Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand turned on her virtue signal and attempted to change into her party’s progressive express lane as she prepared to launch a presidential bid. “Our future is: Female Intersectional Powered by our belief in one another,” she tweeted. “And we’re just getting started.”
Our future is:
Powered by our belief in one another.
And we’re just getting started.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 5, 2018
While I enjoyed watching her swerve like a teenager with a learner’s permit, I felt a little chill when I realized that, should our future ever become intersectional, people like me will wind up roadkill. That’s because I have a condition called nonverbal learning disability (NLD). I’m not exactly neurotypical. And intersectional ideology has no room for neurodiversity, despite its frequent and noisy claims of inclusivity.
I was only diagnosed with NLD this past year, after nearly two decades living with a different diagnosis. I’d always known I wasn’t neurotypical. Growing up with a “Jeopardy!” contestant’s memory but a kindergartener’s math skills taught me that early on. (An aside: The condition has been tentatively renamed visual-spatial learning disability, as of this past October, but I’m using “NLD” in this article because of the term’s familiarity.)
My NLD diagnosis has been a revelation. All of a sudden, those personality quirks I saw as mental weaknesses and moral failings, weren’t. Those quirks found explanation in the way my head’s hardwired. I’m coming to realize that my successes and failures are part of a bigger and more complex story that’s part nature, part nurture, and part neuroscience. I’m happy to say I’m getting a better appreciation for Ralph Ellison’s dictum in “Invisible Man”: when I know who I am, I’ll be free.
The diagnosis has also made me realize something else: If the future of American society is as intersectional, as Gillibrand and plenty of others on the left say it is, I’m screwed like a shop project. That’s because intersectionality, despite all its talk of inclusion and acceptance, excludes people with my particular brand of neurodiversity. People like me will find it hard to leverage political power, or even function, in an intersectional society.
What NLD Is, And What It Is To Me
People with nonverbal learning disabilities tend to struggle with understanding social cues and social interactions. Their physical coordination may not be very good. Reading comprehension, situational comprehension, mathematical concepts, and organization are all difficult. People with NLD struggle to pick up on nonverbal cues.
They also struggle to adapt to anything new, different, or unexpected. Agility is not my strong suit. Growing up, I felt a weird moral sympathy with the Spartans at Thermopylae, or Stonewall Jackson at First Manassas.
My diagnosis might be recent, but I’ve known since childhood I struggle with all of the above. Going through adolescence with NLD was hardly a delightful experience. It was like bobbing for apples in a piranha-infested Amazonian tributary.
My NLD meant I was naturally bad at all the things that make you a successful adolescent. Are you good at sports? No, there’s that lack of physical coordination. Can you navigate the gossip-laden popularity contest that is middle school? No, social cues aren’t your thing, either. How about organizing all those new subjects you’re taking in seventh grade, along with your busy social life? Hahahaha nope. This is not to say I gave up on any of these activities. It is to say I understood that the things that make people socially successful were things I couldn’t easily do.
Scott Bezsylko, head of the NLD-focused Winston Preparatory School, sums up NLD well when he says it complicates “all the stuff that involves understanding information—relationships, concepts, ideas, patterns.” To put it in psychological terms, people with NLD struggle to understand the gestalt, or overall gist, of a situation. To put it in terms of another g-word, I don’t grok things very well, whether it’s an equation, or an interpersonal relationship.
How This Plays Out in Real Life
Depressingly hilarious case in point: A girl once asked for my phone number after roughly 30 minutes of dropping hints. Paralyzed by the terrifying novelty of the situation (high school was a Mojave-esque dry spell), I stammered that I rarely used my phone, and wandered away in a horrified daze. I only realized her hints were hints in retrospect, after reviewing our interactions with the clinical detachment of a CSI.
It was like the dating equivalent of when Wile E. Coyote realizes he’s on the receiving end of his own Rube Goldberg contraption. Crushed once more by the acme anvil of loneliness, I realized that my difficulty was in how I’d processed (or failed to process) her words. I’d heard the individual words, but hadn’t grasped their gestalt.
What does this tragic hilarity have to do with intersectionality? Intersectionality is all about grasping gestalt. It’s about understanding who’s the most oppressed in a given situation, and how that oppressed person’s oppressed identities fit together. So if you’re no good at grasping the gestalt, you’re going to be as out of place in an intersectional society as I was in middle school.
First, though, what is intersectionality? Broadly speaking, it’s the idea that who you are is the product of “intersecting” identities. To quote Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term, “Identity isn’t simply a self-contained unit, it is a relationship between people in history, people in communities, people in institutions.”
Note that telling adverb “simply” in Crenshaw’s statement. The “you” of intersectionality isn’t understood primarily as a thinking, individual person. The “you” that matters is the intersection of your multiple identities as, say, a black woman, and a lesbian, and a college graduate. How else would someone know how to rank you in the oppression Olympics? That, of course, is intersectionality’s greater purpose: ranking those intersecting identities on a spectrum of privilege. The more “oppressed” identities you possess, the lower your privilege, and the higher up on the winner’s podium you go.
It’s All about Enforcing a Specific Social Hierarchy
If you doubt that intersectionality creates this sort of petty aristocracy, consider that it’s already happened. Multiple academics are on record as only letting white, male students speak after everyone else has. Stephanie McKellop at Penn State did, among others, then bragged about it on social media. She was supported by other academics, like Jessie Daniels of Hunter College. They call it “inclusive pedagogy,” though the skills you need to practice it favor the neurotypical.
That’s because the skills required to engage in this “inclusive,” intersectional pedagogy are the ability to sort and organize. These activities necessarily involve the same “understanding of information” that Bezsylko notes are tough for people with NLD. For someone like me, who has trouble grasping gestalt, that sort of ranking is inaccessible. I’m simply not hardwired to do it. I don’t say this to praise McKellop’s grossly unethical practices, just to point out that someone with my hardwiring struggles to do what intersectionality demands, much as I struggled to navigate seventh grade.
Like intersectional pedagogy, an intersectional world would ask me to constantly sort the identities of whomever I’m speaking to. Moreover, I’d be asked to constantly make way for a proliferation of new identities, like the 57 types of gender recognized by Facebook. Social interactions (already difficult for me) would entail something even more difficult — shuffling intersecting identities like a human algorithm, then deciding what deference I owe them. The fact that I believe deference should be dependent on the conduct of someone’s character, not the color of his or her skin, is oddly secondary to all this.
The Lived Experience of Intersectionality
But I might be getting ahead of myself. Maybe the activities that make one a good intersectionalist are accessible to NLD me. Maybe the ideology’s practice is more ethical than its formulation, like when Scientologists help out with flood relief.
To answer that, I did a bit of digging, and found a helpful page through the Boston YWCA, titled, “What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me?” Lucky for me, that page has a section titled “What can I do,” so I can know whether or not my “work towards social equity is intersectional.” It even includes a list of five ways to do so.
1) “Recognize difference.”
Okay, seems easy. He’s a guy, she’s a gal. Done. Haha jk, it’s not that easy. I’m advised to “not shy away from recognizing that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers.”
To do this, though, you’ve got to be good at knowing what those overlapping identity markers are, and where they intersect. You’ve got to be able to grasp however many hyphenated identities someone has, and how they fit together. And to do that, you need to be good with gestalt. Before you even address someone in proper intersectional fashion, you’ve got to process information in a fashion alien to my mind. My brand of neurodiversity is disenfranchised before I begin.
2) “Avoid oversimplified language.”
Once I recognize difference (which will come as naturally to me as a math test), I can move on to changing my language. Specifically, I should “move away from language that defines people by a singular identity.” The YWCA suggests, for instance, that I avoid “assuming that all women have vaginas.” Thinking like this gave us elegant new terms like “front hole.”
Remember that people with NLD struggle with adapting to anything new and unexpected. I’m no different. And in a society where people are forever fabricating new, oppressed identities, someone like me won’t be able to keep up. In the same way a student with literary or artistic talent might be out of place in a STEM high school, I could be forever out of place among the new system of oppressed identities.
3) “Analyze the space you occupy.”
As a good intersectionalist, I’d also need to know “when difference is not represented in the spaces I occupy.” I’m told that “diversity of all kinds matter in your workplace, your activism, your community spaces, and more.” Workplace, activism, community spaces. What’s missing? Privacy. My mind, the space where I spend the vast majority of my time.
Because interpreting social cues is so difficult for me, I cherish my privacy. Perhaps in tandem with my NLD, I’m pretty introverted. I do my best work and thinking alone. The first time I read Andrew Marvell’s line that “society is all but rude, to this delicious solitude,” that was a gestalt I could grasp. Yet, the activities one does to be a good intersectionalist are all social. It’s another way intersectionality would make someone with my style of cognitive processing a second-class citizen.
4 “Seek other points of view.”
To see an intersectionalist write this reminds me of that famous apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” Look at any group or college campus that touts its intersectionality, and you will see them practicing hate and exclusion. Whether it’s banning speakers, assaulting their opponents, or even being blitheringly unaware of how exclusivist their ideology is, intersectionality has, so far, demonstrated only a selective willingness to listen.
At this point, the most powerful intersectional voices are doing their best impressions of the pigs from “Animal Farm.” Given how they treat other points of view that threaten their shaky logic, I doubt that I — someone whose neurological makeup threatens the framework of their ideology — would be wise to share my point of view in person.
5) “Show up.”
See number 3. I’m not an extravert or a joiner. An ideology that equates virtue with social involvement naturally excludes someone like me, whose lived experience has been principally solitary. What strikes me here is how much less tolerant intersectionality is, than, say, the worst of medieval Catholicism. Even the Spanish Inquisition acknowledged the need for hermits and monks.
And I’m Just Getting Started
None of this is intended as an embrace of victimhood. I just want to point out that an inclusion-first ideology like intersectionality is exclusive by nature. Participating in intersectionality requires activities that are easy for the neurotypical, but difficult for me, and people like me. Those who benefit most from intersectionality will be neurotypical.
This is intended to say that if our future is intersectional, people with neurotypes like mine will be second-class citizens. We’ll be constitutionally unable to do the basic things that would make us “good,” or favored, members of society. Navigating society will require us to treat our disabilities as more of an impediment than they are now. A politics that requires a certain kind of cognitive activity is an exclusivist politics by nature.
Who will benefit most from intersectionality? The people who will be best able to react to new identities, and sort those new identities. Note that this skill set doesn’t necessarily track with the “oppressed” minorities intersectionality says it will help.
No, the people who will be good at navigating an intersectional society are natural bureaucrats, organizers, and extraverts. The ideal intersectional leader will be, essentially, the popular kid who’s active in student government, organizes his binder well, and knows how to manipulate, and exclude, people. The intersectional Patrick Henry is Regina George from “Mean Girls.” In place of “Give me liberty or give me death,” you’ll have, “You can’t sit with us.”
Maybe I’m coming at this all wrong. Maybe this is an opportunity for discourse. Maybe by communicating my fears and concerns with members of the intersectional coalition, I can help them understand the weaknesses inherent to their ideology. Maybe I’m a just a loner who could stand to embrace community a little bit more.
Maybe, by voicing my concerns to the intersectional coalition, they’ll realize that sympathy is a beautiful, unifying force. Maybe they’ll realize that human interaction is infinitely malleable, as spontaneous in its beauty as the weaving and unweaving of clouds, ultimately irreducible to any attempt to sort people on a sliding spectrum of privilege. Maybe by expressing these ideas, in person, I’ll create a bridge between the intersectionalists who implicitly view my disability as a liability, and my own lived experience of pain and exclusion.
As a white male, though, I’ll have to wait awhile, and let everyone else talk first.