In Kevin Carty’s ’15 recent column (“Identity politics is counter-productive,” Feb. 7), he argues that dismissing a person’s opinion as the product of privilege is detrimental. His argument consists of three claims. First, dismissing the opinion doesn’t win the argument. Second, it discourages allies from supporting the cause. Finally, it is antithetical to social justice.
None of this is true.
Note that almost all dismissals are of opinions that actually do come from a place of privilege. Members of oppressed groups are better at spotting privilege than the privileged are, so dismissal is good evidence that the opinion was privileged to begin with. As I argued in the past (“Isms and an epistemic dilemma,” Nov. 13, 2011), misfires of privilege detection are rare.
Carty’s first claim is that dismissal doesn’t win arguments. As he has it, dismissing someone won’t change his or her mind, and that’s how arguments are won. This standard is too high — I can provide a mathematical proof of something, but this isn’t going to convince the Time Cube guy.
Still, I’ve won the argument. Someone wins an argument when he presents enough evidence to justify his claim, whether the other person listens to reason or not.
For example, Sanika claims that women never deserve to be raped. Larry claims that some women wear provocative clothes, so they’re asking for it. Sanika dismisses Larry, saying, “You just believe that because you are privileged.” Larry seems to have presented a piece of evidence for his claim, so he wins the argument.
However, what Sanika’s done is to show that Larry’s claim is not evidence at all. Sanika’s evidence is the only evidence, so she wins. If somebody says he saw a pink elephant on Spring Weekend, we can dismiss his claim by pointing out that he was on LSD. His experience was not evidence at all.
When we say, “You just believe that because you’re privileged,” we’re saying that the belief came from a bad source — the oppressive structure that led to it. Thus, your evidence has been pulled out from under you. Philosophers call this phenomenon an “undercutting defeater.” Visit David Christensen, professor of philosophy, and Joshua Schechter, associate professor of philosophy, to learn more.
Larry probably won’t give up his opinion, even though he should. We’ll return to this shortly.
For now, consider Carty’s second criticism: Dismissing opinions discourages would-be supporters and sends the message that they are not welcome in the conversation. It is unlikely privileged people would support social justice if their opinions hadn’t been dismissed. Recognizing the worth of social justice goals requires recognizing our current society as unjust. For those not suffering oppression — or those not motivated to end their own oppression — getting motivated towards these goals requires sympathy for the oppressed.
If a person recognizes societal injustice, dismissing his opinion cannot harm his motivation. Real sympathy is not so fragile as that. This is especially true if people know the facts about how privilege influences opinion. For people who don’t know about societal injustice, a dismissal is a good lead-in to a first lesson.
This discussion allows us to address a point running through Carty’s column. Even if dismissal doesn’t turn away supporters, it doesn’t help get them. By itself, dismissal doesn’t inform, inculcate sympathy or remove bad ideas from public discourse. Surely, these should be among our goals. In this way, dismissal might be counter-productive.
We cannot abstain from problem solving until enough information is laid out so any passer-by can understand what the problem is, why it deserves solving and why certain comments are unhelpful. Moreover, information on social justice is widely available and disseminated by activists. There is a time for forging ahead and a time for educating beginners. We should not demand that these be done simultaneously.
Furthermore, inculcating sympathy in someone is a long and difficult project. It cannot be done over the space of a Facebook post or single conversation. It is absurd to expect a person to set aside righteous indignation to teach another about sympathy every time an occasion presents itself.
Carty’s final point is that dismissal is antithetical to social justice ideals. We want people to be seen as individuals, not as members of groups. But when we dismiss someone’s opinion, we are treating him or her as a group member. As Carty writes, “It is not reflective of the countless differences and nuances that reside within each one of us.”
Here, Carty misunderstands the nature of an opinion coming from privilege. When someone offers one, it reflects no difference, contains no nuance — the privileged opinion is the one we’ve been hearing all our lives. An opinion inherited from an oppressive social structure isn’t one’s own in the same way that a desire developed through brainwashing isn’t one’s own.
This example illustrates the power of the dismissal. When a person offers a privileged opinion, he or she is not acting as an autonomous individual but as an agent of this social structure. “You just believe that because…” is an occasion to reflect, realize this fact and become one’s own person.
David Black ’12 appreciates the occasion for some applied epistemology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.