Originally published in Daily Maverick
One of the chapters in Bertrand Russell’s “Unpopular Essays” (1950) is “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”. In the essay, Russell criticises the tendency of those who marched with him in support of various social justice issues to not simply stand against oppression, but also to insist that the oppressed are somehow epistemically privileged. They were wiser, more experienced, perhaps even more objective than those who were not oppressed. An uncharitable reading (Russell’s) would be that it’s actually good for you to be oppressed.
We’re doing much the same thing if we glamourise folkways, cultures or traditions. And when it’s an anthropologist or social critic referring to the “other” in these terms, many of us might be quick to criticise, perhaps asserting that the observer is being patronising in her glib summaries, born out of a large knowledge deficit.
But what I think we often miss is that the same mistake can manifest in the opposite sort of way. It manifests when we dismiss somebody else’s opinion because of their perceived privilege – because they haven’t been there, or experienced that (namely, the places and things you have, or those you presume to speak for have). Mostly, we make this mistake when we talk about racism and sexism.
To be clear, it’s not a mistake to think that in a patriarchal society, a woman is more likely to understand oppression than a man is. It’s also not a mistake to think that of a black person in a society such as ours, where the economic classes are strongly correlated with race. But it is a mistake to dismiss somebody’s opinion on oppression – even your oppression – if they’re not black and/or a woman.
In other words, understanding oppression might well be more likely if you’re from an oppressed group, but that’s not the only route to understanding – and nor does it guarantee understanding. After all, why trust the view from the oppressed perspective to be more reliable than the non-oppressed view? Perhaps oppression brings with it such epistemic distortion that you’re less able to understand even your own situation, never mind that of others.
Despite these concerns, one particular sort of dismissal has become commonplace in arguments around oppression, whether on the grounds of race, sex, disability, class or some other version of identity politics. The dismissal works like this: you attempt to shut somebody up by means of a phrase such as “check your privilege”, which is meant to simultaneously destabilise your interlocutors epistemic foundations, as well as to shame them. Either or both of these effects result in a rhetorical victory for you, while making it less likely that she will ever again dare to express the heresy in question.
In arguments which pivot on oppression via sexual identity, this trick is accomplished through using a word like “mansplaining” in place of “explaining”. If the man then accuses you of being blinded by your rage, you could then deploy the word “ableism”, which accuses him of thinking blindness to be something negative. If you’re really lucky, the man in question would be both white and wealthy, in which case his “neoliberal whiteliness” will hopefully shut him up for good.
Please don’t mistake this for a refusal to accept that all of these things can be problems. They can be, and they in fact usually are. When what seemed to be everyone on the Internet was excitedly recommending John Scalzi’s essay “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” I enthusiastically joined in, thinking it a good exposition of the privileges people like me (usually) get to enjoy.
There is nevertheless a vast difference between being blind to privilege of various forms on the one hand, and thinking that privilege makes you wrong (or rather, that absence of privilege makes you right) on the other. Yes, people have different viewpoints, and those viewpoints are always a factor of their class, race, gender and so forth. But if we think it offensive that negative traits are attributed to people because of these secondary characteristics (insert your preferred gender/race stereotype here), why is it not also wrong to attribute positive traits on the grounds of those characteristics?
You can’t be guaranteed to understand a situation better than someone else simply because you think you inhabit that situation. Yes, it is a factor, and it’s a factor which might even contribute to understanding, on average. But it might sometimes blind you to reality through confirmation bias, or through an overly emotive and maybe irrational interpretation. In the meanwhile, someone speaking from a different position might have done sufficient homework, or be sufficiently sensitive, to have a better understanding than you do – even if she’s not a “representative” of the group in question.
In other words, we need to separate the issue of epistemic privilege – where nobody is guaranteed to have any, regardless of your identity – from the issue of politics, and the dangers of things like assuming superiority, or offending others who speak from a set of experiences that you have little or no access to. The latter issue is where an essay like Scalzi’s is right, and where things like “mansplaining” is a legitimate problem.
But it’s also a legitimate problem, and an evasion of your epistemic responsibilities, to refuse to question your own opinions simply because the questions are being raised by a rich, white, heterosexual man. To do so is to take a few external (and often arbitrary) signs as representing the totality of a person and the justification they have for their opinions. It’s a bold claim to make that ‘whiteness’ or ‘maleness’ overrides everything else about a person. In fact, in another world we might call these claims racist or sexist.