Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Problems with Perspectivism

Totally out of it old white straight male that I am, I have to figure out my relationship to perspectivism.  This doctrine, which many of my students fervently believe in, holds that one’s understanding of the world is determ ined largely by identity.  I see the world as, well, an old white straight male, and therefore I am incapable of understanding the experience of those who are marginalized for not being old, white, straight or male.  I should just shut up and listen.

First of all, the advice about shutting up and listening is pretty good most of the time.  I should follow it more than I do.

As for the doctrine itself, while possessing a kernel of insight, I think it rests on three interrelated misconceptions.  I would think that, wouldn’t I?  Anyway, here they are:

1. Assumptions about between-group versus within-group variation in perception.  To the extent that each of us has various blind spots, an important question is what are their sources and how important are they?  Assume for the moment that the main claim of perspectivism is true: one’s identity does delimit what one can understand.  One could then say, yes, but how consequential is this?  After all, there is a lot of variation in the ability to understand at the individual level.  Some people work hard at it and others just suck in the stereotypes of the moment.  Within any given group there will be a range of openness to and capacity for understanding others.  So the question arises, how important are identity-based differences in understanding versus individual ones?  If most of the variation is at the identity group level, then we are justified in making sweeping generalizations and looking for solutions primarily by addressing group-related factors.  But it may also be possible that group level factors play a minor role relative to differences across people within groups, in which case our time is better spent dealing with barriers that show up in individual thinking and behavior.  From a purely speculative point of view I could see it going either way: this is an empirical question!  But where is the empirical evidence?  My first criticism of perspectivism is that it simply assumes its own premises, when their validity depends on the facts and may differ in different contexts.

2. Assumptions about internal versus external perspectives.  What is knowledge about the circumstances of human life, and who is in a position to acquire it?  Some knowledge is purely subjective: how something feels or what something means to the individual who experiences it.  Other knowledge has more of an objective character, such as the social processes that cause events to occur or influence how people feel or make sense of them.  There is something to be said for both: surely there are aspects of subjective experience that can’t be fully communicated to someone who hasn’t had the experience.  In a society in which non-whites experience racism and whites don’t, there is a core set of experiences that non-white people, and only non-white people, have access to.  At the same time, sometimes we are too close to an experience or event to understand what causes it or what alternatives to it are possible: an outsider, less captive to the moment, may have a better vantage point.  This is well known at the level of individual emotion: no one really knows how I feel but me, but I need friends and sometimes relative strangers (like therapists) who can look at me from the outside and see things I can’t.  The same kind of problem arises in anthropology.  People in a local culture understand themselves in ways the anthropologist is likely to misunderstand (and therefore need to speak for themselves), but the foreign scholar who lives in their midst for a year or two can tell them some things about their culture they could scarcely have imagined on their own.  Both perspectives are not only valid, but necessary.  What perspectivism seems to say, however, is that only the first is valid, while the second is counterfeit and even an instrument of oppression.

3. A theory of belief versus a theory of truth.  Perspectivism is very close to the classical theory of ideology.  Marx’s view was that one’s class position strongly influences how one interprets the social world, and in recent decades we’ve come to understand that it’s not just about class.  Ideological processes can be seen in any division or stratification of society—in gender, nationality, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, anything.  Contra the claim in the previous paragraph, there is no true “outside” perspective, since all of us are inside some social position or set of experiences.  To put it another way, there are relative outside vantage points but no absolute outside position.  It’s all impure.

But ideology is a theory of belief, not truth.  It’s a theory of why a person in a given social circumstance is more likely to believe one thing rather than another, not what belief is more likely to be true.  The criteria for truth have never changed, and they never will: it’s all about reasoning and evidence.  (These criteria have been refined over the centuries, but they can still be summed up as reasoning and evidence.)  As an old white straight male I am more likely to believe some things than others because of my social position, but that has no bearing on whether what I believe is more or less justified.  Or it might in a statistical sense, but you won’t know it aside from the criteria derived from reasoning and evidence whose validity is separate from and above all ideological divisions.

Yes, I realize some peope have ideologies that cause them to reject what I’ve just proposed as unarguable criteria for validity.  No, I can’t argue with them, because my arguments are based on reasoning and evidence, so they only work with people who accept these criteria.  Most perspectivists, I suspect, are unwilling to go that far—but then they have to distinguish between factors that influence the likelihood of belief, which absolutely include the identities they center on, and those that govern the likelihood of truth, which don’t.

As an old white straight male I believe lots of stuff because of my relationship to the world around me.  Whether that brings me closer to or further from a valid understanding, or both in various respects, can be determined only by applying the criteria for validity that are the same whatever identities you are slotted into.


Sandwichman said...

Yes, one’s understanding of the world is determined largely by identity. And also one's identity is determined largely by one's understanding of the world.

One simply has to decide whether one is the chicken or the egg.

Wallfly said...

A humanist position would be to say that identity is tool for augmenting our own humanity and therefore ultimately transcending identity.

Thornton Hall said...

When Walter Cronkite spends decades signing off "And that's the way it is", there's gonna be a backlash.

Objective media is like DARE: obvious lies described as both true and good for you. The result is kids who give up on the idea of true information.