Let’s say I was to tell you that oppressors have a special technique for when they want to oppress people but don’t want to do all the work themselves, and it’s that they sow discord between people and pit them against each other. Maybe then you would say that this is news to exactly no one, it’s called divide and conquer, and it’s also the plot to pretty much every epic sci fi young adult movie or book series ever. Thanks a lot for the social studies lesson, Katniss Everdeen/Tris Prior/Padme Amidala!
Point well taken. But then I would say, how is it that this technique works so well, given that everybody knows about it? The fact that we tend to walk into this trap despite being perfectly aware of its existence is a pretty good indicator of its power and thus our need to understand it better. The argument I’m going to be putting forth here is that one reason we’ve had a hard time with this is that we don’t have exactly the right terminology for talking about it. So my goal with this post (and a series of others I plan to follow it) is to propose a new term, explain why I think it’s necessary, and then use it to talk about some of the mechanisms of divide and conquer as a tool of oppression.
The inspiration for the term I am proposing is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. I would suggest that one of the most socially significant interventions Crenshaw made when she started publishing on the subject in the late 1980s was actually the creation of that term itself. Her specific legal analysis was certainly groundbreaking. Crenshaw’s argument that people who suffer multiple vectors of discrimination cannot be protected adequately from that discrimination by juridical practices that insist on treating those vectors individually has resulted in real changes to the legal code. She has made other important theoretical contributions as well, but in terms of mainstream understanding of intersectionality, a lot of the basic ideas people associate with that concept are also part of a black feminist history that predates her work:
The notion that the oppression of black women is not simply the sum of oppressions against black men and white women was explored by Frances Beal in her 1970 essay “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” The idea that people with multiple vectors of oppression are better situated to fight for freedom for everyone is the basic gist of Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 statement that “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” The recognition that the term “woman” sometimes only gets to mean white women is a central theme of Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. And if any one essay sums up the central themes of intersectionality as understood in popular cultural today (without using the word, which had not yet been coined), it’s probably the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 “A Black Feminist Statement.”
But it’s with the term intersectionality that these ideas have spread today, far beyond the audience the Combahee River Collective had in the 1970s. And I maintain that it’s because there’s something special about the word itself. Namely, that it does not demand a single interpretive vantage-point for understanding its power dynamics. We can use it to describe a top-down force, as in the formulation “intersectional oppression.” But we can also use it to describe bottom-up resistance to that force, as in the phrase “intersectional solidarity.” It can be used to describe macro-level systemic structures, as well as individual identity and experience. The “inter-” of the term suggests an in-betweenness and so grants a flexibility that allows us to see the relevant issues from all kinds of angles. This is the rhetorical power of that concept.
Terms like “racism” and “sexism” are similarly flexible, and have been rhetorically useful for similar reasons. When a white man, for instance, seeks to distance himself from racism and sexism by claiming he has nothing personally against women or people of color, it can be useful to counter with discussions of institutionalized racism and sexism. Conversely, when he seeks personal distance from sexism and racism by arguing that those forces are entirely systemic, it can be useful to talk about how they benefit him on an individual level. To address systems of power we need flexible vocabulary that acknowledges macro and micro are not separate planes of existence, but matters of perspective and scale—that individuals operate within social systems, and those systems are made up of individuals.
The existing terms we have for talking about divide-and-conquer as a technique of oppression, meanwhile, are typically either entirely top-down (kyriarchy, matrix of domination, interlocking or intersectional oppression) or, more rarely, bottom-up (Oppression Olympics). This isn’t to say that people haven’t been able to use these words in more flexible ways, but rather that the words themselves resist those uses.
The term I propose, with the intent to mitigate these rhetorical problems, is interfactionality, which I define as conflict between subordinated groups within a system of interlocking oppressions, sown by that system as a way to subvert potential resistance to it into maintenance of it. Here I’m consciously borrowing Crenshaw’s rhetorical strategy of coining a term whose built-in in-betweenness allows us to pivot back and forth between the top-down and the bottom-up, the micro and the macro. In the following series of blog posts, I intend to demonstrate the usefulness of this term by using it to analyze the social mechanics of divide and conquer as a tool of intersectional oppression.
Other posts in this series: