You Say ‘Set Aside Differences,’ I Hear ‘Ignore People’

One phrase that seems to be flying around a great deal in rhetoric these days: ‘set aside differences.’ Ah yes. Come together to solve a common problem, working together as a united force on a greater cause, something more important than petty squabbles; whether people are ‘reaching across the aisle’ in Congress to address a national issue or ‘setting aside differences’ on a ‘feminist’ campaign for wage equality, the important thing is that everyone stop fighting and come together for one moment.

The implication in this phrasing, of course, is that ‘differences’ are bad and undesirable, and that they are the root of arguments and disagreements that shouldn’t be taken seriously, yet somehow manage to snarl everything up because everyone is too selfish to focus on uniting to face a common cause. In feminist and social justice rhetoric, I find the phrase particularly repugnant, because it speaks, to my mind, to everything that should be antithetical to these movements; these should be movements that embrace difference, that celebrate it, that actively incorporate it into united campaigns, because difference matters.

I understand it’s become trendy in some circles to sneer at the word ‘intersectionality,’ but this is the word that was developed to talk about these very issues, and thus, that’s the word I’m going to use. Intersectionality is the acknowledgement that different people lead different lives, that all lives are of equal value, and that all these experiences must be considered and incorporated and discussed within the context of social movements. It is not a divisive concept, but rather a uniting one, reaching across (oh yes) to allow people to unite in search of common goals that also reflect and incorporate their own experiences.

In a simplistic example of intersectionality at work, look at the fight for wage equality. It’s indisputable that there’s a significant pay gap in the US, and the mainstream face of the feminist movement has focused on the gendered lines of this pay gap, looking at the fact that women (overall) make less than men (overall). Yet, an intersectional analysis of the pay gap reveals deeper problems that must also be examined, namely that there are significant racial gaps as well, as well as gaps in terms of immigration status. age, and disability status.

These must be incorporated into any true fight for equal wages. It’s not enough to get women and men making equal pay on average, because this elides the racial gaps, doesn’t address the pay gaps between documented immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and those born citizens. It also doesn’t touch upon high unemployment statistics and low pay for disabled workers, ageist discrimination in pay, and, of course, the frequent demands that women of all races and ability levels work for free.

Thus, ‘setting aside differences,’ in this context, would actually defeat the very fight people are trying to win. If ‘everyone’ comes together and focuses merely on eradicating the gender-based wage gap, it leaves out numerous people who would continue to suffer under unequal and unfair pay. It’s critical, therefore, to acknowledge and incorporate difference from the ground up, because difference matters, and difference is important, and difference plays a key role in how people interact with structural inequality and the systems that promote it.

In fact, by clearly indicating that this is a fight for everyone—as in everyone-everyone, not just middle class white women—the movement will make itself stronger and more accessible. It will gain more recruits interested in participating in a push for wage equality. It will end up with a much more cohesive show of power, and will be more likely to develop an effective strategy for victory. Because when differences are not pushed aside, and are actively incorporated instead of just tolerated, they become part of the strategy, and that makes the strategy stronger.

These social movements frequently fall into the ‘we are all one’ trap, which works in a way similar to ‘colourblindness’ as a concept, suggesting that the very real differences between human beings can be ignored in the face of a ‘common cause,’ without acknowledging that a common cause is a complex matter, and that not all causes are of equal importance to all people. This trap serves to alienate those who might otherwise be attracted to a movement, who might work within it, who might be enthusiastic about lending their skills and experiences to it, and thus, everyone loses.

People shouldn’t be told that they need to ‘set aside their differences’ and serve the goals of other people; instead, people should figure out how to make causes truly common. Hint: this is not accomplished by erasing the diversity and complexity of a cause. If you want to look, for example, at health care disparities, don’t just ask yourself why there are differences between men and women in the health care system. Look at the differences between rich and poor, disabled and nondisabled, white and nonwhite. Look at the differences between people with different immigration status, at the differences between people with varied social statuses. At the intersections of these differences lies the heart of the problem, and its solution.

It is troubling to see the very concept of intersectionality set aside both obliquely in the form of ‘set aside differences’ rhetoric and directly in the form of aggressive campaigns against it from people who seem to hate the very concept. This would seem to suggest that these people think they have something to lose in the face of intersectionality; that, perhaps, their social campaigning is focused on advancement for them and people like them, but not on true social equality. For, surely, if uniting on a cause was the true goal, one would want everyone affected by the cause to be on board, yes?