When intersectionality hurts effective activism

Activists preparing for a rally on Low Steps, Columbia University

Columbia University has always been known to be a so-called “activist” campus, in the sense that there are many groups of students on campus who champion social-justice causes. Many of these causes are recognized to be systemic issues in the United States (e.g. the marginalization of minority races, the colonization of native lands, the prevalence of gender bias in academia and industry, LGBTQAP rights, etc.), while others are more specific to the direct effect of Columbia’s presence in the world financial markets and its physical location on the border of Harlem (e.g. divestment, gentrification, etc.). Some activists care about all of these causes, others care about only a small subset.

Traditionally, collegiate activism has used the public opinion as a tool by which to force decision-makers to take issues of social justice into account. After all, an administrator charged with maintaining a safe and educational environment can hardly afford to present an image of discrimination and injustice—especially at a university which claims to be a world leader in diversity and acceptance. Each year, almost like clockwork, a new incident occurs in the public sphere which galvanizes activist groups to organize protests, rallies, and similar gatherings to draw the public attention to a new (or old) issue. This year, we’ve seen the events at Yale and Mizzou serve as that catalyst; last year, they were Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” mattress performance and the handling of sexual assault that preceded it.

Still, there is a silent majority of students who don’t care enough to voice an active opinion. And it is these students who activists need to convince to achieve effective change: the activists themselves are invariably a small subset of the overall population, and decision-makers rarely act without a belief that there is widespread discontent with the status quo. It’s important, then, that any activist movement carefully maintains its relationship with the wider student body.

I think it goes without saying that the world would probably be a better place if these incidents didn’t happen at all. In a world where all people were equal, where everyone had the opportunity to move up the socioeconomic ladder, we might never need activism on campus or otherwise.

But we don’t live in such a utopian world, and even the issues we like to talk about aren’t nearly as clear-cut as one might expect. For example, we can safely assume that a person’s race to be independent of their sex and preference of partner. As a result, the field of intersectionality exists to study the effects of the confluence of many identities. In the academic sense, intersectionality is incredibly important: the disadvantaged classes in the history of the United States have not been and will not be disjoint, on campus or otherwise.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that a conglomerate of activist groups would eventually organize to form things like the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network (BCSN), a meta-group which provides mutual support and collective planning for all of its constituent member-groups. The recent protest by the BCSN is the logical end result of collaboration between activist groups. And yet, it’s unclear that such a joint protest is actually effective at focusing campus discussion and generating interest within the silent majority.

One of the most notable outcomes of the BCSN protest is that there are comparatively few demands: where a single activist group might present tens of demands for public consideration, the BCSN presented only six demands. An argument can be made that this is a net positive, as it crystallizes the important issues and helps make each individual groups’ priorities more evident.

Yet, there is a very real risk when relatively disconnected ideas are grouped together. Though a logical fallacy, the average observer will naturally treat all of the demands of the BCSN protest as a single block, to be accepted or rejected. And if this observer were to find issue with any one of the six demands (or their respective subdemands), the other ideas are unfairly ignored—even though the ideas themselves are not intrinsically correlated! In a recent Columbia Spectator staff editorial (in the interest of full disclosure, I sit on the editorial board of the Spectator), a number of criticisms are presented with each of the BCSN’s demands.

The question, however, is not the specific point-by-point decision on the part of the reader: if the activists and the staff editorial can get a member of the silent majority to think critically about an issue and form an educated opinion, the rest will likely handle itself for any true issue of social justice. The strategic problem of intersectional activism, though, is that only a single criticism of a set of demands needs to be upheld in order for the passerby to ignore the rest. In this case, there are many potential criticisms for the large majority of the points. But it seems reasonable to believe that, had the demands been presented separately, the average reader might well have agreed with more of them than with all of the demands presented together.

This effect is worsened when the wording of each demand is also intersectional. By definition, the intersection of those disadvantaged by multiple factors is a subset of those who might have been affected by any one of those factors. Without digressing to set theory, there is simply a larger audience of sympathetic people for the issues of a single factor than issues of multiple factors. A concrete example of this can be seen in the BCSN’s demands: while the Black population is certainly disadvantaged in the US, it is not the only population which has faced adverse conditions—Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion, for example, displaced Hispanic and Latino residents in equal ratio to Black residents. A person invested in organizing activism for Spanish Harlem, then, would likely be turned off by the specificity of the BCSN’s demand.

Of course, I think it has to be said that there are real issues behind activist demands. For all that their activism may feel misguided, overly specific, or badly planned on occasion, it is an earnest attempt to make the world a better place. I just can’t help but feel that the tactical benefits of intersectional organization are outweighed by the strategic problem of public perception and the silent majority.

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