Epistemic Privilege and Political Correctness

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Laurence Thomas has a thoughtful post on one particular assumption in the mindset often associated with what sometimes is called political correctness [note: the post might not load up; if not, then just click in the URL line at the top of your browser and hit the Enter key manually to reload]. This assumption underlies the claim that men have no right to comment on abortion and that white people can have no insight into racial issues. Now I understand the view that people who experience something will have special insight into that experience that others will not have. There are things men just don't understand about what it's like to be a woman, and thus there are insights into womanhood that men will not appreciate as well as women can. There are things about being gay in mainstream American culture that a straight person will not understand. Even though I'm married to a black woman, I will never quite understand what it's like to grow up black in the U.S. That's something that black people can know in a way that I never could. Philosophers call this being epistemically privileged. (For non-philosophers, 'epistemic' just means relating to knowledge.) I have no problem with the thesis that those who have certain experiences are epistemically privileged in exactly the sort of way that this general mindset says is true of people who are gay, Asian American, female, etc.

Now what Laurence questions is not this thesis itself but its use in certain political contexts. For instance, some act as if only women can comment on abortion because men don't have access to what women alone can know from their unique experience. It would then be immoral for white people to comment on racial issues because of their not having experienced any form of racism against them. Laurence particularly wonders why it's mostly experiences of suffering that give this special kind of insight, when it seems that suffering can just as easily blind someone to the truth. For example, people who are seriously abused as children sometimes end up thinking they are worthless people who are to blame for their abuser's actions. He also suggests that political correctness is often just an attempt to get people to cower through accusations of racism, misogyny, heterosexism, or some other crime of thought, and its result is to perpetuate a lack of trust on both sides of the accusation. I think he's pretty much right on his diagnosis of many cases of political correctness (which isn't to say that it's right about all charges of racism, just the p.c. ones).

But there are a few other things going on that I'd like to reflect on for a little bit. Some of this derives from my comment on his post, and some of it is further thought on the issue.

One thing always strikes me as odd about the position he's critiquing. If different perspectives bring knowledge in ways that others cannot see, then don't we have to pay heed to the perspective based on the kinds of experiences distinctive of being male, white, heterosexual, etc.? There would seem to be things that white people, for instance, know from experience that someone without the experiences of a white person would not know. Even if you restrict it to suffering, there are distinctive ways that men suffer. On the feminist principle that men and women are equal in the workplace and in the home, isn't it wrongful suffering imposed on men if they're expected to be the breadwinner for a family? Yet feminists think only of the suffering of women and not this kind of societal structure that on their premise should count as anti-male as much as it counts as anti-female. Similarly, while it's true that men tend to get the highest-paying jobs, it's also true that men tend to get the lowest-paying jobs and the jobs with the worst conditions (e.g. garbage collection, coal mining). Sexual inequality in society is not just anti-woman. This isn't to minimize any ways women are disadvantaged. But isn't it also true that social structures, sometimes the same social structures, might disadvantage men in ways that their experience is distinctive and brings some epistemic privilege of its own? So where are the cries for listening to men's experiences on such matters, as if women can understand what it's like to be expected to pay on every date and to do all the initiating in romantic matters?

So even if you insist that only those who suffer for being what they are can be epistemically privileged, it seems to me that majority or otherwise dominant groups who in some sense have the reigns of society can experience this. Those who consider themselves Christians, for instance, clearly have the reigns of power in the U.S. right now, at least more than any other group. I do think the secularists in both major political parties have Christians on the leash in some ways, but the major positions tend to be filled by people who at least take the name 'Christian'. Yet Christians, at least those who are faithful to biblical teaching, quite often do experience something that might accurately be called a kind of persecution. Christians get made fun of in the academy, for instance, something I know firsthand. So the picture just seems to be much more complex than is allowed by the view that a white, Christian man is perpetually epistemically challenged on every issue. This is true even if suffering for being in the group you're in is a requirement for having true understanding about such issues, because this is special insight from someone who is suffering to some degree. I think Christians (and perhaps theists more generally) on university campuses have much more insight into the power relations on certain issues. I'd say the same thing about conservatives in most liberal arts departments.

But I don't think the premise is correct. I don't think suffering is the only kind of experience that can provide genuine insight, even insight that no one else can have without having that kind of experience. There are kinds of racism that white people can understand that some black people tend not to see. One is the assumption that white people are racists. Someone from the culture of accusation that gets perpetuated by blacks and whites alike will not see these accusations as troubling. They won't see the level of trust that white people would otherwise be more likely to have that perpetual accusation undermines. They don't understand the kind of trust that some white people want to find in the black community, and it frustrates people of genuinely good will when their efforts don't get taken for what they are but are simply labeled racism. Even if everything a white person does is somewhat influenced by racist structures in society that have informed the conceptual system of a white person, that isn't the same thing as being motivated by racist desires or attitudes, and calling someone a racist usually means the latter.

Though there is racism in our society, the racial narratives of oppression assume racism is responsible for everything, and that hides attempts of good will and good faith, even if those attempts of good will and good faith can sometimes (or even often?) be tied up with other elements that make such attempts much less than ideal. In this case, might not a white person of genuinely good will have more insight into the reality of their own motivations, simply because those who follow the narrative of universal bad faith on the part of whites have less understanding of the particular motivations of this particular white person? This might be so even if there are other ways, perhaps even more important ways, that white people are blinded to racial truths. I think it's fair to call such a racial narrative a kind of racism, a black anti-white racism. It's nowhere near as pernicious (given the historical facts) as white anti-black racism, but it's no less real and no less racism simply because it's less harmful. It's also not just anti-white, since the wellbeing of blacks is just as damaged by the narrative of excluding the oppressor. But I think it's accurate to call it anti-white.

I don't think those are the only kinds of insights white people can have. The general argument relies on white people not being able to understand the experience of racism. That's simply not true, even if we just restrict ourselves to white anti-black racism. I might understand the same kind of racism (albeit in different ways) not beause it's been directed against me but because my great aunt demonstrated it regularly and I found it disgusting. In such a situation, I'm understanding what it's like to be part of a family with a white, anti-black, anti-Asian racist. Isn't that a kind of insight into a social reality that is unique to certain kinds of people? White people who hear what white people say behind closed doors have much more insight into what drives the racist mindset that black people who speculate about what racist structures there are in society by pointing to which things happen to be difficult for black people. A whole kind of academic work on these issues is less likely to get things right if white people's perspectives are ignored, even if it's true that non-white people's perspectives are paramount.

But I think it's even false to say that white people can't ever experience anti-black racism. I know that because I've experienced it myself in small amounts, and I've had the expectation that it could come in more obvious and explicit ways. Often when we're in stores, people assume Sam and I are not together. One of us will go through the line, and the cashier will be looking for where the division between our stuff is. This isn't deliberate racism, but it's part of a racist structure in society that causes people to assume that a white man and a black woman next to each other in line are not together, barring some sign to the contrary, e.g. holding hands. Even in our case, when our kids are with her, and they look much closer to my skin tone than hers, some have assumed I'm not with her. This assumption isn't always obvious, and I don't know if most people would even notice it when it's not obvious, but it's there. This is a kind of anti-black racism that a white person can experience.

Also, most people of most races never have the fear of hearing from a parent that they shouldn't marry the person they've chosen to marry on the ground that any children who would result would face an identity crisis. My parents did not make this claim when they first found out about Sam. But many white parents do upon hearing the suggestion that one of their children would marry interracially. This is a kind of racism, in some cases a mask of real racism (i.e. the person is a racist but is hiding it and giving another justification for opposing the marriage) and in others a result of racist structures that are purely involuntary and with no ill will (i.e. the person is not a racist but has heard this worry expressed and is putting it forward without thinking about the false assumptions behind it and the bad consequences of such a view). This is again a kind of anti-black racism that a white person can experience.

This leaves aside the much less frequent kind of racism that could crop up, such as talk of jungle fever, the assumption that something is wrong with me for being attracted to someone who is black, being called a race traitor, or discrimination against my family because it is a mixed race family (which could come from blacks or whites, and in either case it would be both anti-white and anti-black). Now I'll acknowledge that there are many ways of experiencing anti-black racism that I will never fully experience, but isn't that true of anyone who hasn't personally experienced every form of anti-black racism that there is? My wife hasn't experienced all the kinds of racism that her slave ancestors did. She's lacking in epistemic insight on those matters. Is someone's legitimacy in commenting on race matters purely dependent on the extent to which that person has experienced the most varieties of racism?

I'm not prepared to work out how this all fits together in any detail, and it's a long enough post that I don't want to extend this kind of point to things I haven't considered in this post, but I hope my point is clear enough. The kind of view that Laurence is taking issue with is, at best, extremely oversimplified. The kinds of social dynamics that affect epistemic privilege are much more complex than those who commonly rely on the notion would tend to admit, even apart from the question of how much someone can know without having had the relevant experiences (but I'll refer you to Laurence for more on that).

Update 12/22/07: I've been thinking about this post in relation to potentially writing a paper on this subject at some point, and I noticed a lot of unclarities, unhelpful ways of saying things, and uncarefulness in how I put things. I've made a few adjustments, none of which seem to me to count as changing the content significantly, but I thought I'd note it here so as to avoid any sense of historical revisionism, given that this post is from a while back and still has its initial date.

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Jeremy Pierce on political correctness at Parableman. Required reading before hand I guess would be this post by Laurence Thomas at morealhealth.com on which Jeremy is commenting (and recommending).... Read More

Morning Highlights from Pseudo-Polymath on May 15, 2006 11:06 AM

Good morning, perhaps a little late but better than … never? John Mark Reynolds on the Church and change at Middlebrow. Jeremy Pierce on political correctness at Parableman. Required reading before hand I guess would be this post by Laurence Tho... Read More


While unique experiences can give insight, they don't have to and I would argue in most cases they don't, since in most cases real insight is never sought, but rather truncated at the emotional response level.

For me this all goes back to rebellion against God and sin. It has created a world in which everyone at some point acts like Adam, blaming Eve. Rather than gaining espis... insight he reacted emotionally and cast blame. Political correctness, at least to me, institutionalizes that blame cycle.

It is often the outsider who sees most clearly, otherwise coaches would not exist and managers on teams would be players.

Yes, sometimes being there and experiencing the events is significant, but usually only about the event, not the larger element of which it is part, since that usually stems from the composition fallacy.

This whole political correctness argument taken to its conclusion would mean we have no right to comment on God or even worse, no right to comment on sin and sinners (maybe, if we are wallowing in the same sin...). It removes all possibility of external accountability and give Satan free reign It appears to me to be a successful attempt by our enemy to create justification for almost anything.

In the end the few, the happy few, who really do use that epis... insight to gain real understanding, getting past the emotional reaction, will end up facing God and arriving at decision time. In the end, His purposes cannot be thwarted and he will call whom he will call and the rest have made their choices.

Grace and peace and I pray all of your epis... insights take you to greater insight (see Philippians 4:9-11) and a closer walk with your Lord and Savior.

I had a comment all typed up, and my browser closed the windown due to a false double-click when I'd only intended to close another window.

I'll just refer you to my posts on Normative Whiteness and Racial Narratives. People in the mainstrem are often blind to thinks that people out of the mainstream experience, and that's all that's needed for epistemic privilege.

Wow....You used to have trouble with word limits in essays I'll bet ;)

On the abortion issue, ultimately the claim is that it is about women's bodies, and so men shouldn't be able to say anything. In this case it has missed the important question entirely (is the unborn a human being worthy of protection) and worse still, the effect of this priveledge is to leave to decision to those who have the most to gain by giving no right to life to the unborn.

It is much like saying that only slave owners can comment on whether it is ok to own slaves.
(Horrible generalisations, but i am in a hurry sorry)

If fetuses have no moral status, then the most primary question is about who is most affected by it. I think the better pro-choice arguments try to argue first that a fetus has no moral status and then on the basis of a negative answer will argue that the fact that it's the woman's body is the primary moral issue. I'd resist the first sort of argument. I'm not sure it even follows (given no moral status for a fetus) that the woman's body is the only issue, but it may turn out to be the most important issue.

I have seen a different argument, that men have no business talking about abortion, not because it doesn't affect them but because men don't know what it's like to be pregnant or to face the difficult decision women contemplating abortion have to face. It's not the most common argument among those who use the older categories of NOW-style feminists, and those were the arguments until the 80s when feminist ethics came on the scene. From then on, some of the most prominent feminist arguments on abortion were more perspectival and had to do with women's experiences and women's ways of knowing.

I think the general topic is an interesting one. It is one I've heard about a few times from fiction writers. What fiction writers stress (at least in the discussions I heard or read) was the critical importance of imagination. I think we often fail to consider how important imagination is to the way we think and understand things.

Perhaps one can make the case that we ONLY understand things, even those things we have experienced directly, via imagination (assuming that we can count recollection as one form of imagination). For instance, if someone experiences a surgical procedure under general anesthesia, she will be unable to understand, describe relate or remember what happened during that time since it is not available as a memory, unless she is given a full enough picture from other persons to allow her to imagine the experience.

Certainly lots of things, partcularly conversations, affect out ability to imagine particualr things well or badly.

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