Andrew Sullivan takes time off from crying over the election of Donald Trump to identify and explain the new religion that has taken charge on elite campuses all over the country.
Intersectionalityâ€ is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, itâ€™s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity â€” such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. â€” but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, thatâ€™s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.
It is operating, in Orwellâ€™s words, as a â€œsmelly little orthodoxy,â€ and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained â€” and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., â€œcheck your privilege,â€ and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue â€” and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. Itâ€™s Marx without the final total liberation.
It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if youâ€™re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of â€œwhite supremacy,â€ you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You canâ€™t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate othersâ€™ souls, and wound them irreparably.
And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual â€” a secular exorcism, if you will â€” that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Hereâ€™s how they begin: â€œThis is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not â€˜representativeâ€™ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.â€ They never specify which of Murrayâ€™s ideas they are referring to. Nor do they explain why a lecture on a recent book about social inequality cannot be a â€œrespectful discourse.â€ The speaker is open to questions and there is a faculty member onstage to engage him afterward. She came prepared with tough questions forwarded from specialists in the field. And yet: â€œWe â€¦ cannot engage fully with Charles Murray, while he is known for readily quoting himself. Because of that, we see this talk as hate speech.â€ They know this before a single word of the speech has been spoken.
Read the whole thing.