Critiquing the Dogmatic Versions of Group Identity Theory

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* Chapter: How a dogmatic version of social justice activism makes things worse. By Micha Narberhaus.


This text is chapter 4 of the book: Switching off the autopilot: An evolutionary toolbox for the Great Transition. By Micha Narberhaus. Smart CSOs Lab, 2019 [1]. See: Evolutionary Toolbox for the Great Transition


(This is a version without notes and references)

Micha Narberhaus:

"After the failed Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009, many climate activists came to believe that the climate crisis demanded a deeper change in the economic system and in our cultural norms. Then in 2011 Occupy put the spotlight on the rise of inequality in many countries and on our economic system, which creates inequality instead of helping to reduce it. Both converging ideas were backed up by much ecological and heterodox economic research. It was the basic rationale for the Smart CSOs Lab’s core idea that ‘systemic change’ was needed and CSOs should put their energy into it.

But then, around 2015, I noticed – initially slowly – a change in focus and narrative among the European activist networks that I was following. Suddenly, for many activists the term ‘systemic change’ was about ‘fighting the systemic oppressions of racism, patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism’, all in one package.

One example of this shift is the British network NEONi, founded in 2013 by the New Economics Foundation with the aim of connecting progressive activists in the UK around the idea of economic systems change and with the purpose of fighting neoliberalism. NEON still aims at economic systems change but it now does so through a strong lens of fighting the whole range of systems of oppression listed above.

Another example is the progressive international funders network EDGE Funders that has more recently moved in a similar direction and now embraces intersectionality as one of their core frames.

Initially, I didn’t understand what was going on. I had always appreciated the importance of feminist movements and anti-racist movements and their achievements, but I had only a basic understanding of their theoretical underpinnings, its history and current motivations. I didn’t know what intersectionality meant and what it was about.

How the concept of intersectionality became popular

Intersectionality bears the assumption that all hierarchies and inequalities are the consequence of persisting systems of oppression. Advocates of intersectionality argue that oppression due to race, sex and gender etc. often overlap (as multiple forms of discrimination) and need to be thought through and fought together. According to the scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who originally coined the term in 1989, it is important to understand that historical inequalities and oppressions that discriminate against women overlap with historical injustices against black people and therefore hit black women hardest.ii Accordingly, it was important to link the fights for justice, to join forces. This seems to be the reason that the concept became so successful. It became a strategic argument for movement building across issues.

The proponents of intersectionality seem to be deeply influenced by critical theory (with its origins in the Frankfurt School), which maintains that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation.

In an article for Quillette, Uri Harris describes critical theory as follows:

“By identifying the distorting effects power had on society’s beliefs and values, [the founders of critical theory] believed they could achieve a more accurate picture of the world. And when people saw things as they really were, they would liberate themselves. ‘Theory’, they suggested, always serves the interests of certain people: traditional theory is uncritical towards power and automatically serves the powerful while critical theory unmasks these interests and serves the powerless.”iii Critical theory underpins most thinking in today’s gender, feminist and race studies. Intersectional theory argues that the systems we live in were shaped and are still controlled by Western white men, by systems of patriarchy, systems that continue to oppress women, people of colour and other marginalised groups. This is how, so it seems, intersectionality movements came to see the world through a lens of power and privilege.

Another source of influence on intersectional thinking stems from postmodernism, a school of philosophy originated in France in the 1960s, according to which science is a socially constructed ideology of the dominant classes, colonisers and hegemonic interests, predominantly created by Western white men, and implicit biases in scientific outcomes that supposedly benefit white men can be expected. We can see that this thinking has led to current demands for more diversity of gender, race and cultural background in science.

The ideas around intersectionality are not new. They have been flourishing in critical race and gender studies and other humanities departments at universities since the 1990s and have influenced the thinking of generations of students who have since then left their mark outside the university across the Western world.

But this doesn’t explain the vehemence and power these ideas have gained more recently in activism on campuses and beyond. Why was this happening now, I was asking myself. Why were activists around me suddenly talking so much about white privilege and male privilege?

Nobody knows the precise answer to this question as far as I can tell.

We certainly don’t live in particularly racist or misogynist times. The opposite is true, actually. A wide range of indicators concerning gender, race, homosexuality etc. show how over the last few decades our societies have become more progressive, for example, the number of hate crimes, violence against women, attitudes towards gender roles, attitudes about interracial marriage etc. The improvement has been steady across the Western world and beyond.

A number of factors might be at play.

One popular explanation is that Trump’s election and the rise of the far right in many countries have created a threatening climate for the rights of women, immigrants, people of colour and other minorities, requiring urgent action from social justice activists.

While the current political situation is certainly a strong motivator for activists, it can’t be the sole catalysing factor because the phenomenon was visible before Trump was elected, before Brexit. I noticed a change in the discourse among activists as early as 2014 or 2015. It’s also a chicken and egg problem because intersectionality movements are themselves contributing to the rise of the far right (as I will argue below).

Another possible explanation is that the feminist, anti-racist and gay rights movements achieved significant progress over the last decades but have reached a phase of diminishing returns, where it’s increasingly harder to progress further.vii Social justice activists are frustrated that certain disparities in outcome persist, for example, that women are still underrepresented in many professions and especially in leadership positions, or that black people in the United States still underperform in academia and the professional world while black men are highly overrepresented in American prisons.

At the same time, it might well be that social activists are driven by a newfound strength. Women and people of colour in liberal democracies have won many battles over the years and now hold positions with certain levels of power. Our societies have become more diverse – white men are less dominant in numbers. The power relations have shifted. It’s very well possible that recent outrage is a sign that these identity groups are feeling that much more powerful and confident that they can go the last mile and achieve total equality.

There is no doubt that the emergence of social media plays a role. The vast increase in connectivity has made it a highly effective tool, especially for the generation born after 1995 (often called iGen or Gen Z) that has grown up with social media and is best prepared to use it. Memes and campaign slogans now spread much more quickly across the world, and small groups can have a big effect and appear much larger than they actually are.

The networks that I know of (like the aforementioned NEON and Edge Funders) are certainly part of the wider movement that uses a strong intersectional frame. But I also believe that they take a particularly strong strategic perspective. In these networks, many activists have fought against climate change for many years and have seen how difficult it is to make meaningful progress on tackling the issue. They also know that changing the economic system is not something you can easily put on parliament agendas for legislation. These strategic activists believe that strengthening and connecting movements of oppressed and marginalised groups can result in a movement of movements with the potential to overthrow the system. This is an important distinction from many activist groups who would be much happier to see their identity-based causes thrive within the capitalist system. The question we have to ask is whether this strategy for system change is a good strategy. Is this a truly systemic approach?

I believe that it is a bad strategy for two reasons. First, it won’t achieve its goals because these movements overestimate the potential their discourse has for attracting sufficient people to join them. Only a small share of the population cares about pursuing social justice at all costs. And even if it were successful, it wouldn’t result in a healthy society. Second, it contributes to the further polarisation of our society, and as a consequence, more people will join the authoritarian right. The probability that the authoritarian right will continue to win if polarisation increases is high, and it is likely that once in power they will stay for a long time. I also don’t believe these movements are really applying a systemic approach, at least not with regard to what I have learned about how to work in complex systems. I will provide my arguments for these claims in the following sections.

In these polarised times it’s hard to describe contentious and extremely complex issues like identity politics and intersectionality in a precise and fair way. I make a concerted effort to avoid exaggerating the problem, but I endeavour equally to avoid downplaying the situation. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the type of intersectional social justice activism I'm describing here, but I do think that we can’t expect good outcomes for the simple reason that the ideas are flawed, a conclusion I have come to after careful analysis and certainly not an assertion I make lightly.

Intersectional activism won’t deliver social progress

In a certain way, social justice activists promoting identity politics and those movements more concretely motivated by a discourse of intersectionality have been very successful over the last few years: many mainstream media outlets across the Western world have adopted a proactive social justice discourse. On news sites like The New York Times, El País, The Guardian or Süddeutsche Zeitung, it often seems like the news has to fit a certain progressive narrative in order to be published. If a news piece contradicts the narrative of, for example, women or minorities fighting against the oppressive white Western man, it won’t be published. This has real political consequences. The political discourse across the spectrum from left/liberal to centre-conservative – the majority of the mainstream parties in most Western countries – has now tacitly adopted the core rationale of intersectionality: that all unequal representation of women and minorities in politics, academia and the business world is due to persisting systems of oppression. The goal that is now actively pursued and rarely disputed is equal representation of all allegedly discriminated groups in all institutions.

It is this power and dominance over the political discourse in liberal democracies that progressive activists may not perceive but that is very much felt by those who don’t identify with these values, those who are now increasingly attracted by the far-right discourse.

The problem with intersectionality is not its original concept of overlapping discriminations. There is value in this concept, when applied with rigour. Nor is the problem that critical theory is wrong per se. No doubt, dominant narratives shape how we see the world and can control the world. The problem is that intersectional activism rarely applies these concepts with scientific rigour to identify true discriminations and their causes.

The phenomenon that I’m describing here is rather a dogmatic construct that contains a sophisticated mythology, similar to a religion.viii The structure of the mythological core of intersectionality is the ‘matrix of domination’ in which power and privilege operate to dominate, oppress, marginalize and silence relatively oppressed identities.

Intersectional social justice activists often mention the supposedly ubiquitous systems of oppression, like sexism, racism, colonialism etc. These narratives about systems of oppression usually sound very vague, abstract and nebulous, and rarely mention any concrete oppressions. It often seems that the goal is not to identify tangible problems and push for concrete solutions but to preach to a community of believers.

The author Andrew Sullivan argues that intersectionality “posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained – and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., ‘check your privilege’, and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.”

Possibly the most practical application of intersectionality is based on the idea that racial and gender biases (etc.) are responsible for the injustices that women and people of colour suffer. The so-called implicit-association test (IAT), a controversial concept, can identify one’s implicit bias (i.e., level of unconscious racism or sexism). The goal is that we have to unlearn the habits of our minds that perpetuate white and masculine privilege. The practical tool on offer is implicit bias training, a version of which was recently taken by 175,000 employees at Starbucks and is now being extended to thousands of other workplaces. Other such approaches operate under the headings of ‘unlearning whiteness’ or ‘unlearning toxic masculinity’. However, there is no evidence that these tools in any tangible way decrease discriminatory behaviour.x There is even less evidence that the implicit bias that the IAT measures actually corresponds to intersectionality’s core rationale, which is that people’s biases are wholly the result of a socialisation process where people’s identities are entirely shaped by culturally legitimized discourses, controlled by powerful Western white men. Instead, growing evidence from social psychology finds that the IAT to a large degree measures people’s innate ability to generalise intuitively based on their lived experience. While people do err when making judgements based on probability, stereotypes actually reflect reality to a high degree of accuracy, contrary to popular belief.xi But those who believe in intersectionality often don’t allow for a rational critique, of any aspect. Either you believe in the whole dogmatic construct or you are excluded on the basis of blasphemy. Rational critique is important when faced with a worldview as irrational as intersectionality. We don’t live in a world that is dominated by the white supremacist patriarchy. The dominant cultural narrative of people in the Western world is not that men are superior to women, that white people are superior to black, Asian and minority ethnic people or that straight people are superior to gay people, as we can see in the widespread support for gender equality, racial equality and issues like same sex marriage.

Science can be biased for all kinds of reasons, and surely in some cases the gender and the cultural background of the scientists are relevant factors. To increase diversity in science is a good thing. But judging a claim by the strength of the argument cannot be substituted by the view intersectional activists hold, which is that knowledge about all ethical questions pertaining to oppression is accessible only through personal experience. Defending the scientific method is essential. The researcher Helen Pluckrose says: “Sometimes the values [of the Enlightenment] are referred to as ‘western values’ although rational, empirical, secular liberal democrats exist everywhere. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment and the formation of the scientific method and secular liberal democracies did form and take root in the west. We, the lucky inheritors of them, should not take them for granted and neglect to defend them. Not because they are western but because they have proven their effectiveness at facilitating the advance of knowledge and the progress of human rights and equality.”xiii Identifying real injustices and their causes is not easy. Clearly correlation does not imply causation. Inequalities of outcome are the result of many complex factors, some of which have nothing to do with discrimination, and it is clear that racial or sexual bias is only one of many possible factors. The efforts should be put into searching and identifying the real causes of and solutions to injustice. But given that the current culture of intersectionality is not receptive to open debate, it is difficult to see how it can deliver any kind of positive change. On the contrary, it is counterproductive to progress.

Intersectional activism exacerbates polarisation and authoritarianism

Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right in Europe have been countered by progressive movements representing broad coalitions of anti-fascist, pro-feminist and pro-LGBT groups in both the United States and Europe.xiv Probably the most prominent of these was the Women’s March, which was also very vocal about its intersectional approach. Very understandably, with social progress under threat in light of authoritarian politics (especially for minorities) and its possible knock-on effects, these movements see themselves on the frontline of the resistance against the far right. This is of course the laudable intention. I believe, however, that the dynamics as they play out in reality are such that the actions and narratives of current social justice activism as described in this chapter will most likely have the opposite effect and might make things worse. My impression is that a large swath of progressive activism misunderstands what has caused authoritarian dynamics in the first place and which underlying psychological predispositions play a key role in the dynamics of polarisation.

According to Stenner and Haidt, “the things that multiculturalists believe will help people appreciate and thrive in democracy – appreciating difference, talking about difference, displaying and applauding difference – are the very conditions that encourage authoritarians not to heights of tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes”.xv The reason for this is that a large number of our fellow citizens (about a third) have a predisposition for becoming more intolerant and demanding authoritarian politics if they feel their identity is being threatened. Unless one’s strategy is to provoke more polarisation and outrage on the other side, which I don’t think is the general idea, there must be an error in assessment. Paradoxically, it seems that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about and applauding our sameness. Professor Mark Lilla comes to the same conclusion: identity politics on the left “encourages white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored”. Instead, he suggests that “we must relearn to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals – including the ones to benefit particular groups – in terms of principles that everyone can affirm”.xvi The American Civil Rights Movement was ultimately successful because Martin Luther King and his fellow activists framed their goals on the basis of equal rights and opportunity that eventually most people could identify with.

Haidt and his co-author Lukianoff state:

“Part of Dr. King’s genius was that he appealed to the shared morals and identities of Americans by using the unifying languages of religion and patriotism. He repeatedly used the metaphor of family, referring to people of all races and religions as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. He spoke often of the need for love and forgiveness hearkening back to the words of Jesus and echoing ancient wisdom from many cultures: ‘Love is the only force capable of transforming and enemy into a friend.’ ”xvii Intersectionality movements understand the power of inclusiveness, of bringing people together under the umbrella of a common story, but they are captured by the contradictions and the divisiveness of their core story, which is the story of the hierarchy of oppressions according to which white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered men are the oppressors, or at the very least belong to the group with the highest privilege and have to pay for their privilege by relegating themselves to the lower end of a new hierarchy as so-called ‘allies’.

This is effectively dividing the world between good and bad people, between oppressors and oppressed. It’s an us-versus-them approach that sends us down a spiral of polarisation and tribalism.

Humans are biologically hardwired for tribalism (I will discuss this more in depth in chapter 6). When people who identify as a group are attacked by another group, the reaction is for members to bind themselves more tightly and defend the group. The idea of educating a group of people by calling them racists is certain to fail, be it a Trump voter, a Brexiteer or an AfD voter in Germany. The opposite is usually what ends up happening: people identify more strongly with their group.xviii There are many examples of mistakes made by progressive activists in recent times that stoked tribalism and backfired, rather than having the desired effect of a more tolerant society. To take one, at a large demonstration recently in Berlin against the far right, the organisers didn’t allow participants to hold German flags during the demonstration (as a stance against nationalism). What signal does this send to those people who feel that their national identity is being threatened and are attracted by an authoritarian narrative that promises to restore national pride?

There is another important factor that adds to the outrage and polarisation: in progressive language, the definition of what constitutes an oppression is constantly expanding. Psychologist Nick Haslam coined a term for this: concept creep.xix He describes how words are increasingly seen as violence and that the perception of which words or ideas constitute violence is constantly expanding. The academic John McWhorter writes: “Where antiracist progressives once looked to bondage, disenfranchisement, and torture, today they classify as equally traumatic the remark, the implication, the unwelcome question.”xx Today, in the most progressive circles, if someone questions the level of immigration he is often seen as a racist, and if a man opens the door for a woman, he is seen as sexist. There are two big problems with this: one is that if the definitions of such important words become highly diluted, they become increasingly meaningless, and the other problem is that most people don’t identify with the new expanded definition. They perceive the creeping meaning of these labels as highly unfair or vastly exaggerated, and an extreme quest for justice ultimately exacerbates our growing polarisation.

Intersectional activism makes a strategic mistake

Intersectionality is all about power. The underlying rationale is that white masculine power and privilege operate to oppress, marginalise and silence other identities. Building and strengthening intersectional grassroots movements that connect oppressed and marginalised groups ultimately serves to gain political power, as a precondition to creating an oppression-free world as well as an ecologically sustainable economy focused on human needs.

I cannot see how such a strategy can have any chance of success. It overestimates the appeal and potential size of the intersectional movements.

One argument often mentioned by progressives who want to spread optimism among their peers is that in many Western countries people of colour will soon outnumber white people, and when this happens, the progressive battle against oppressive whiteness will be won. Naturally such stories feel threatening to many white people and contribute to the authoritarian dynamics described above. But even in the United States, the ones closest to reaching such a scenario – some say that by 2045 white people will be a minority – the forecast is probably overly optimistic when analysed in some more detail. The biggest ethnic immigrant group are Hispanics, but later generations of Hispanics often identify far less with their ethnic origins, and the rate of interracial marriage among them is high.xxi In addition, a significant segment of non-white Americans hold conservative views on many issues. For example, according to a Pew report from October 2018 approximately half of U.S. Latinos believe there is about the right amount of immigrants living in the U.S., while a quarter say there are too many immigrants and 14 percent say there are too few.

The other strategy that intersectional movements pursue is to create stronger ties with the working classes. Class is one of the dimensions of intersectional theory, but of all the contradictions intersectional theory makes, class is what makes the whole concept implode. It is impossible to construct this whole theory about white privilege and all the various marginalised identities and then hope that the white working class will happily join the movement. Such a strategy is based on faulty assumptions about the values held by the majority of the working class, who perceive today’s identity politics and social justice activism to be an urban elite project that is detached from their reality and morality.

The organisation More In Common recently published a report on the project Hidden Tribes of America, based on an in-depth survey with 8,000 U.S. citizens analysing the values and political views they hold.xxiii The report concludes that only 8% of Americans hold the values and political views that are fully in line with progressive activists. “[They] are deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.” In contrast, around 80% of the people surveyed believe that “political correctness has gone too far in America”. The theory of intersectionality implicitly assumes that the values of social justice and being liberated from perceived oppressions are universal values. However, this is not entirely true. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt discovered that human societies are governed by a wide variety of moral systems. The morality of Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) people is mainly concerned about protecting the individual and individual rights. But globally, and especially outside the Western world, WEIRD people are statistically a small minority. Most people in the world – and this includes people in the West who don’t belong to the urban, well-educated, liberal progressive class – often put the needs of groups and institutions first, ahead of individuals. They value justice and fairness, but they value respect for authority and loyalty to their own group just as much. In other words, non-WEIRD people will share the universality of the values of social justice as long as they don’t endanger the social order.

In an example of solidarity across movements that appeals to basic decency, shared morals and an identity as citizens, the British miners’ strike in the 1980s had the support of a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which proved to be a “fundamental turning point” for gay rights in the UK.xxv Social justice activists who want to develop broad coalitions between the working classes and the various marginalised identity groups will only succeed if they abandon today’s widespread dogmatic and irrational version of social justice activism and open up to the reality of the wider variety of moral systems that are found among humans.

Intersectional activism is not systemic

If one always looks at the world through a lens of power and privilege, what one sees is a highly distorted picture of the world, where everything is under suspicion of being caused by oppressive power. The intersectional approach presupposes that the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy are responsible for any inequity one might encounter. It does not inquire about anything, instead providing the answers in advance.

In contrast, a systemic approach is open-ended and looks at the world from diverse perspectives. It is an open-minded and science-based attempt to understand the system, its grievances, its potential causes and solutions. It requires an honest gathering of data, including those data that don’t fit neatly with one’s intuition or ideology.

Intersectional activism cherry-picks data that fit with the ideology and preconceived causes of oppression. For example, to prove that there is a general problem with masculinity (popularised as toxic masculinity) and that women are always the victims, you only have to pick the data and examples that justify this claim and hide those that stand in contradiction. Yes, without a doubt, there are men who are toxic, there are men who are violent, men who rape, and there are more extremely violent men than extremely violent women, but most men are not toxic. A rational and surely more systemic look at the issue reveals not that toxic masculinity is primarily caused by socialisation, as intersectional mythology preaches, but that it has a strong biological basis, which might be reinforced or suppressed through culture.

Masculinity has both negative (e.g., aggression and violence) and positive sides (e.g., protecting loved ones), and femininity can be toxic, too. As evolutionary biologist Heather Heying says, “creating hunger in men by actively inviting the male gaze, then demanding that men have no such hunger – that is toxic femininity”. Men can be victims of sexual violence committed by womenxxvii, and there is an increase in depression among young men in a society that has become hostile to masculinity. In chapter 6 we will discuss the differences between the sexes more in depth.

This is but a taste of a much broader spectrum of perspectives, aspects and data that are needed to develop a truthful picture of reality. Similar, more realistic pictures can be drawn of racial inequality and other grievances. Today’s challenges regarding justice and equality cannot be explained and resolved via misguided models of oppression and theories of socialisation. In order to advance social progress, the new 21st-century activism will have to deal with complex challenges in very different ways than those explained in this chapter."