"Intersectionality", let me Google that for you

You don’t need an MA in Gender Studies to engage with feminist ideas, just an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Spot the odd one out. Deficit. Intersectionality. Trigonometry. Eurozone Crisis. Photosynthesis. Some of these regularly grace the front pages of the national news, some are taught in schools to teenagers. They’re complicated words that describe important ideas. But according to Rhiannon and Holly, the writers of The V Spot, “intersectionality” is a theory so unintelligible, so beyond the pale, that it should be consigned forever to the box of feminism that gender academics keep tucked under their pillows.

This debate is the result of media hypocrisy. Reporting on the economy, for example, uses complex concepts, yet it is rare that Robert Peston is called out for potentially alienating starving schoolchildren. Like the economy, gender is relevant to peoples’ lives, but the public is expected to learn the language of economics. Because it is considered important, in a way that feminism is not.

Ok, I’ll come clean here. I am the white middle class woman in possession of a Gender Studies masters that yesterday’s article so rightfully rails against. I know that class and race privilege helped me into university. Gender Studies isn’t the only discipline that has an access problem, though, it’s a massive failing of higher education in general. Yet Gender Studies is one of the few academic subjects that gives any consideration whatsoever to how social hierarchy plays out in the interactions of class, race and gender (that’s intersectionality, by the way).

Another confession. I loved Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman. I wouldn’t describe it as an important feminist text, or even an intro to feminism, but it was riotously funny. Particularly the masturbation bits. Believe it or not, there are other accessible, relevant feminist writers around. Most of whose work is extremely readable if only anyone would bother. Rhiannon and Holly miss the point that what is popular is itself structured by the kinds of prejudices that gender theory exposes.

What’s more, other populist feminist writers are women of colourdisabled people, queer women. If their writing isn’t as celebrated as Moran’s, its predominantly because the works of less privileged people are seen as inherently less valuable. An intersectional analysis helps here. White, wealthy newspaper columnists have more time for writing bestselling books than less privileged women whose equally good work is less likely to succeed. To imply that marginalised women are always alienated by theory is also a false universal. Reading and writing are all too often a refuge from oppression.

To rubbish intersectionality as “esoteric” is to dismiss the chorus of feminist voices that yesterday’s article professes to call for. If Rhiannon and Holly were to look back at the history of modern feminism (which anybody who has internet access can do), they would find that black feminist writing of the 1970s and 1980s precedes the current concept “intersectionality”. These feminists wrote about the ways that black women’s experiences of gender are different to white women’s, arguing that the sexism black women face is bound up in its racism. The Combahee River Collective Statement, This Bridge Called My Back and Ain’t I a Woman are just three classic works that outline the interlocking nature of oppressions in language which is clear and accessible.

Pissed off after receiving a barrage of irate tweets, Rhiannon and Holly tweeted:

“We're clearly not as educated or as well informed as you guys. Best stick to cupcakes and cosmo.”

A disappointing article and a dispiriting response. I would rather that Rhiannon and Holly admit they just didn’t do their research. Indeed, the slogan “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” (which they suggest should be replaced with “my feminism will be comprehensible or it will be bullshit”) didn’t originate a few weeks ago. It dates back to 2011 when Flavia Dzodan wrote a wildly popular blog on the topic. The point is that you don’t need an MA in Gender Studies to engage with feminist ideas, just an open mind and a willingness to learn.

The Southall Black Sisters demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser