Joe Carter, I actively guffawed. The last time I interacted with Joe Carter (over race theory, of all things), he demonstrated not only a lack of understanding of how racial power dynamics work, but a complete unwillingness to even admit that he maybe needed to pick up a book about it.

So needless to say, my expectations are pretty damn low when it comes to watching him attempt to explain a theory that is vital to understanding the feminist movement in its current iteration. And, to no one’s surprise, it’s a mess. What’s most troubling about it is that it has just enough details right to sound coherent and cogent and accurate. But not enough of them to actually be accurate.

Carter’s article reads like he’s read the Wikipedia summary of intersectionality, picked up a couple of opposing articles, and called it good enough. But, as I’m about to demonstrate, it’s not.

Carter sums up intersectionality thusly:

Intersectionality (also known as intersection theory or, in a more narrow usage, intersectional feminism) is the concept that subjectivity (i.e., that which influences, informs, and biases people's judgments about truth or reality) is formed by mutually interlocking and reinforcing categories of race, gender, class, health, and sexuality.

However, this particular explanation, while adequate for Joe’s purposes, ignores the concomitant thread of intersectionality, which is vital to its understanding. Intersectionality posits that people exist along varying axes of oppression and privilege. I have the intersecting privileges of being white, able-bodied, and cisgender. I have the intersecting oppressions of being a woman, being queer, and neuroatypical. Intersectionality recognizes both how intersecting axes privilege and oppress.

More alarming is Carter’s misnaming of “subjectivity,” which is not, as he seems to think, a journalistic amalgamation of biases and judgments. It is, as Simone de Beauvoir outlines, part of the embodied experience of being a woman. A woman’s subjectivity—that is, her awareness of both herself and the oppressor as a function of her existence as a woman—the unique experience of existing at once as subject and object. In feminist theory, “subjectivity” has a very specific meaning, and Carter’s summary is therefore flawed from the get-go, based on how he defines this central tenet.

Perhaps I should not spend all of my time on this definition, but it is vitally important for understanding what happens next in Carter’s essay (and, I’d argue, is the fault of Andrew Sullivan’s similar misreading of intersectionality as theory). Carter goes on to argue that intersectionality, while useful for understanding “systems of sin” (his evangelical term for structural and institutional racism, though he seems to leave sexism out of that equation), has become an entity unto itself and a form of cultic worship of a particular niche of theory.

He then explains that the proliferation of intersectionality theory has led to what folks in online feminist spheres have for years called “The Oppression Olympics,” in which people argue that they are more deserving of X understanding or accommodation because they are oppressed on a scale greater than that person over there. Unfortunately for Carter, this argument isn’t new—“who’s oppressed more” has been a discussion within feminist theory for decades, going back to the suffragette years.

Thing is, the Oppression Olympics, especially within the context of intersectionality, are a misapplication of Crenshaw’s theory. It is not about who can win the game of being oppressed the most, but understanding how these intersecting privileges and oppressions create an invisibilization of specific oppressive environments and subjects. I’m a white woman, which is an axis of privilege and an axis of oppression. I have an anxiety disorder, which is an invisible disability. And I’m bisexual. In many ways, my forms of oppression are invisible and visible—being a bisexual woman carries with it forms of oppression unique to my personhood, and monosexual people can tend toward invisibilization of our oppression if they do not make an effort for inclusion. It is not being oppressed more or less than another person: it is about understanding the different ways oppression acts in an individual’s life and working toward solutions for those intersections.

Intersectionality is an attempt to make the invisible visible, particularly with regard to the intersection of race and gender, as was Crenshaw’s initial purpose. It is the single most important theory of oppression put forth within the last fifty years and a cogent, coherent, accurate understanding of its application is vitally important to understanding feminist theory today.

Unfortunately, we can’t all be theorists, which is why we end up with the Oppression Olympics in the first place. We get to competition through a misapplication of theory, not through the theory itself.

Carter’s understanding of this competition as a natural outcome of intersectionality theory is a massive misapplication and misunderstanding of the theory—which is what happens when you get your theory from Wikipedia and fellow white men.

Carter then quotes Helen Pluckrose, a UK-based atheist and non-feminists, who (rightly) critiques much of the current feminist discussion as the purview of university-education white women. She’s right! It’s a problem that much feminist theory has been too inaccessible for too long. But her problem—and Carter’s—is assuming that the intersectional feminists who call for people to listen to the oppressed are in fact calling for people to listen to those who agree with intersectional feminists. I cannot speak for all feminists, but one of the reasons I say to listen to others is to hear about their experience. Not because they “agree” with me. There are plenty of people who don’t and who are in those oppressed categories I do not posses. The positioning of intersectionality as a purview of the elite misunderstands what intersectionality is attempting to explain.

For the record, I blog like this in order to overcome, in part, that university educated circle jerk.But Carter’s most questionable conclusion comes toward the end of his piece, when he draws the competition and the anti-elitism together to proclaim that intersectionality helped create “transgenderism”:

This leads to a third problem: the prioritization of subjective individual experiences over objective truth. The experiences of marginalized groups are not only considered more valid than non-marginalized people, they are also treated as more valid than facts or reality. (In this way, intersectionality helped pave the way for acceptance of reality-denying phenomena like transgenderism.)

Again, there’s that problem with the term “subjective,” which means different to the feminist theorist than it does to the journalist (as both, I can tell you it is tough to keep it straight). He’s right that intersectionality helped people to understand the transgender experience, largely in part because it led to the listening and embracing of transgender perspectives as part of the intersectional axes.

But, the feminist movement wasn’t suddenly accepting of transgender people because of intersectionality. Nor was it, conversely, entirely un-accepting of them prior to Crenshaw’s breakthrough explanation of oppressions. Indeed, transgender identity has existed for centuries. There’s evidence of transgender people existing well back into the 14th century. One thing that modern feminist theory has done is create a theoretical framework for existing experience. Much like how science didn’t create DNA or meteorology doesn’t create tornadoes, feminist theory didn’t create gender dysphoria and transgender identity. Feminist identity helped explain it.

Judith Butler’s groundbreaking research and explication of gender as performative is vital to this understanding. Her landmark book Gender Trouble was published around the same time as Crenshaw’s work, and Butler’s theories built upon decades of work from feminists prior to her. There is not a cause and effect with the development of gender theory and the existence of transgender people. There is a slight cause and effect with the larger visibility of gender-variance and understanding of differing genders through the work of feminist theory. But that’s also in large part because we started listening more.

But Carter’s form of “listening” to the Other seems to be, as he tips his hand in the conclusion, about creating a colorblind society where none of these identities that are axes for privilege and oppression matter. Part of the reason intersectionality matters for understanding current feminism is because individual identities matter—identities created and beloved by God. The end result of a truly liberated world is not a colorblind whiteness and sameness. It is a celebration of the great diversity of people God has created and a beautiful understanding of the world as populated with enormously different and wonderful human beings. It is the recognition of humanity in the Other, not in spite of another’s identity, but because of it.

And this is fundamentally what Carter’s Calvinist theology cannot comprehend: that people would not be in competition with each other for the life of the chosen. Rather, we look at each other and say “I see you.” Carter’s theology is unseeing, unbelieving in the beautiful creation of the Other, and it, therefore, will constantly be in torment and competition within itself. What a piteous vision of the world. What a flattened ideal. What a sadness.