Individualism, Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality

Social justice is, in large part, based in the concept of identity politics, or politics based on oppression, privilege, and group identity. Identity politics is important because of social and historical context. Understanding group interactions and their effect on the individuals in these groups is essential to fighting oppression. While many libertarians and individualist anarchists reject identity politics due to concerns about the collectivist nature of group identity, Wade Craig argues that identity politics, or politics based on oppression, privilege, and group identity, is an individualist project:

Identity politics seeks to take the individuals and free them from that group of which society has labeled them members. It seeks to free homosexual people from the stereotypical concept of what it means to be gay, male people from masculinity, colored people from race, etc.

In order to maintain the individualistic nature of our fight for equality, we must take into account two very important pieces of the social justice puzzle: intersectionality and anti-essentialism.

Intersectionality is an approach in social justice that recognizes the existence of overlapping categories of oppression. An individual may be oppressed in certain ways and privileged in others. To understand how to overcome oppression generally, we must understand how these overlapping categories of oppressed and privileged interact. For example, a straight black man and a white lesbian are both privileged and oppressed in completely different ways. While the first subject has straight and male privilege, he is oppressed on the basis of race. The second subject has white privilege, but is oppressed on the basis of being a woman and not straight. Recognizing this intersection of oppressions and privileges moves us away from a collectivist, one-size-fits-all approach to an individualist person-based approach to combating oppression.

Anti-essentialism is the idea that no “essential” experience exists among people of a certain oppressed of privileged group. There is no essential Black experience or essential woman experience because Black people and women are so varied and may be affected differently by different oppressions (as discussed above). Trina Grillo criticizes essentialism, saying it “assumes that the strands of identity are separable.” In other words, it ignores the variety in each person’s identity — it is anti-individual. Using Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality is vital to our project in combating oppression because of the importance of recognizing each person as more than a member of an oppressed group, as an individual, a unique end in themselves.

Oppression and privilege affect every aspect of day-to-day life. Whether one indirectly benefits from the oppression of others, directly causes it, or is the victim, the pursuit of one’s goals is largely affected by one’s position in society. The recognition of privilege is simply the recognition that oppression affects each of us differently. As Nathan Goodman says in The Knowledge Problem of Privilege, “Every individual has unique knowledge shaped by their experiences and preferences, knowledge that may not be accessible to others…” Defining the collective experience of a group in specific terms is difficult, especially for those who have no first-hand experience of such oppression. In order to combat oppression, we must recognize the places in which we have privilege and cannot relate to the experiences of someone who is oppressed. In fighting oppression we must not lose sight of the individual, despite the importance of shared experience. Intersectionality and anti-essentialism help us to recognize the limits of our knowledge about experiences other than our own, so we can be careful not to speak for others and drown out their voices.

Collectivism leads us to define people into categories, placing each person into a strictly defined group. Essentializing the experience of each group, we set up expectations for members of each arbitrarily defined category and ignore personal experience. In her speech on intersectionality and anti-essentialism, Trina Grillo refers to both as the “Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House.” By looking to intersectionality and anti-essentialism, we are able to defeat collectivist notions of what oppression should look like, and get to the root of the problem. This sort of radical social justice goes beyond black and white categorization to individualistic recognition of the experience of each individual person, giving us the tools of liberation.

Individualism opposes the external control of individual choice, holding reason as the source of morality. Societal constraints on individual reason and morality are the subject of social justice. As rebels in the oppressive system, we must fight for a radical individualism in which people are not held back by societal expectations of behavior based on arbitrary factors like race or gender, but recognized as free moral agents, capable of making decisions for themselves. Oppression and privilege compel people to make certain choices or respond to certain situations based on their position in society. Dominant social structures, even those that are nonviolent, can impede individuality by creating illusions of choice and imposing oppressive, collectivist norms.

Ayn Rand, a strong proponent of individualism, stressed the importance of recognizing each person as an end in themselves:

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

She argued that in order for people to be able to pursue their ends, they must recognize and respect the value of the individual and the importance of individual rights. Our project as combatants against oppression is to open up opportunities for each individual to pursue their own ends without interfering with others. Our goal is not to recreate special privileges or redefine the boundaries of oppressor and oppressed, but to erase them all together. Only in a world beyond oppression and privilege will people truly be regarded as individuals.

To break the boundaries of oppression, we must empower ourselves, recognizing that the fight against oppression is a fight for all by all, and that no one’s experience of oppression is the same. Group identity is shaped by history and society, and is extremely important when diagnosing social trends and identifying problems of oppression. Identity politics cannot be ignored. By looking to individualism, anti-essentialism, and intersectionality, we can form a project that clears the way for each person to achieve their ends, man qua man. As Trina Grillo says, “We have a better chance of forming a vision of a post-patriarchal, post-racial society both by trusting in our own experiences and by seeking out voices that are drowned out by essentialism in all its forms.” We cannot fight oppression by ignoring the existence of social constructs such as gender and race, because these social constructs heavily influence human interaction. We can, however, tear down these social constructs by acknowledging them and defying their bounds. By recognizing that oppression exists and that each person is an end in themselves, we stand a fighting chance.

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