Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Park Slopers Against Social Justice

I was a bit surprised that neither the discussion of Linda Hirshman's article about the feminist movement nor the original piece bring up what might well be the main problem with "intersectionality," that is, with a "feminism" that has morphed into a universalist struggle against oppression, namely that some fights for the underdog contradict the more basic principles of feminism. When discussing, say, radical Islam (or radical anything else, but Islam is the one that comes up the most), while a feminist would condemn certain practices or traditions, a "feminist" who is simply a leftist or a humanist will point to the oppression Muslim men face in this or that country; will insist that Muslim women are more oppressed as Muslims than as women; and in extreme cases, will denounce as sell-outs those Muslim women who subscribe to a 'Western' feminism. One must then mention that France is/was racist (a generalization, but, as with any other country, not entirely untrue) if one wants to write a post, on a feminist blog, about women forced to undergo hymen restoration surgery. Feminism must be anti-racism, whereas anti-racism need not concern itself with feminism.

Maybe this is just because I'm both female and Jewish, but maybe not. Either way, to me, "intersectional" feminism brings to mind a mentality common among politically-aware Jews on the left, namely that fighting anti-Semitism is inherently parochial. A Jew who commits himself to fighting anti-Semitism has failed to triage the world's problems. Anti-anti-Semitism must at the very least incorporate anti-racism (says my man of straw, but I assure you he's not alone), but should put the cause of anti-racism first. What this means is that even if 'anti-racism' is irrelevant to anti-anti-Semitism, even if the anti-racist party line on a given issue will offer indirect support to anti-Semitism, one simply must prioritize. To put fighting anti-Semitism above all else is, goes this line of thought, a waste of energy, one could even say, it's like a "feminism" centered around the plight of women who, relatively speaking, are not that oppressed. Do Jews in America, in France, in Israel, have it worse than the rest of humanity, now, in the year 2008? If not, isn't it almost... bigotry to put the struggles of Jews as Jews above the struggle of female, gay, poor, or non-white-looking Jews, or, better yet, oppressions affecting those outside the community?

It seems clear enough that both women and Jews (and, I've heard, Jewish women) fall into the category of "human" and thus, as Maureen Tkacik points out regarding women, "care about people" in general, not merely our "partners in demography." This is well and good. But just because women and Jews can, do, and should support causes beyond womanity and Jewry, respectively, does not mean that feminism and anti-anti-Semitism must declare their work as 'isms' over, and blend in seamlessly with the 'isms' of the day. Neither of these fights is over; achievements in both are always on the verge of reversal.

Though it would be convenient if there were, there is no general movement that could rightly call itself favoring 'social justice.' Often enough, each oppressed group's demands conflict with those of other oppressed groups, leaving the only people fair-minded enough to fight 'oppression' generally those who are not in any way oppressed. One can favor social justice as a principle upon which to make decisions, but there is not and could never be an officially socially-just word on all manner of conflicts. What I'm trying to say, hidden perhaps underneath much rambling, is that I agree with Hirshman, but would take what she says a bit further, and apply it to at least one other case as well.


David Schraub said...

Feminism must be anti-racism, whereas anti-racism need not concern itself with feminism.

I'm sorry that you think that is true, and I can only point you to the Critical Race Feminism movement (Kimberle Crenshaw is a biggie in it) for intersectionality work that largely consists of Black women indicting anti-racism work for neglecting the interests of women.

Phoebe said...

Of course there are exceptions. Academic anti-racism and anti-feminism are certainly linked. But if you think of a mainstream example of anti-racism (this need not be Al Sharpton, but he would be an example that comes to mind), is the civil rights movement really that linked with the feminist movement? To declare yourself anti-racist, do you need to declare yourself a feminist? Not really, because everyone in their right mind is anti-racist, whereas feminism continues to represent, if not an extremist position, then something unsavory.