Sunday, August 28, 2011

Epistemic High Ground

The following was posted as a comment on The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, entitled, "Can Men Discuss Sexism?"

It is within the bounds of productive discourse to try to sway people towards certain kinds of testimony or evidence. It is not an intolerable act of silencing to put forward the claim that we should listen to scientists over lay people when discussing quantum physics. And I do think that members of minorities are in a better position to comment on these topics than those from the majority.

I don't doubt that many members of minorities react emotionally to things specifically affecting their communities, but this does not destroy their epistemic high ground, for multiple reasons. Firstly, such a critique downplays the way emotional responses can compromise the thinking of the privileged, and paints them as the objective determiners of truth. In examining my own responses to critiques of my privilege and the vitriol that tends to come from both sides in a debate like this, it's hard to resist the conclusion that both sides are emotionally invested, and on the grounds of your own argument, compromised. The privileged really are emotionally invested in downplaying the importance of their privilege. I'd rather live in a world where my professional accomplishments were solely attributable to my own talent and drive, not the ways in which the system is designed to promote people like me at the expense of those not like me, and there's definitely an emotional impetus to maintain that fiction.

Secondly, your critique glosses over the ways in which emotional response can actually be helpful in determining truth. I think that this is particularly true in matters of social justice. Emotional responses are typically how we determine what order of magnitude an injustice is on, and I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. The problem is that otherwise natural feelings of empathy can be tainted by the action of privilege. It's just a fact that many who do not see the effects of, say, gang violence on a daily basis can easily emotionally distance themselves from that fact because it's happening to people who aren't like them. A full emotional understanding of how this injustice affects real people isn't a cognitive defect, it helps us accurately assess just how important such an issue is.

And there's the obvious epistemic advantage: hands-on experience. While it can often be tainted by confirmation bias and the standard pitfalls of reasoning from anecdotal evidence, ceteris parabus the person who is being done an injustice will likely know more about it than the person who in unaffiliated with the situation. Go to the source.

So, if we are a member of a privileged group participating in a discussion on oppression, what does this mean for us? I don't think it means that we have nothing productive to contribute to the conversation. But it does mean that we need to have the intellectual humility to defer to the experts, particularly on the bare facts of the matter. You might find it inconceivable that the respectful and helpful police officers that you've lived around all your life behave brutally toward your black friends. But you have to realize that you're not really in position to know how the police treat people of color, if you're not a person of color yourself. It's not simply related to elements of fact, though, but on understanding why certain reactions that may seem odd can be valid. Emotional responses of women feeling threatened by certain actions may look completely irrational to you, but you should acknowledge that you were not born into a world in which society saddled a good deal of responsibility to deter your own sexual assault.

This is not to say that assertion of epistemic high ground is valid in all cases. It really is possible to shut someone out who has something constructive to add to a discussion, and I think the above feminist blogger is guilty of this.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why does everyone insist that social evolution ceased circa 1950?

In the comments section on a post concerning Norway's consciously gender-neutral schooling, Jaybird has this to say:

Here is my problem with the phrase “social construct”.

It tends to be used as if social constructs are things that can be casually shrugged off, as if they were hobbies that were likely to be grown out of.

It seems to me far more likely that social constructs evolve over time because they are *USEFUL* for society and societies with less useful social constructs don’t keep up if, in fact, they don’t die out.

Which is not to say that Social Constructs are how God wants us to act… but the attitude that such-and-such is just a social construct seems to dismiss a *LOT* of things that evolved over time. Certainly when the underlying attitude seems to be akin to “God wants us to cast off our Social Constructs!”

My response:

Useful for whom?

Useful for when?

I submit that the more egalitarian gender ethos that has come to characterize modern western society is not exogenous to the natural evolution of gender roles that produced the previous dichotomy, but a production of the same process, though modified by a few factors. The first is the moral improvement of mankind that stopped taking the benefit of the male sex as the only barometer of social weal. The second is economic advance that simply made keeping half of the population in menial labor infeasible.

In brief, why is this change not part of that natural evolution?

I have never been a huge fan of the arument Jaybird announces here- why should we assume that the social evolution is necessarily beneficent? I'm sure some social structures really did evolve because they were the best solution to certain social problems, but their mere existence does not prove this fact. Social structures arise as a result of a complicated interaction of individual actions motivated by incentives, ideology, and psychology. It seems entirely plausible to me that certain structures evolved because it was in the interest of one class- in other words, in order to preserve privilege, as seems to be the case with the gender construction in question. Or that social structures could evolve out of mere ignorance- as the stigma against homosexuality seems to have been created by. Social structures are only produced by the diffuse actions of individuals, after all, and fallible individuals do not become perfect by the force of collective action and historical laws.

But even eliding the clear deficiencies of this argument, it fails on its own merits, at least as applied to this situation. If the previous dispensation was created by social evolution teleologically designed for our benefit, why is the coming one a malignant interloper? In short, why is it that every change that has happened before in gender roles is a historically-guided change for the good, but today's change lies outside that process?

Why did social evolution cease in 1950?