As a longtime member of the progressive left and a former Evangelical fundamentalist, I’ve written before about patterns that strike me as (painfully) similar between the Woke culture that surrounds me in Seattle and the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In case this needs saying, when it comes to reflecting the human experience, Critical Oppression Theory (some call it Intersectionality or Wokeism) represents a significant improvement over biblical literalism. That should satisfy no-one.
Progressives claim to value progress, which implies regular self-examination and upgrades. By that metric, we need to roll up our sleeves. If our mental model forces us to choose one or two causes for complicated events like the Atlanta shooting, if it provides identity options that we can count on our fingers, if it promises uni-dimensional solutions to multi-dimensional problems, we need to think bigger. That will require tackling some blind spots—many of which have roots in our Protestant past.
Ignoring individuality and shared humanity. As the old saying goes, In some ways I am like all other persons. In some ways I am like some other persons. In some ways I am like no other person. Here is another way to put that: We are all human. We all belong to tribes. We are unique individuals. Both Christianity and COT center in on the middle element here. They structure thinking around the idea of insiders and outsiders, the tribe and the other. Both explicitly promote loyalty to tribe over loyalty to humanity at large. Christians talk about “the body of Christ;” COT activists often use the phrase “My people.” Both actively stigmatize or reject universalism as the transcendent moral lens and instead see their tribal lens as serving a greater good. COT activists focus on tribe largely as a corrective reaction against traditional social democracy, which focuses on the other two parts of identity—our shared humanity and unique individualism. Parts of the human experience were left out, and some still are—just different parts. How might we develop more integrated, complete hypotheses about the role of each of these in our quest for equality and freedom?
Too few checkboxes. Many people can rattle off the familiar checkboxes: race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, immigration status, class, religion. But the most definitional experiences of our lives are not limited to these. When it comes to unearned privilege or hardship, what about mental health or beauty or intellect to name a few? What about the genetic component of obesity? What about the gift of a stable family, or birth timing, or being born into one country vs another? My greatest inherited challenges have come not from being born with a vagina—which is on the list—but from attention deficit disorder (with associated self-inflicted orthopedic accidents), chronic migraines, and the family legacy of anxiety and depression—all of which are not. What might it mean to have a theory of oppression/hardship/challenge that is big enough to encompass the full range of human struggle?
Rather short on actual intersectionality. Legally, the concept of intersectionality is very tangled up with the familiar checkboxes that are encoded in civil rights law (and before that exclusionary laws that locked some people out of equal rights). The checkboxes are corrective, but conceptually, the whole point of intersectionality rests on the premise that those checkboxes are inadequate indicators of advantage and disadvantage — sometimes glaringly so. If you take seriously the idea that people are multidimensional — that our inborn characteristics and social context and lived experiences weave together in complex ways to make life harder or easier — intersectional thinking becomes an antidote to the oversimplified identity boxes that have come to dominate many progressive institutions. When limited by the checkboxes, intersectionality simply divides us into smaller and smaller tribes; expanded beyond the checkboxes, it takes us back to the individual, though with more awareness of and respect for the tribal part of their identity and ours. What might happen if we actually took seriously our own claims about how intersecting factors can buffet and shape a person’s wellbeing and opportunity?
The dichotomizing tendency. Progressives weigh in on the side of multiculturalism. Despite this, and despite the fact that the original idea of intersectionality is literally derivative of multivariate causal analysis, we love us some dichotomies. In our efforts to protect and respect trans people, for example, we often reify rather than reduce culturally imposed gender binaries. When it comes to addressing racism, we’ve hacked together an acronym, BIPOC, that lumps in people of widely disparate ethnicities, cultures, and histories so that we can more easily engage in two-bucket thinking. It erases the multiracial and multicultural identities that were complicating our old taxonomies. In Christian terms, the BIPOC acronym makes it easier to classify people as either saints or sinners. I should note that some Asian and Levantine people have started jokingly calling themselves “Schrodinger’s Whites”—pointing out that when they are perceived as aggressors (e.g. Colorado shooter) or successful (New York school admissions) they are labeled as white or “white adjacent,” and when they get harmed (Atlanta shooting) then they are POC. Rather than challenging the dichotomy, they get held up alternately on one side or the other. What would it mean to let people embrace the full complexity of their identities?
Desperately seeking status. We humans are a hierarchical social species, like our primate cousins. That means equality of opportunity or dignity or respect don’t come naturally; pecking orders do. Consequently, when an election or culture shift toggles who’s on top, people instinctively re-orient around the new hierarchy and seek to position themselves well within it. Intersectional culture has utterly failed to correct this; quite the opposite, in fact, because the identity typology is hierarchical, even if it has inverted traditional hierarchies. It is no accident that patently false claims made by those at the top (e.g. “all violence comes from the same root causes: white supremacy and capitalism.”) are met with silence from those lower down.
The checkboxes provide a user’s guide to the new pecking order, which is seen as righteous, meaning that challenging those at the top is not only risky, it is immoral. The secular left no longer turns to a God to sanctify our pecking orders—as in ancient Israel’s Chosen People, or the European aristocracy’s divine right of kings, or the segregationist pastor’s Bible-thumping defense of enslaving Ham’s descendants (meaning Black people). Righteous hierarchies are now crowdsourced, but they are no less real. What if, instead of arousing our moral machinery to defend inverting pecking orders, we worked to stop pecking?
Crime and punishment mindset. Every virtue is a hard-to-hold balance between two vices, and finding the balance between mercy and accountability can be tough. But if internet mobs or the long litany of resignations and cancellations mean anything, Intersectional culture isn’t doing so well at finding this balance. When a young black female editor is forced out of her job for tweets she made as a teen, when elders who have worked tirelessly for decades to advance progressive causes say this has gone too far, maybe it’s time to stop pretending that Cancel Culture is a right-wing fantasy.
To my view, Intersectionality fails to transcend Puritan Christianity’s hypocrisy when it comes to forgiveness and punishment. Let’s be real: Many of the very people who talk about prison reform and redemption, who believe in restoring voting rights for felons and limiting the ability of a prospective employer to ask about criminal history—maintain their own list of cardinal sins: racism, sexism and other category violations that can send a sinner straight to social media hell or career annihilation. And for some, there’s no such thing as a misdemeanor. Empathic defenders of underdogs transmogrify into full-blown law-and-order conservatives when they perceive that harm has been done by someone who fits an oppressor bucket. No forgiveness, no parole, and no statute of limitations. The wages of sin is [social] death. Recalling that progressives have created an inverted pecking order, this is quite literally the same thing the worst of conservatives do—reserve compassion and mercy for those in the tribe, those at the top. What might happen if we stopped letting our disdain for conservative thinking bring out the inner conservative in each of us?
Righteous cruelty. Many years ago I visited Israel. I loved the people I met, but my top aha was this: When you think of yourself as a victim, you often can’t see yourself as a victimizer. When you focus exclusively on the harm done to you, you can’t see the harm you do. So it goes when we make the center of our identities a tightly gripped collection of oppressions or traumas. This is true whether we center ourselves (and our tribe) as victims, or whether we center our identity around self-subsuming forms of allyship. Within the Intersectionality framework, this blind spot can lead righteous progressive activists to behave in ways that can only be described as cruel. Recently 40 black intellectuals—all centrists or right-leaning—published a letter condemning cruelty at Smith College, where privileged students of color (and allies, and a compliant administration) accused and humiliated the working-class staff who serve them. My thought: Why did it take a cadre of centrists and conservatives to see and name this? How can we check ourselves in the mirror, rather than waiting for someone else to hold one up?
All or nothing. Who is on the Lord’s side? we sang as children, and when our Sunday school teacher asked the same question, hands shot up. After all there were only two choices; you were on the side of God or the side of Satan. The Book of Revelation contains a verse that is much quoted by Christian fundamentalists, “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (R. 3:16). The culture around Intersectionality replicates this all-or-nothing forced choice. If you are not an Anti-racist then you are a racist, Facebook tells us. If you are not ANTIFA then you are a fascist. Never mind that these words have branded meanings, and that the glib quips play on the difference between the generic and branded versions of each. Call-outs and cancellations making it clear that viewpoint diversity can cost a person their friends, position of respect, or even their career.
This is precisely the kind of enforced orthodoxy that makes religions static. Institutional, ideological growth is driven not by compliance under inquisitorial threat but by heterodoxy and even by heresy. Huston Smith, scholar of world religions, said that humility (not certitude) was one of three virtues around which the world’s great religions converge. Humility and curiosity are the prime virtues in science, because a scientist makes progress by asking the questions that can show her wrong. Our world is full of ideologies and institutions that were innovative at the time they emerged but now exist as encrusted orthodoxies and institutions—good ideas that were adopted with enthusiasm and then glorified to the point that further growth became difficult. I think of the lovely but archaic Waldorf school across the street from my house. I think, of course, of the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. How can the genuine and important insights related to intersectionality (small i) be protected from this kind of stagnation? How do we respect the self-aware imperfection necessary for growth?
Blinded by the Right. A therapist once told me, “You’ll know that you’re truly independent of your parents when you can want something for yourself even if they want it for you too.” He had caught me in a pattern of oppositional living. The community that has risen up around Intersectionality as a Grand Theory is an oppositional community. If the Right says cancel culture is a problem, progressives say it isn’t and then we focus in on the times that de-platforming (of conspiracy theorists, of insurrectionists, of anti-vaxxer quacks) seems like an incontrovertible good. If they say personal responsibility is a key to human flourishing, we remove the words “personal responsibility” from our theories of change. I know, conservatives do the same, to the detriment of us all. “Progressives say climate change and Covid are real? That means we should give a platform to anyone, however inane, who says the opposite.” This pattern may be crazymaking, but, as that wise old therapist pointed out, when your posture is reactive to someone else, they—not you—are calling the shots.
Let’s do better. Thomas Jefferson took a literal pair of scissors to the Bible, keeping the parts that he called “diamonds in a dunghill.” To borrow Jefferson’s metaphor, every social movement includes diamonds and dung—including, as Matthew Yglesias recently pointed out, progressive advocacy. This is not to say that all movements contain these ingredients in equal proportion; they do not. But ignoring the dung in our own movement and diamonds in those of our ideological opponents leaves us stinky and impoverished. How might our world change if we all were a bit more invested in searching out bad and good ideas wherever they may come from?
Growing up Evangelical—then struggling for years to hold together the moral and rational contradictions in my received tradition—left me with a deep wariness of totalizing ideologies. I scrutinize answers that seem a little too clean. I’m wary of apostles and sacred texts. I break taboos. I mistrust group think. I leave groups that punish dissent. I notice psychological manipulation. I no longer assume that feeling guilt or shame necessarily means I’ve committed a sin. I question authorities, and I question myself, and I seek out the company of others who do the same. I assume that my tribe is both fallible and capable of growth.
This is where lived experience has led me; and I count this pattern of intuitions and habits as an unsought but hard-won gift, an unintended side-benefit of the fundamentalist indoctrination that once took me unnecessarily to the brink of suicide. I carry these experiences into to my current position as an active member of the progressive left. And it is this that leads me to say out loud, though with some sense of risk, that I think our Intersectionality is too small. I think we can do better.