"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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage