On liberal bullying

The Guardian recently re-posted a column by Ariel Stallings (originally published in Offbeat Empire), under the title “Online bullying – a new and ugly sport for liberal commenters“. It’s a quite interesting read, and deals with a concern that I can relate to – namely another variant of an ad hominem dismissal of someone’s arguments, in this case on the grounds of their race, gender, privilege and so forth. But as with all difficult topics, and perhaps especially the emotive ones, it’s all to easy to read this piece as confirming whatever bias you started out with.

It would be a mistake to interpret Stallings as providing you with an excuse to dismiss criticisms based on secondary factors like privilege. As I’ve argued in a more lengthy piece on this topic (which pre-dates reading the Stallings piece), we can separate the epistemic issues from the political ones. With regard to the epistemic virtue of dismissing arguments about (for example) race and related oppression when those arguments are presented by a middle-class white male such as myself, it seems straightforward that it would be ludicrous to think my arguments false of necessity. Then, it would perhaps simply be uncharitable to think my arguments more likely to be false than those of someone who experiences oppression based on race.

Because ideally, we’d always judge arguments on their merits and nothing more. But because of limited time (and other elements of bounded rationality), the heuristics of assuming that group x has some authoritative view on topic y are attractive, and seem to easily take hold. And they almost certainly have merit – at least in the limited application of giving you a reason to think that (on average) a middle-class white male has less chance of understanding the context of a person oppressed on racial grounds.

Of course, you might want to counter by saying that there’s no reason to think that oppression brings objectivity with it, which is one of the points made in this Jeremy Stangroom post. This is where the political, rather than the epistemological, takes centre-stage: those of us who speak from positions of whatever privilege should be cognisant of the fact that – no matter the strength of our arguments – we’ll easily be interpreted as speaking from that position (in other words, be biased by that position), and that this might be one of the factors that results in miscommunication.

Sure, you can argue that it’s an unfair hurdle to jump over in order to be heard. But communication is full of these annoyances, and we don’t do it any favours by simply donning our superhero-logician outfits and insisting that the rest of the world sees things just as we do. Perhaps we’d like them to, and perhaps they even should. But it’s unlikely that you’ll successfully convince someone of that when you sound just like either a stereotype they hold dear, or a sort of person they are justifiably antipathetic to.

And most importantly: the fact that it’s always fallacious to dismiss your argument simply because of who you are does not mean that your argument isn’t fallacious via who you are – because who you are would be a product of education, circumstance, privilege, race, and so forth. Sometimes – even perhaps frequently – we can become blinded to various ways in which we see the world in a partisan fashion. When someone reminds you of that, take the reminder seriously. Because it might well be true.

On a different note, if you’ve perhaps not heard the sad news of Greta Christina’s endometrial cancer diagnosis, go and read what she has to say. And if you’re willing and able to help, she has a few suggestions there as to how you can do so.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.