Intersectionality is an icepick

Intersectionality is a thing, and intersectionality is a word. Intersectionality (the word) is an icepick. There are inhospitable environments where you wouldn’t survive without having it in your hand to gain purchase on the slippery terrain, and there are places where in all likelihood you’re going to end up with it lodged in your skull by a rival lefty on a power grab.

This post is about intersectionality the word – a word I’ve never used on my blog, which is more five years and 350 entries old. It just hasn’t come up. I’ve written comment pieces and features for the Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist and various lifestyle and entertainment magazines over the same period. The word intersectionality isn’t in any of those either. I’m a white, middle-class feminist and I’ve never written about intersectionality.

In fact, hadn’t even heard of it until earlier this year. It’s not just me: this chart from Google trends shows search activity for “intersectional” (blue) and “feminism” (red). “Intersectional” is a flat line of nothing from 2004 until the end of 2012, where a tiny cluster of pixels represents its high point of interest to date. As a word, this is the newest of neologisms.

Things get a bit more interesting if I take out the “feminism” searches so we can see “intersectional” in detail (though there’s some noise introduced by the fact that “intersectional” appears to have an American college sports meaning as well as a political one). Then you you can see that “intersectional” erupted in 2005, puttering about in various degrees of obscurity until the recent mini-surge driven by criticism of Caitlin Moran for her interview with Lena Dunham.

Compare the first chart with the second, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that “feminism” is on a long-term downward trend and “intersectional” is at the very beginning of its ascendancy. One day, maybe, people with an interest in social justice and equality will talk about themselves as intersectionalists rather than feminists or anti-racists. But at the moment, there’s no way around the fact that not many people appear to know or use the word “intersectional”.

That doesn’t make it an automatic candidate for the banned list: language is an organic thing, and what starts off niche will enter general currency through repeated use if it proves useful. It does, however, mean that every time you use the word “intersectional”, you’re making a trade-off between specificity and accessibility. (For what it’s worth, I read the Vagenda editors’ comments about intersectionality as referring to the word not the thing, and I understood them to be making this same point.)

There’s a riposte to this, made by Ray Filar: equality is an important concept, important concepts demand their own vocabulary, and anyone who needs a dictionary can just fucking google it. But this makes intersectionality a sort of test that the reader must pass, rather than a tool the writer is using to describe and shape the world. Your willingness to familiarise yourself with an obscure vocabulary becomes a measure of your political soundness. And that, I think, is where intersectionality (the word) betrays intersectionality (the concept).

I am lucky. I’m middle class and have the university education to match. My time in seminars has instilled in me a sense that forbidding, polysyllabic words are an invitation to come and play. Intersectionality hadn’t entered the day-to-day talk of an English department when I was studying (the earliest usage I found in Google books was 2003), but having made friends with différance, the Lacanian unconscious and homosocial behaviour, I’m not about to be put off by a pissy bit of adjectival-noun coinage.

If you haven’t got the same background in or affinity with academia, though, intersectionality is a word that says this is not for you. We’re unmistakably in Orwell’s-fifth-rule territory here. And that’s troubling, because the whole point of intersectionality (the thing) is to expand ideas of equality and the human subject beyond the narrow bounds that are generally allowed to count for normal. If we express that idea using language that most people have to research in the first instance, then we’ve failed the idea in the expression.

Political writers and activists presumably want to persuade and galvanise their audience. If you’re already imposing on the reader’s beliefs, don’t make a further imposition on their time by asking them to do your work for you and translate your opinions into a language they can understand. If you wouldn’t use a word at the schoolgates or to a co-worker, then it’s probably doing more to identify you with your politics than it is to spread them. Similarly, intersectionality (the word) can be used to mark enemies: to hold unexamined privilege (that is, to lack intersectionality) is a quality of a person, not their work, and many uses do more to discount individuals than redress bias.

In the time I’ve been not-writing about intersectionality, I’ve written difficult, careful features about witchcraft beliefs and child abuse; about forced marriage; about supporting international abortion rights without overriding the voices of the women we seek to help. As I’ve written these pieces, I’ve thought about class, culture, race, religion and disability. I’ve thought about how an individual’s background might constrain the options they have, and about how authorities and campaigners can be respectful of difference without deferring to harmful prejudice. Without writing about intersectionality, I suppose I’ve written intersectionally. And I believe I’ve done it better for not using intersectionality the word.

Thanks to Bim Adewunmi, who probably won’t agree with this but who has been kind enough to talk to me about all this stuff at length

Littlejohn and the English language

Richard Littlejohn’s enconium on Keith Waterhouse reads like a list of the absolute minimum that could be expected of a professional writer. You turn your copy in on time. You write the appropriate number of words. You don’t fuck up the grammar. These are probably rarer skills than they should be, and reliably accurate writing deserves celebrating – all the same, Littlejohn’s praise for Waterhouse is a bit like greeting the death of a lifelong publican by saying, “He always had bitter on tap and never forgot to wash the pint pots.”

Presumably, if he hadn’t managed that much, he wouldn’t have been running a pub for long. And you really hope that a career in journalism would be founded on a bit more than the scanty essentials deified by Littlejohn:

Keith never missed a deadline, however poorly he was, however hungover. His column was always immaculate and written to length. Quality control worked overtime at the Waterhouse words factory.

“Language affects values so much,” he once said. “Your vocabulary includes everything you want, cherish, own or aspire to. Language is a great liberator.”

Mail, “Richard Littlejohn: My friend Keith Waterhouse – the man with the champagne touch”

But then, the Waterhouse quote which Littlejohn uses tells us that the obiturist sees style as something of huge moral importance – and more than that, huge positive moral importance. The equally plausible idea that the journalist’s language can subject the user to harmful beliefs, ideals and systems is dusted away, although Littlejohn’s constant beration of political correctness shows that he’s painfully aware of the ways in which vocabulary shapes attitudes. In his screed against the National Trans Police Association, for example, he dismisses the validity of the PTPA by dismissing the word “intersex” – first of all by tactlessly turning it from an adjective into a noun (“intersexuals”) and then by asking the aggressively dehumanising question “whatever the hell they are”. (Incidentally, Littlejohn’s funny feelings about truncheons and knobs have given him a very productive muse throughout his career.)

Littlejohn generally claims to “merely report the facts” and uses post-publication reader agreement as proof to justify his position. But writing about Waterhouse, Littlejohn becomes abnormally open about the columnist’s persuasive imperative:

He once told me the art of writing a column is not to say what the man in the pub is thinking, but what he will be thinking once he’s read it.

Waterhouse didn’t go in for polemic. He knew that if you want to make a point, it’s best to make ’em laugh. Hearts and minds will follow.

Although Billy Liar, the hero of his seminal novel, stage play and movie, was his most celebrated character, his cast of comic creations was legion.

Clogthorpe District Council’s Ways & Means Committee, the National Guesswork Authority plc, shop assistants Sharon and Tracy and the wonderful Arnold, British Rail’s spivvy brother-in-law.

Through these caricatures, Keith parodied the nonsense and pomposity of petty officialdom and illuminated to devastating effect so many essential truths about society.

Mail, “Richard Littlejohn: My friend Keith Waterhouse – the man with the champagne touch”

A comic caricature can be a wonderfully amusing thing. But a parody can’t illuminate anything – except Littlejohn’s delusion that “making it up” verifies the prejudices which inform such hilarious pen sketches as “Screaming Lord Mandy” (he’s gay, you see), Centaurs in the police service (they’re only half human, you see, which is a bit like being transgender) and ethnic minorities with their alleged “rights, privileges and lavish welfare benefits” (there are people in the world who aren’t from the same gene pool as Richard Littlejohn, you see, and that’s outrageous).

Here are some other journalistic qualities Littlejohn might want to look into the next time one of his own dies: factual accuracy, thoughtfulness, self-criticism, wit. And when Littlejohn himself pops it, we can be ready with the well-earned tribute: once a week, every week, Richard Littlejohn managed to write something that was both in sentences and made of words, and at least his syntax wasn’t disgusting.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009