On Feminism: Intersectionality and Privilege

Modern feminism has fallen far from the noble efforts of first-wave suffragettes. As feminism advanced to its second and third waves, it expanded into a variety of topics (and along the way many women forgot what the word “suffrage” even means). One such topic is intersectionality, and the related concept of privilege. Intersectionality is the study of the interaction of multiple systems of oppression or, put more bluntly, the study of compound victimhood. According to intersectionality, a black lesbian woman, for example, is multiply oppressed by racism, heterosexism, and sexism. Privilege is the opposite of victimhood and also compounds in a similar way — a white heterosexual man, for example, is multiply privileged. Individuals may be simultaneously victims and privileged — for example, a white woman is privileged by race but a victim by sex. According to intersectional feminism, therefore, society is highly stratified among many dimensions and each individual is a complex web of interconnected oppressions and privileges.

Although the concepts of intersectionality and privilege are major topics within feminism, they have very little practical use. The extent of the usefulness of intersectionality and privilege is that differences (in sex, race, age, nationality, etc.) between two persons can make it difficult for them to empathize with each other, and a person who is mindful of such differences will be better able to empathize with other people. But this insight was not discovered by feminism and is hardly a new concept.

The main problem with intersectionality and privilege is that any attempt to use them in practice (i.e. during an argument or debate) will almost certainly result in a logical fallacy — specifically, a circumstantial ad hominem or the related genetic fallacy. A circumstantial ad hominem fallacy is an argument that one’s debate opponent is predisposed to take a particular position (e.g. a feminist claims that a white man is privileged and therefore predisposed to oppose a feminist argument). This is a fallacy since (a) it does nothing to address the anti-feminist’s argument (it attacks the person of the anti-feminist instead), and (b) a predisposition toward an argument does not make it false. The related genetic fallacy attempts to argue that an argument is wrong because of its source or origin (such as the person making the argument). A common example of a genetic fallacy is the claim that most theists are only theists because they were raised to believe in theism, and that therefore theism is false; while it is probably true that someone raised to believe in theism is more likely to be a theist than someone who was raised to believe in atheism, this point says nothing about the truth or falsehood of theism. As with the circumstantial ad hominem (or any ad hominem), the genetic fallacy does not address the argument itself. The reason why invoking the concepts of intersectionality and privilege usually results in a logical fallacy is that these concepts are, by nature, concerned with the circumstances of individuals and their perspectives rather than their arguments.

To understand why a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy or a genetic fallacy results in an unsound argument, suppose a man such as myself made the claim that “childbirth is generally painful for a woman” and a feminist retorted that “you can’t know that since you’re a man”. The feminist’s retort attacks the person who made the claim (circumstantial ad hominem fallacy) and the source of the claim (genetic fallacy) rather than the claim itself. Moreover, the feminist’s retort is obviously fallacious since the claim (“childbirth is generally painful for a woman”) is uncontroversial and supported by ample evidence (including, but not limited to, personal testimony of vast numbers of women who have given birth and the fact that physicians often give epidural anesthesia to women in labor). The claim is true whether made by a man, woman, or anyone else.

Yet this is precisely the fallacious argument sometimes made, for example, by feminists and other supporters of legalized abortion when a man presents an argument against legalized abortion: the fallacious claim is that men can never know what it is like to be pregnant with an unwanted mass of tissue child or to decide to get an abortion, so men have no right to argue against (or presumably for) abortion. While it is true that a man cannot personally experience these things, that is beside the point and fails to address his argument against abortion. His argument is either true or false depending on its own merits and on his premises, not on the fact that it was uttered by the mouth of a man. A woman making the exact same argument would not make it any more or less true, either.

A Helpful Chart: Illustration of a Textbook Genetic Fallacy

More generally, perhaps the most common way a feminist invokes intersectionality and/or privilege (and the associated fallacies) is when she tells her opponent to “check your privilege”. Obviously, an argument originating from a person who is allegedly privileged is not discredited by this point alone, so telling someone to “check your privilege” is — logically — a non sequitur. Nonetheless, telling someone to “check your privilege” can be effective in discrediting the allegedly privileged person in the eyes of an audience unfamiliar with logical fallacies. That, plus the fact that many feminists evidently don’t understand the ad hominem and genetic fallacies, is why feminists use such pointless pseudo-arguments. To recover from a call to “check your privilege” turn it back on the feminist and tell her to check her fallacies — and then explain what circumstantial ad hominem and genetic fallacies are to her and the audience.

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4 thoughts on “On Feminism: Intersectionality and Privilege

    • I’m glad to hear that — providing reference arguments (for myself and others) is one of the main purposes of my blog.

  1. Pingback: On Feminism: Intersectionality and Privilege | ...

  2. Pingback: Feminists can’t keep their story straight | The Null Hypotheses

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