What's Intersectionality Got to Do With it? More thoughts on student protests.

In a response to my post on Evergreen, Taylor wrote (in part):

“I think you're downplaying one of the central concerns of people that criticize the student protests (particularly from people within the academic environment), which is that the protests are an extreme example of a powerful, pervasive, and at least somewhat coherent ideology that has a chilling effect on intellectual discourse on many (if not most) campuses at the moment. So it's not just "these students are crazy and naive", it's "these students are acting rationally within the ideology they subscribe to which is the prevailing ideology among even most of the faculty at these universities." 

This is an excellent point – and it’s absolutely true that far more Evergreen faculty (16 last time I checked) have signed on to letters calling for Weinstein to be disciplined than have publicly defended him (one, as of this writing). Elsewhere, the ratio is far more split: the pillorying of the Christakises at Yale, for example, divided the faculty. 

So to no small extent the faculty clearly are influencing student protest movements – although generally speaking, the most common reaction among faculty in these instances is to keep their heads down and not make any public declarations at all. 

And this, I think, represents the true ideology of “the faculty” as an entity: a group of people who like to claim the mantle of Socrates but who fear disciplinary hearings far more than he feared death. The more contingent faculty positions become, the more rational this timidity becomes – and in this sense I think the far greater threat to faculty independence and academic legitimacy comes not from students but from administrative policies that turn teachers with PhD’s into seasonal migrant labor.

Either way, whatever their own ideology most faculty do not behave as radicals - they behave as functionaries.  

Still, the honest truth is that I wonder if I don’t join the chorus of people calling the new student movements a kind of university-born fundamentalist religion because deep down I just don’t want it to be true.

But keeping that in mind … and also keeping in mind that this broad brush is not thoroughly researched as the narrow one I used to talk specifically about Evergreen … 

My sense is that at this particular moment – and maybe this will change later – that campus radicalism is still more sensitive to local conditions than it is to a high level culture of critical theory/identity politics/intersectional rhetoric/whatever one wants to call out. Indeed, as I’ll discuss later, that intersectional-critical-identity-theory is as much a tool being put to use as it is an ideology in and of itself.

This is not to say that such a high level culture doesn’t exist and exert influence – obviously it does at some level. But it seems to me (based on observation-through-media rather than rigorous evidence) that for the most part students who are driven by that culture towards active political engagement tend to join Black Lives Matter or campaign for Bernie, not storm their own administrative buildings. And these are very different reactions.

In fact, on the whole, I think that it’s fair to say that the nature of contemporary campus radicalism is such that most student radicals love their campuses. This love is, if you ask me, largely unearned and as much evidence of group-think as any other examples that one might point to: the university system has very much become a driver of social inequality, representing the worst of capitalistic excesses and marketing double-speak in their own operations, and if you want to talk about campus radicalism I whole-heartedly approve of, I point you not towards the Yale undergraduate students demanding that their administration protect them from offensive Halloween costumes, but to the Yale graduate students who are hunger striking for the right to have a union to represent their interests. (The student mobs who drove the Christakises out of Yale are shamefully absent from the struggle for graduate students to have collective bargaining power.) 

Indeed, one of the most striking ways in which the American student protests of the present moment are so shocking to earlier campus activists like myself (back in the 90s … you know, the day) is the degree to which they are demanding that the administration take more power over their lives. Even when they’re insisting that individual administrators get fired, they’re generally doing so because they want a higher class of beneficent dictators. 

The idea of the university system as a beneficent, social-justice minded, platform for a smooth entry into a life of white-collar luxury seems to have tremendous pull and power over the imaginations of students – and so even in a protest oriented, politically charged time period, they are not habitually drawn to protest their own universities. That’s not something that the high level progressive intersectionality culture encourages or lionizes as a rule.  Far from it.

Something has to crystalize for a substantial campus protest to happen – which brings us back to local conditions. It may be happening in the context of the higher level intersectional student culture, but it’s not about it, or even necessarily because of it.

In general – and this may be a dichotomy that falls apart upon closer inspection than I’m giving it right now – I tend to divide recent student protests (again, in America only) into two categories: those motivated by an affirmative set of demands upon the administration (like those at Amherst, or the BDS movement) and those motivated as a reaction to a sense of immanent need – which is most often a response to some perceived threat. 

In the first instance, students are protesting because they want to make the world a better place in a way that is not specifically about them: the BDS movement isn’t happening because students at any given university feel threatened by the State of Israel, but because many students who have no direct connection to Israel or the Middle East are saying “something’s wrong here, and we need to be part of the solution.”

In the second instance, students are saying (however rightly or wrongly): something has happened that is threatening me, and I need to feel safe again.

In the case of the 2015 protest movement at the University of Missouri, protesting students could point to a clear and demonstrable list of both racially charged incidents of violence, and a lackluster administrative response. In the case of Evergreen … I honestly have no idea what has students so spooked. It’s baffling to me. But the rhetoric deployed and the demands made is only occasionally about social justice in the abstract, and very frequently about safety and security on campus. The most intense question asked at the Evergreen community meetings was: “What are you doing to protect us right now?” And it was asked often.

This need for safety and security is happening in the broader context of progressive views on Social Justice, yes, but it’s fundamentally about local conditions - whether clear and present (U Missouri) or amorphous and invisible to outsiders (Evergreen). 

But right now students in the United States who do not feel under some kind of immanent threat almost never protest their universities, regardless of what the critical theory being taught is.

And I think … I think … that that’s the right set of questions to be looking at Evergreen with, at least for the moment.  What do they feel threatened by?  

All that said … 

There is a bigger picture lens that I suspect will prove a useful way to look at Evergreen and some other student protests. But it’s also not primarily about the critical theory/social justice/intersectionality axis, although it puts that access to use.

Rather, it’s part of the reason I keep specifying that I’m talking about American student protests. The student protest movements elsewhere in the world are sometimes very different animals. 

The current South African student protest movement, for example, is waaaay more widespread than anything we’re seeing in America, and it’s as much about university tuition and fee structures as it is about removing statues of the fathers of Apartheid from campus. 

But one of the most interesting (which in this case is also a synonym for “tragic”) things about the student movements in South Africa is the way in which they seemed to appear out of nowhere. School integration seemed to be going so well … everyone was minding their P’s and Q’s, everyone had a rainbow agenda, people were openly and actively talking about race after the great success of the truth and reconciliation commissions, and then … boom. Suddenly no one was happy, and campuses were resegregating.

Where did that come from?

Research that I find convincing suggests that integration of oppressed populations into previously segregated institutions (in this case specifically the South African university system) is easy when the newcomers remain a small minority in this new setting. But the more minority communities grow, and the larger proportion of a population they represent, the more those communities start asking themselves: if we’re equal partners in this institution, then why are all the rules and social norms geared to the needs of the people who kept us out? Why can’t we renegotiate the rules and social norms, now that we’re part of the system?

The South African experience suggests that once minority populations reach about 30 percent of an institution’s total population, those questions come to the forefront, and that if the institution isn’t prepared for it, the established interest groups become reactionary and the social fabric shreds.

(Here’s an absolutely terrific article from 2013 on these issues)

It could be … I kind of suspect … that what we’re seeing in American universities is the result of communities long excluded and marginalized now reaching the critical mass at which they don’t just want to “attend” universities, they want to “co-create” them, having a say in rules and social norms that was also denied them. 

And why not?

But we’re unprepared for that. And it’s not going well.

I further suspect … and again, I’m more spitballing than proposing here … that some of the underlying reasons for the popularity of progressive academic intersectionality jargon isn’t the actual ideas behind it (although at their best they are trenchant insights), but that using it in place of traditional academic discourse is a way of uprooting the traditional ideas behind the institutions and co-opting institutional legitimacy for new populations. The fact that intersectionality jargon has itself become so faddish and lock-step is hugely ironic, but also fairly typical of revolutions: they tend to become what they oppose. (And actually, I think this is a rare time when the radicals - academy loving as they are – explicitly want to become what they oppose.  They don't want to overthrow Cesar, they want to become the Praetorian Guard.) 

Using the language of deconstructive intersectionality - whether or not one understands it, whether or not one is using it in such a way as to say anything at all - in a clear way of establishing what side you’re on and what you’re concerns are: it is language as a revolutionary act. People demand an intersectional pedagogy in all aspects of classroom instruction and administrative function because it is, in fact, a takeover, not just of the institutions but of the theories behind them: it opens what were previously settled discussion back up to negotiation (or dictation) with new populations.

This is also why getting the jargon-salad just right is of such a concern to the people who participate in that lingo. It frustrates people like me who see such a belief in what I dismissively term “word magic” as interfering with common goals and actions, but the point is precisely that their language is trying to overturn my reality.  Having a theory in which a white male professor may not be able to critique the arguments of a female colleague of color makes absolutely no sense in the context of a developing universal ideas - but it is a very useful tool to have if your point is not to make a broader argument so much as to drive the fact home that "we were excluded when you were making the rules, and now we want to make some too." 

My guess, getting back to student protests, is that in a case like Evergreen, where students feel profoundly threatened but cannot point to anything that an outside population can reasonably perceive as a threat, it’s because they are experiencing a danger to this paradigm shift. That having committed to the idea that the rules and norms of institutions must change to accommodate them, they are responding to currents that those of us not engaged in that project don’t experience. 

But they generally don’t want to protest the university, they want to take it over; they don’t object to administrative power, they want to co-opt it; and in that sense, a lot more depends on local conditions on campus than anything else. Even more, it suggests that what intersectionality and post-modernism actually mean in an affirmative way is still largely unexplored territory… so long as these theories are revolutionary acts, they can define themselves by their enemies and the structures they’re against, rather than figuring out how to build something better. 

And it means that if and when that changes, a whole lot of meaning will still be up for grabs.  And while this could lead to a utopia, history suggests that there is every possibility that it will swing the other direction: most revolutions end up eating even their most devoted children.  Certainly I wouldn't be the first person to point out that it sure sounds like a Reign of Terror in the making.

Either way, the post-modern intersectional ideology is not the reason students are protesting so much as a (very successful) tool that is utilized for a takeover movement that is already hotly engaged in the war of ideas.  It is a context in which these protests happen, rather than a reason for them. Focusing on the ideology takes attention away from the issues that emerge when you get significant integration of new populations into historically exclusive institutions. 


Addendum - just after I posted this, I read this op-ed piece by an Evergreen student, alleging alt-right doxing of student protesters and a significant spike in the alt-right presence in the community in which Evergreen sits, as well as an alt-right protest on the campus itself.  

I want to make it clear that when I said I didn't understand what students felt threatened by, I was referring to student comments which occurred prior to these incidents.  Obviously students now feel threatened by what is, in fact, a campaign of harassment designed to threaten them.