Mapping the margins

Sometimes I think that my interest in the margins is – well – marginal. But recently I’ve appreciated how it can shape the world we live in.

Christopher Wylie is the person who, aged 27, came up with the idea that led to Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU referendum and later was heavily involved in digital operations for the Trump campaign.

In an interview in The Observer last week (18th March) Wylie recounts the time in 2013 when he met Steve Bannon. Bannon was editor-in-chief of Breitbart News at the time, which he had brought out to Britain to support Nigel Farage in his bid to take Britain out of the European Union. Wylie (who is gay) described Bannon as ‘the only straight man I’ve talked to about intersectional feminist theory…’

‘Intersectionality’ was a term first coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 (Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics). In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and being a woman independently, but must include the interactions which frequently reinforce each other.

In this analysis, for example, women are not all a homogeneous category sharing the same life experiences: the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual women will be significantly different to those of black, poor, gay or disabled women. It is only when the intersection between these different factors are taken into account together that it is really possible to see how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalised in society.

Wylie says that Steve Bannon immediately saw its relevance of intersectional feminist theory ‘to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.’ I assume (though the article does not fully spell this out) that the implication is that many young, white, conservative men feel oppressed by many different factors (eg poor childhood, low self esteem, low and largely static income, inadequate housing, relative lack of opportunities) which all come together to shape their attitudes and behaviour. It is only when such people feel that it is safe to ‘come out’ as they are, to face those in power, that they will feel secure in voting for someone with what many would see as populist views.

The key, as Wylie says in the article, is to find the ‘inflection point’: the point at which people decide that something they had hitherto seen as unmentionable suddenly becomes desirable and achievable. If politics is dependent on culture, Wylie maintains, then politics is all about changing that culture.

This is nothing new: it is what advertising has sought to do all along. What is new is the extent to which it has used data on a huge scale (via the personality profiles that most of us have filled in at one time or another), and the way it has carefully adjusted messages delivered to different audiences, as defined by those profiles. It is also apparent that Bannon, in helping to orchestrate Trump’s rise to power, focused on the weak, marginal position of many electors – especially white men. What is paradoxical is that a notion – intersectionality – originally developed in a feminist context, has been brought to bear against both women and feminism.

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