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.