Sunday, July 23, 2017

Logophobia redux

Rod Dreher links approvingly to an article by Elizabeth Corey in First Things that tackles the concept of intersectionality. Corey dismisses the concept as "a wholly academic invention", then promptly refutes that characterization by citing a real life example of discrimination and the ensuing legal case, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. Corey writes:
...five black women sued General Motors for discrimination. GM had not hired black women prior to 1964, and had dismissed all but one of its black female ­employees hired after 1970 on the basis of seniority. The plaintiffs claimed that the harm they suffered could not be addressed by suing as women only, because GM could point out that it had indeed hired women (white women) prior to 1964 and had retained those that were hired after 1970. 
Nor were they willing to sue on the basis of race alone. The discrimination they suffered was not merely racial, they argued, but a result of their combined racial and gender identity. The district court dismissed this claim, observing that the prospect of “the ­creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”

The comment by the US district court indicates clearly the inconvenience to the judiciary of recognizing the reality of intersecting oppressions, but that clearly does not mean they do not exist. Inconvenient for the justice system and its servants does not mean untrue. In fact, anyone with any experience of oppression has some acquaintance with the reality, if not the concept, of intersecting oppressions.

I grew up with a disability. Like many non-neurotypical kids in the 1960s, I lived through unofficial and official bullying, and experimental treatments. I was one of the lab rabbits they worked out Ritalin (methylphenidate) on. Years later, I discovered from Schrag and Divoky's book The Myth of the Hyperactive Child that children of color who did not fit the learning template desired by school authorities of that time did not get behavioural drugs; the authorities instead consigned them to programs for the "educable retarded" or the "trainable retarded" and they suffered very severely curtailed opportunities. As a childhood, I experienced a rigid, procrustean school system; as an African Canadian child I would very likely have experienced something not merely measurably worse but in a different category altogether. Years before KimberlĂ© Crenshaw coined the word "intersectional", I and millions of other people, including the plaintiffs in DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, understood, from our own experience, the reality of the thing the word names.

This naturally raises the question: what about the word intersectionality causes some conservatives to resent the word and refuse to grapple with the thing? Nothing in intersectionality necessarily negates the conservative outlook. Indeed, considering intersectionality through the work of Chela Sandoval and Donna Haraway has led me to a greater understanding of particularity, and of the inability of a single sweeping and romantic revolutionary idea to eliminate the injustices of the world. The heirs of Edmund Burke should find these perceptions fit well with Burke's caution, his value of continuity and political modesty, a trait that lies near the heart of the conservative temperament. Why then the desire to label a practical observation of the world, one not seriously at odds with conservative insights, as a "religion"? Rod Dreher goes so far as to claim observing and naming the fact of intersecting oppressions "destroys the life of the mind, education, liberty, and even the individual human person."

Why this extreme reaction to a word?

I think in Mr. Dreher's case it may have to do with living in an age of polar thinking, where many people view political propositions not as truths or untruths but as friends or enemies. Many of the people using the word "intersectional" advocate for causes, such as same sex marriage and the elimination of gender binaries, which Mr. Dreher passionately opposes. He and those who follow him appear to consider the words used by people who propose changes they reject as threats. Thus, some months ago, Mr. Dreher reacted violently to a writer's use of  the portmanteau "heteropatriarchy", even though the argument this writer made did not, in context, much oppose Mr. Dreher's own beliefs.

Logophobia would not pose as much of a problem outside a political culture dividing so sharply into sides. Logophobia in politics acts as a tool for rejecting the ideas of the other side by refusing to accept the words they use as legitimate. This enables committed partisans to reject the notion they have anything in common with their opponents, and to turn ideas actually held in common into a deserted arena for combat; the "no man's land" between the trenches of a century ago. It leads to political sclerosis, a politics with no ability to adapt.

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