I grant that referring to a group by a name they don’t use can be rude—I always try to call people by the names they use for themselves. That’s Manners 101. But social justice warriors don’t have a name of their own. They only have an ideology. The ideology is very identifiable—it comes from the intersection of Critical Race Theory and 1980s middle-class feminism—but the believers don’t have a name that their critics can use. So we’re stuck with “identitarians” for people who see power primarily in terms of social identities and “social justice warriors” for identitarians who flame online in the belief they’ll make a better world by tweeting and blogging and mobbing.
Some people say identity politics is a term only used by the right, but Kimberlé Crenshaw, the woman who offered intersectionality to the feminist lexicon, wrote about it favorably in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. When I use the term, I don’t mean it as a pejorative—there have been points in history when identity politics were the only practical politics. But I prefer “identitarianism” because it addresses the attitude that underlies identity politics.
In fact the intersectionalists are negative individualists. Negative in that they celebrate frailty rather than laud any of the virtues of individualism, such as being strong and wilful or achieving anything. In the most bellicose intersectionalists we can all recognise precious snowflake syndrome. That this tends to be expressed in purely negative terms makes it no less individualistic: to be the most abused, the most depressed, the most oppressed, to suffer the gravest illness. This phenomenon—I am tempted to call it a negative dialectic out of pure mischief—is a demand for recognition on an unearned basis: affirmation simply for being.
That this, on the surface at least, contradicts their communitarianism doesn’t change the facts—and they’re not the first group to have straddled these two worn-out donkeys at the same time. The tradition this springs from is identifiably that of the New Left and while it therefore has some claim to being left wing, however that term might be defined, it is not communism.
Whatever we call these strange beings we’re discussing, I agree that their radicalism is cosmetic, a halfhearted gesture toward something revolutionary, born more of laziness (this situation SUCKS and someone should FIX it, NOW) than true fanaticism. However little I may think of Marxism’s historicism, I can at least concede that Marxists were looking for revolutionary change in all the right places, i.e. the material and economic structures of society. SJWs, obsessed with individual piety, seem like they would rather seize the dictionaries than the means of production. And to cite that Hitchens interview for the second time this week, I agree that the New Left should get the credit for this turn toward narcissism:
That slogan summed it up nicely for me: “I’ll have a revolution inside my own psyche.” It’s escapist and narcissistic. In order to take part in discussions we used to have, you were expected to have read Luxemburg, Deutsche, some Gramsci, to know the difference between Bihar and Bangladesh, to know what was meant by the Goethe Program, to understand the difference between Keynes and Schumpeter, to have read a bit of Balzac and Zola. You were expected to have broken a bit of a sweat, to have stretched your brain a bit, in order just to have a discussion. And you were expected to keep up with what was going on as well. If you couldn’t hold up your end on that, you wouldn’t stay long in the discussion.
With “the personal is political,” nothing is required of you except to be able to talk about yourself, the specificity of your own oppression. That was a change of quality as well as quantity. And it fit far too easily into the consumer, me-decade, style-section, New-Age gunk.
But I wonder if it would be accurate to see this phenomenon as a descendant of cultural Marxism. The relevant section for me:
Cultural Marxists use Marxist methods (historical research, the identification of economic interest, the study of the mutually conditioning relations between parts of a social order) to try to understand the complexity of power in contemporary society and to make it possible to criticise what, cultural Marxists propose, appears natural but is in fact ideological.
In other words, like its classic form, the cultural version purports to be objective and scientific. The obvious moralism of intersectionalists is masked by this pretense of having discovered the hidden laws that govern human culture.