Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Venn Diagram Ideology


The last presidential election has left a lot of Catholics in America doing some self examination on where, if anywhere, they fit within American electoral politics. One particularly strong trend (in the small pond which constitutes online Catholicism) has been towards seeking a new "whole life" coalition which splits off protection of the unborn from its traditional place over the last thirty years within Republican Party politics, and seeks to instead join anti-abortion politics with other issues such as universal health care, environmentalism, and a higher minimum wage or universal basic income. This sort of approach is more congenial for people who, fifty years ago, would have felt themselves a good fit with the Democratic Party (which once upon a time drew much of its support from Catholic immigrant communities), but in recent decades have felt forced to support the GOP because of the abortion issue.

However, the argument made in favor of this blending of issues is not just that its supporters would prefer to a center-left party that was pro-life, the argument is rather that you can't be truly "pro-life" (as opposed to "pro-birth") unless you support a number of other issues which are conducive to the overall thriving of the vulnerable among us. This fits with one of the buzzwords of the moment: intersectionality. While the term is used a lot, there seems to be some disagreement as to its meaning. Perhaps that's because the meaning is still evolving. However, here are the two basic explanations of intersectionality that I've found:

1) "Your oppression is connected to my oppression." In this view there is an overall "system" which oppresses many different victim groups: women, homosexuals, immigrants, etc. Since the same overall system is oppressing all of them, it makes sense for them to bend together to fight back against the system.

2) Another formulation looks at the ways that different types of bias overlap and reinforce. By this view, someone who is a Black trans-woman is triply oppressed, because there are three forms of bias against them: racism, sexism, and anti-trans bias. However, these biases are not simply additive. The person suffering oppression because of these three factors experiences oppression which is more than the sum of the parts because the prejudices are reinforcing. Thus, to help this person it's necessary to fight against all these prejudices simultaneously. Fighting against just one would not relieve the problem much.

(As you can see from the example, intersectionality is a phenomenon of the left.)

When it comes to getting people mobilized to advocate on specific political causes, whether this approach is useful depends a lot on what the patterns of agreement are. Looking at the above examples which I drew from explanations of intersectionality that I found, it might well be that within the wider left there are a lot of people who are passionate about one of the issues mentioned (say fighting racism) but also quietly in agreement on advocating against what they see as sexism and trans-phobia. In that case, telling those people that these issues are all connected and that they need to advocate for all of them is probably going to be effective.

However, that effectiveness relies entirely on the fact that those people happen to agree with all the issues listed. And that's the issue faced by people who want to take a intersectional approach to fighting abortion. Rightly or wrongly, issues like environmentalism and universal health care primarily live on the political left in American politics, while issues like restricting abortion live on the political right. This means that if you insist that a truly pro-life advocacy must combine all these issues, you'll only get the small group of people who already agree on all of them. Throw even more issues into the mix (universal basic income, religious freedom, traditional marriage) and you're only going to narrow the potential support even further. Because most people don't hold this particular group of views, rather than activating people who already basically agree with you but aren't loud about some of the issues, you're telling a lot of people who agree with you on one issue (abortion) that they can take a hike if they don't agree with you on all the others.

It would be wise for pro-life groups to focus tightly on their mission of fighting abortion and not allow themselves to get sucked into supporting a broader Republican agenda, because that too will end up making some people who oppose abortion less likely to support those groups. However, I don't think it's wise for the pro-life movement as a whole to adopt a sort of Venn Diagram ideology in which only those who agree on a wide range of topics are considered "truly pro-life". It's entirely healthy to have a wide variety of pro-life viewpoints. Feminists For Life is already a well known group. Many have also heard of Atheists For Life. Why not have Social Democrats For Life or Greens For Life? But what is not a good idea is to spend lots of energy attacking other pro-life groups as "not truly pro-life" because they don't hold a set collection of view on issues other than abortion. Given the wide distribution of views on other issues among people who agree on wanting to reduce abortion, any attempt at intersectionality in the pro-life movement will end up being exclusionary rather than coalition building.

2 comments:

Howard said...

"It would be wise for pro-life groups...." Pro-life groups may almost be as innocent as doves, but history shows that they are also as wise as doves, which was not the second half of Our Lord's command. They believe that they can go on doing what they have been doing -- which is mostly endorsing every Republican, not because of his track record or even promises, but on the basis that he's not a Democrat -- and somehow, this strategy will eventually magically start working. Not in the first 40 years, obviously, and probably not in the second 40 years, but maybe in 400 or 40000 years. They are unwilling to really play hardball, which does have its risks, but which is the difference between being the driver with the whip and being the horse pulling the carriage wherever the driver wants it to go. The GOP clearly regards pro-lifers as an old nag (in more ways than one) -- useful for pulling the wagon, but perhaps overdue for the glue factory.

Laura Staum said...

Although in general I think your second definition of intersectionality is closer to the mark, I don't think that understanding that person as "triply oppressed" in a way that is more than additive is quite right. Rather, I think the point is that that person's experience of racism may be different from the experience that a cisgender Black person has, and their experience of sexism may be different from that of a White woman, etc. The superadditivity of oppression might be part of these differences, but the goal of viewing social issues from an intersectional point of view is to prevent the erasure of experiences - if we think of sexism as monolithic, we may ignore what sexism is like for anyone who is not the "default" woman (aka a middle class cisgender White woman, for example).

The problem is not that fighting against sexism alone won't relieve this person's problem much, it's that fighting against "default" sexism might not reliever her problem much. As an example, sexism against Black women often involves stereotyping them as hypersexual, masculine people, whereas this is not often done to White women. Middle class experiences of sexism may involve running up against the "glass ceiling" at work, whereas working class experiences of sexism may involve having only low-level service industry jobs available to you, instead of better-paying and more dignified manufacturing jobs, for example. So, fighting the "glass ceiling" type of sexism does not do working class women much good.

Viewing social problems through the lens of intersectionality is intended to focus people on levels of analysis they often ignore, so that they are aware of how these social problems are experienced by different groups of people.