Against A Hierarchy of “isms”: Why Ideological Rigidity and Supremacy are Harmful to Intersectional Social Justice

2+2 = 4. If you take away any part of this equation, it cannot express the same truth. Ideology is the same way. If you take one piece away and replace it with something else, it does not express the same idea. It might express a similar one, but it will not be the same one.

In this sense, our traditional understandings of patriarchy and white supremacy as systems of oppression are currently undergoing and will continue to undergo a similar process of revision as more women and people of color assume positions of power, and as power shifts its locus elsewhere.

In other words, feminism and other “isms” can no longer express cannot afford to reasonably express the same idea about the nature of power which they have in the past simply because times and circumstances have changed and will continue to change, thus rendering the traditionally rigid conceptions of power less coherent and less useful with each passing decade.

Although sexism and racism are alive and well today, the truth is that patriarchy and white supremacy are not the structures they once were, although their lasting influence is obviously still embedded in key institutions, cultures, languages, attitudes, and behaviors.

In saying this, I am by no means suggesting that patriarchy white supremacy no longer exist, or that one doesn’t need to worry about them. I’m merely suggesting that since much progress has been made along several fronts of fighting injustice, this should give us pause to re-evaluate the evidence on the ground, and to revise the ideological tools we currently have at our disposal.

Doing this will ensure that we can better understand and diagnose injustices, and will safeguard us from trying to skew evidence to meet a rigid and antiquated ideological framework. After all, when social justice begins to look and behave like young earth creationism, you know you’re in trouble.

While it might be tempting to cling to the simpler models of the past, revising our tools for diagnosing and combating injustice shouldn’t be seen as a death knell of social justice or a betrayal of past movements. On the contrary, it should be seen as a good and necessary exercise for getting at the truth, and as a way of bettering oneself and one’s understanding of the world. In the way that the scientific revolution made religion more honest and humane, a revolution in thinking about social justice, will made achieving social justice more attainable.

The truth is that we know all social justice ideologies, like all good movements, must adapt or die. They must continually revise themselves or else come to an end – either because the social problems they have been designed to diagnose and treat have been cured, or because the zeitgeist and the locus of power has shifted. This is simply the self-correcting nature of all knowledge and progress.

Therefore, just as the Catholic Church had to shift its theology after substituting  the Geocentric theory of the solar system for Copernicus’ Heliocentric model, I argue that Social Justice must necessarily shift its focus away from the hierarchy of “isms”  and of the primacy of one “ism” over another in order to be truly effective and intersectional.

Recently I watched an interview with Carol J. Adams – an intersectional feminist whose work I greatly admire – wherein she spoke about her book, “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” I would recommend this book to anybody interested in intersectional social justice, feminism, or veganism, as it offers crucial insights about how power functions by illuminating the web of oppression which links the domination of women with the domination of non-human animals, and links notions of masculinity with meat-eating culture.

However, with that said, there was something that disturbed me about the interview when Adams was asked the following question:

“What advice do you have for vegans living in a carnistic world?”

Adams then answered with the following statement:

“Well…I’m just gonna correct this. We’re living in a patriarchal world that is using meat-eating to prop it up.”

To be fair, it seemed that Adams was clearly trying to be inclusive and didn’t  mean any harm in saying this, but we know historically that the use of words, as well as the omission of them, ends up mattering a lot. In Adam’s case, they suggests that meat-eating is solely a function of masculinity – and therefore solely a function of patriarchy. However, from my perspective, carnism is clearly also a function of speciesism as well as a function of the alienation, objectification, commodification of non-human animals under capitalism.

In other words, Adam’s worldview – or at least the one her statement implies within this interview – suggests a hierarchy of “isms” in which one ideology (feminism) is necessarily superior to other ideologies, and that the problems these other ideologies attempt to diagnose and cure (racism, homophobia, speciesism, etc.) are merely subordinate to the central issue of patriarchy.

While I understand that feminism is Adams’ passion and life’s work, I feel that when she attempts to rank issues of social justice in an objective, hierarchical manner – not just in terms of their relative importance to her own lived experience – that she unintentionally and unnecessarily erects barriers to social justice which is truly intersectional.

For example, if I chose an anti-speciesist ideological framework which privileges anti-speciesism over ideologies, I could just as easily argue that, “We’re living in speciesist world that is using patriarchy to prop it up.” However, I suspect that any feminist reading this statement would be quite put off by it, as it suggests feminism is a subordinate ideology and that sexism is a lesser problem than speciesism.

In the same way the Church’s claim to a monopoly on truth precipitates needless conflict between Christians and other faiths, the claim to ideological primacy – whether it is feminist, marxist, or anti-speciesist – can only lead to division in a world seeking justice for all.

The fact that different people perceive, understand, and experience injustice differently renders this type of ideological primacy problematic, especially if the goal of intersectional social justice is to acknowledge, highlight, and address a whole range of interrelated injustices stemming from the same source.

It might very well be true from a pragmatic, utilitarian viewpoint that curing one injustice first (e.g.racism) could better enable one to more easily cure another (sexism) than if one had initially targeted a different one (speciesism), but thus far I have no real way of knowing (and I suspect Adams doesn’t either) which injustice should be tackled first, nor have I been presented with a convincing argument which definitively shows me why one injustice should take precedence over another.

It’s probably true that ending speciesism would grant women greater control over their own bodies, and it’s also true that allowing women control over their own bodies would likely grant non-human animals greater control over theirs, but I cannot say definitively say whether women’s rights or animal rights should take precedent over the other since they are inextricably linked.

The only thing I can attempt to do is argue why it might be practically advantageous to focus more of one’s time and energy engaging in a different strategy for fighting what is an interrelated and shared goal – i.e. ending all injustice.

To be clear, I adamantly reject the idea that there is one grand social evil which underlies all others, whether that evil is labelled patriarchy, capitalism, racism, sexism, or speciesism, simply because power is not relegated to a single domain, nor does power remain static.

Even in a raceless, classless, sexless, and otherwise equal society there would still be attempts by the strong to dominate the weak. This is because there will always be those who seek what feminist theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza describes as “power over” (hierarchical power) and those who seek “power for” (liberating power).

Moreover, in laying claim to a single theoretical framework, one necessarily limits one’s ability to understand reality, and therefore to understand how power functions within that reality, because the lens one is using is necessarily narrow and limited by the bounds of one’s chosen ideology (capitalism, feminism, racism, etc.) Simply put, if your only tool for fighting injustice is a hammer, every injustice will tend to look like a nail.

This, after all, is what leads some well-meaning feminists to wrongly conclude that the “gender wage gap” exists – not because there is evidence for it, but because it is in keeping with the ideology one wishes to map onto a perceived reality. By mistaking correlation for causation, the nail of patriarchy is therefore proclaimed to exist where an alternative socio-economic analysis might reveal that the problem is not a nail, but a screw which requires an entirely different tool to fix.

Furthermore, I completely reject the elevating and subordinating of social justice issues because the whole idea is self-refuting. By  treating other issues and movements as a means to an end, it necessitates injustice in the pursuit of justice. By presenting other social justice issues as inferior issues which merely accompany and help shed light on the “real” overarching issue, it destroys its credibility by becoming tyrannical and fascistic.

One cannot ethically justify elevating one issue over another just because one happens to belong to a certain oppressed group, because one’s life is less impacted by other issues, or because one has a stronger investment in a particular movement any more than one can ethically justify elevating the status of men above women because one happens to be a man whose life is impacted more directly by male issues.

This, after all, is the type of justification which racists, bigots, and imperialists have used throughout history against others who were different or were considered “lesser,” and who always cited some version of “the greater good” in the process of silencing, killing, or subjugating others.

Simply put, we cannot fight justice by being unjust, and we cannot fight hierarchical systems of domination by creating hierarchies of domination. When we do this, we become participants in a long history of oppression and support the very thing we are fighting against. To this end, we would be wise to heed the words of Dr. King when he claimed,“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Vegan activist Gary Yourofsky argues that speciesism is the root of all evil; Carol J. Adams argues patriarchy is the root of all evil; Marx argued that capitalism was the root of all evil. But the truth is that an evil tree has many roots, and if you only cut one at a time, it will keep growing back.



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