You shouldn’t write (to publish) when you’re angry. Sending emails when in the fire of rage only ever leads to a further-embroiled argument. Same goes for phone calls, blogs and newspaper articles. And tweeting.
The Suzanne Moore-transphobia-feminist-intersectionality thing shows no signs of dying down, mostly because everyone involved failed to heed this most obvious of recommendations. Today Julie Burchill has waded in with possibly the most transphobic comments I’ve read since the doings of the Radical Feminist 2012 conference. I haven’t read the full Twitter interactions of Suzanne Moore and trans/feminist activists upbraiding her for the use of the phrase ‘Brazilian transsexual’ and the negative connotations she gave it. I don’t care to get involved, and I’m certainly not going to argue or give an opinion on a matter which has become so much about the personal politics and characters of those directly involved. That way lies madness and internet comment sections. But it has raised some timely and important questions about two things: feminism and intersectionality. What they are, who uses the words (or is ALLOWED to use the words) and what they mean to a wider public are now crucial questions to answer. My feeling is that both terms, their usage – and any resentment caused by their use – are wrapped up in group and individual privilege.
Privilege is something we talk about a lot. Especially in academia, and especially in sociology. Privilege in its academic sense is, essentially, the same as the lay sense, but used more widely. So I need to be aware that I have certain privileges that enable me in ways that others are not – for instance being white, (fairly) middle class and educated gives me freedom to move in the world in a way that someone who is black and working class is more likely not to have. Privilege is something that we’ve talked about in feminism too. See that use of ‘we’? That’s privilege. I get to say ‘we’ because I’m so clearly the target audience for all sorts of brands of feminism. I’m white, female-born, middle class but not so much that I have money to fall back on, I’m educated and I’m living as a woman (that is my sex-gender binary matches up: my femaleness equals femininity). The reactions of a certain section of feminists in light of Moore’s comments on transgender people (for the uninitiated ‘transsexual’ isn’t really a very nice word. Be kind, don’t use it) have demonstrated (again) that feminism can be as much a means of living your privilege as the patriarchal privilege it originally contested. By excluding women not born female, offensively terming these women ‘chicks with dicks’ (Burchill), setting up a dichotomy of womanhood – ‘you cut your dick off and be more feminist than me’ (Moore), you assert your right to own feminism by asserting your woman-born-woman privilege. It’s really that simple. There’s no space in feminism for transphobia. None. Not only is it’s hate speech but it’s the action of power based on sex and gender and it’s what we as feminists are supposed to be opposing.
The other form of privilege that has been exposed in this debate is educational privilege. The use of the term ‘intersectionality’ has provoked a strong response from those who haven’t come across the term, and from those who use it and cannot (or in some cases, refuse to) understand why other feminists don’t use it or don’t understand it. Stella Duffy wrote marvellously about this and it prompted me to have a good think about my own knowledge and experience of intersectionality and as part of this I canvassed my friends (academia and non-academic) to see who uses the word and who is scared by it. Some people have asked (me included) whether intersectionality is classist and elitist. I think it can be, and here’s why.
Intersectionality is basically a standpoint from which one understands sexuality, gender and sex that enables us to more thoughtfully nuance our own perspective. This means that it allows us to see our inherent privilege, and moreover, how inequalities relate to one another. It’s a really, really useful standpoint. In fact, it’s indispensible. However, I really am not sure that it’s a widespread term. I’ve done postgraduate work in sexualities and gender within literary studies since 2007 and had never heard of intersectionality as a term until a few months ago. What it actually does – seeing the relationship between different kinds of oppressions – is not new and is certainly a standpoint that I’ve been researching from and have always been encouraged to use, but the word itself doesn’t appear widely used outside of sociology and some sections of feminist activism.
This is problematic for anyone demanding that Suzanne Moore or anyone else be intersectional in their perspective, without being willing to engage in what being intersectional actually means. Telling someone to look it up is no good. Just because you can read all about it doesn’t mean you can immediately understand the complexities of the position. It’s exactly the same as demanding that someone outside of sociology correctly and subtlety engage with Pierre Bourdieu’s forms of capital in order to talk about privilege. Intersectionality as a stance is wonderful. We need it – and yes, in its function it is the very opposite of elitist. But when you’re talking to people who don’t understand (for whatever reason) the word you’re using, continuing to use that word without explanation or nuancing it yourself, is elitist. It is a form of educational privilege – whether you obtained that education through immersion in the field via activism or academia.
I think this kind of educational privilege is becoming more of a problem. Julie Burchill today is asserting an educational divide – that those contesting Moore’s use of the word ‘transsexual’ are over-educated, ‘We may not have as many lovely big swinging PhDs as you’, and therefore are doing feminism from a closeted, ivory-tower position – not angry enough by half. Not experienced enough in street harassment, PMT or the menopause. This again is one privilege asserting itself above another. The competition as to who is a better feminist is unhealthy and completely misses the point. I’ve witnessed a great many feminist academics and activists on Twitter (perhaps not the soundest empirical field work I’ve ever done…) in a fury about people challenging the use of ‘intersectional’. This is as much power play, privilege and deliberate exclusion as Burchill and her transphobic interpretation of feminism. Yes our feminism needs to be intersectional, but to be truly intersectional we need to acknowledge all our privilege and all ways in which people are oppressed and that includes oppression that comes from being excluded from knowledge. All groups and kinds of feminism need to act so that everyone is included because not doing so results in whatever wonderful stride toward equality ultimately being yet more power-play. And that’s no good.