Challenging The Theology of Social Justice
In the Middle Ages, as Christian philosophers rediscovered the tracts of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient Greeks, a lively debate began over how to incorporate the old texts into the newer Catholic teachings. To engage in this discussion, one first had to accept the prevailing theories about god. Non-believers, for instance, would waste no time participating in the debates of Christian theology. Nor could they: the Catholic Church controlled the institutions of higher learning, and those with heterodox views were often shunned and ostracized.
Catholicism’s historical dominance over universities — which on occasion led to the suppression of free discussion — has today been replaced by the similarly monolithic ideology of leftism, intersectional feminism, and the theories of social justice to which they have given rise. Now as then we see the exclusion of heretics and the jealous protection of dogma. Moreover, and to paraphrase Robert Conquest: those who voice opinions outside acceptable boundaries, especially on matters of race and gender, are persecuted with the maximum force available to those who do not wield the state apparatus.
Issues of race and gender deal with important parts of people’s identities, and for that reason these issues have an extraordinary capacity to arouse strong emotions. Often this has been for the worse. In the academia, it is becoming increasingly difficult to challenge intersectionality’s accepted wisdom without incurring the charge that one is sexist or racist. Universities, however, are supposed to be areas of free political discussion; intersectionality should be subjected to the same critical scrutiny that all systems of thought must undergo.
Columbia Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw is credited with creating the term and concept of “intersectionality. In a TedTalk from 2016, she said, “I began to use the term ‘intersectionality’ to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.” Without this analytic concept, Crenshaw says, it is impossible to understand, still less to dismantle, the overlapping systems of oppression in our society, including racism, sexism, and homophobia. Crenshaw’s co-thinkers believe, among other things, that gender is a harmful social construct; that women and minorities are systemically oppressed; and that the state uses the police to purposely inflict violence upon people of color.
Several counter-arguments could be made against those claims, but perhaps the most demonstrably incorrect tenet of intersectionality is the notion that all oppressive structures are “inextricably linked.” This notion has garnered increasing support on the left in recent years. It is the reason we have seen the coalescing of activist groups, from pro-choice clubs to advocates of Palestinian liberation, under one colossal panoply. Little by little these groups have all started to employ the same pseudo-Marxist jargon about systems of oppression, ruling classes, and the need for an emancipatory revolution. Intersectionality’s theory of overlapping oppressions is binding together struggles — like the cause of the Palestinians and the activism of BlackLivesMatters — that at first glance (and upon closer examination) appear entirely unrelated.
So it is that Noa Rubin, a student at Barnard, felt compelled to assert that one can simultaneously be a Zionist and a feminist. In her September column for Columbia’s Spectator, Rubin rightly contested the conflation of the issue of Palestine with that of feminist activism. Rubin keenly noted how “…the Divest Barnard page posts not only about climate justice, but also about the Barnard Contingent Faculty Union and Student-Worker Solidarity.” Thus an anti-Israel page found it appropriate to comment on climate change and on the conflicts of labor even though these issues are clearly outside the website’s purported area of concern.
Rubin also correctly disputed intersectionality’s attempt to combine every “system of oppression,” as if they were identical. The conditions of the Palestinians and the status of American women are wholly unalike, and to ask people to believe that they are the same is to ask them to ignore the complexities of each.
Proponents of intersectionality argue that Palestinian women are oppressed, and that it is incoherent to fight for the rights of American women but not for those of Palestinian women. They are mistaken; even if Israel is to blame for the condition of female Palestinians, a supporter of Israel is not bound to uncritically support Israeli policy, everywhere and all the time. And even if one further concedes that American women are oppressed it does not follow that one must therefore take a pro-Palestinian stance. Nor does it follow that the two oppressions are “linked.”
Aside from tenuously supported theories about oppression, intersectionality engenders other problematic beliefs, including the shameful support for censorship that we have witnessed in recent weeks. Intersectionality is too frequently taken for granted at Columbia and elsewhere in the academia, and precisely for that reason it needs to be challenged. The theologians of social justice would prefer that we not think too critically about the matter. It is time for us to do otherwise.