Black ’12: Dismissing, defended

Guest Columnist

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

  • hmmm

    I think the issues you attacked need to be looked at a bit more in depth…

    You’re example with LSD was a convincing one because it’s quite obvious in that case that the experience which produced those visions was illusory and, thus, the visions themselves were not reflective of reality. There’s an implicit logical step there, which is so obvious that it’s just taken for granted. But, the fact than an opinion was generated due to a privileged status, doesn’t strike me as something that would necessarily discredit the idea. An idea should be discredited if it is false, or reflects a false sense of reality (in the realm of morality we call that injustice). Who says that a “privileged” status always generates a false appraisal of the reality? Maybe the “underprivileged” status generates the false sense of reality? In fact, I think one could easily argue that in a position of privilege, one’s opinion is likely to be more objective and more accurate, because he is lacking the physical constraints and personal bias of the underprivileged relevant to the topic at hand (obviously one could say that he stands to gain by retaining his privileged status and this corrupts his opinion, but the same could equally be said for an underprivileged person just trying to remedy his own situation). It seems to me, rather, that the relationship of status to an opinion does not clearly indicate a falsity and that either this relationship first must be addressed explicitly or that the idea should be evaluated on its own merit, independent of the source.

    Your second point was that it will not harm their motivation because if they really want to help it should be coming from a place of sympathy, and if its truly coming from that place their being dismissed will not affect desire to help. I think that rarely, if ever, a person’s interest and help is completely selfless. Being systematically shut of participation in a particular realm, does not only fail to train one to be more sympathetic, but can take a previously helpful person (even if the help was only slightly tainted by a hint of self-interest) and turn convince him that his efforts are fruitless and unwanted. I think you minimize the contributions that could be made people who might be helpful, but who were doing so, let’s say, only 80% out of true sympathy and 20% due to ulterior motives.

    Moreover, to expect such a high standard of sympathy would remove all but the underprivileged themselves from the discussion. Certainly then, a degree of selfishness would be present, if the not the dominating the factor in the discussions. While this may be helpful for remedying the position of the underpriveaged I’m not certain that it’s necessarily the most just course of action. I guess this really depends on whether one is after justice or simply a sweeping attempt to help the poor—which, while at first glance may be noble, I don’t think its always the right course of action, both for the broader population and also the underprivileged.

    Your last point seems to conflate a privileged opinion with an opinion coming from a privileged opinion. Sometimes one may dismiss an opinion as being privileged—that is attack the speaker— specifically because they have no other retort. This would be akin
    to mudslinging, lets say, and doesn’t seem to me win the argument by any means. (I’m not sure if this is what you addressed in the beginning about there being very few “misfires of privilege detection—were you saying that this conflation is nearly always correct? If so, I find that hard to believe but could concede given proper evidence.)

    eager to hear your thoughts…

  • beige

    Have you ever had applied colonoscopy?

  • EastAsianNationalist

    Sounds like moralist, and ergo illogical reasoning.

    None of those reasons are grounds enough to dismiss, or devalue the person’s opinion. The excuse that “the oppressive structure made you say it” is just that, an excuse. It has no bearing on whether or not what was said is logical. In your example, it is clear that Larry is the winner of the debate, until Sanika gives a rebuttal. Sympathy and justice are irrelevant in the face of truth and reason. Your over reliance on “social justice” speaks bias on your part.

  • Justice Gaines

    Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out what Sanika and Larry’s discussion proves, but on to your actual points.

    First, you state that by pointing out one’s privilege you nullify their argument because it comes from a bad source, i.e. their privilege. This assumed that any one with privilege cannot have valid opinions regarding social justice related to that privilege. It assumes that the person is unaware of their privilege and has not encountered other types of oppression before. Dismissing an opinion because we believe that it resulted from privileged background does not actually make that opinion void, especially to the person who said it to begin with.

    This brings me to your next point. You say “It is unlikely privileged people would support social justice if their opinions hadn’t been dismissed.” I find this utterly false and disturbing. Many privileged people that are advocates for social justices have seen injustice firsthand or have been educated on the topic. This doesn’t mean that their opinions had to be dismissed for them to become advocates. Furthermore, dismissing someone’s opinion before hearing their reasoning or explanation is deeply off-putting in any situation. Humans do not like to be shut down because, for the most part, they have an opinion because they believe in it. When you deny their belief without evidence or thought, it would discourage them from continuing the conversation. They did not share their thoughts to have them be completely dismissed without any more justification than, “You’re privileged, you can’t say that.” Just as those with privilege cannot completely understand the struggle of the oppressed, the oppressed cannot assume the experience of the privileged.

    Likewise, you assume that dismissing one’s opinion as privilege allows them to see their privilege and grants them to start empathizing with the oppressed. Unfortunately, not everywhere who becomes or is aware of their privilege understand that it means others are oppressed in that regard. They may not understand the detriment it has on others in society, or honestly, they may not care. Being dismissive provides an aggressive stance that only alienates them further from the oppressed party. It would force them into a defensive or withdrawn attitude that will not allow them to truly understand the other side of the argument.

    In all of these ways, a dismissive attitude is antithetical to social justice. It shuts down the communication that is MOST vital to overcoming injustices we face. That is, communication between the oppressed and those who (often unintentionally) oppress them. This response proves Carty’s point more than it provides evidence against it, as it is dismissive of a very valid opinion simply because it is from one with a privileged background. Well, my background is not all privilege, and I think social justice can only be achieved if we stop dismissing opinions and start understanding them. Then, we can change them.

  • what?

    Your article make no sense. Stop trying to sound intelligent.