Friday, August 10, 2018

"as a"

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times dissecting the “as a” locution, in which one first announces one’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or class position before making an argument during a public discussion.  He interprets it as a claim to represent the entire group defined in the preparatory clause, and explains why this claim is invalid; better you should begin with “speaking for myself”.  But I disagree with his interpretation of what “as a” means; I think it communicates speaking from rather than speaking for.

From my experience, “as a” is an acknowledgment that one’s view of the world is limited by one’s background and identity.  It’s a way to anticipate the criticism that what is being said is not universal or “true” in some objective but unattainable sense.  Of course, that limitation can be valorized in different ways.  If an oppressed identity is being invoked—or even better, an intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities—the partiality of perspective is even a strength, because it brings to the fore experiences and ideas that have historically been marginalized.  By the same token, if one is speaking “as a” member of a dominant identity, the limitations are pernicious because they reinforce what has been unfairly imposed over the same long duration.

From an epistemological perspective, the immediate problem is that the “as a” formulation conflates two different consequences of the speaker being positioned in the world rather than above or outside it.  One has to do with differences of experience, the other with proclivity to believe.

As a white man, I have had a host of experiences that people who are not male or white would not have had, and vice versa.  This is important.  It’s a reason to pay more attention to those whose experiences are different from ours.  But, as Appiah would be quick to point out, each individual has a unique set of experiences, even of those aspects of life that are structured by racial, gender or other norms.  As an analogy, consider two children growing up in the same family: same parents, same house, same sequence of family events.  As most of us have learned directly or from others, it’s possible, even likely, that different children experience these “same” things in radically different ways, to the point they can barely agree on the essential facts.  Were the parents permissive or controlling?  Fair or playing favorites?  Did they get along with each other or carry on running warfare?  One kid may say one thing, a sibling something else.  And so it is with our entire course through life: experience does not come out mass produced from the identity factory, each a perfect replica of the others.

Moreover, experience can both inform and mislead.  Or to put it differently, our subjective encounter with the world can be a valuable source of information or a source of error.  The analogy here is to the value of autobiography compared to biography: which is a “truer” account of a person’s life?  There is no general answer.  If I write my own story, I have access to observations and feelings no one else can possibly know about, except if they hear it from me.  That’s a big plus.  On the other hand, I am, as we all are, prone to misperception and misjudgment, thinking one thing happened when the reality was different.  An external biographer would be able to tell me many things about myself I could learn from.  (A good friend plays this same role.)  The larger point is that the set of experiences referenced by the “as a” prefix is not in any general sense validating or invalidating.  These experiences are real and ought to be reflected on, but not used in a mechanical way to add or subtract credence from what the speaker is saying.

The second function is belief, as captured by theories of ideology.  (I’ve written about this before here.)  One’s position in the world, and the interests one has because of it, affect the likelihood of believing ideas that are related to those interests.  (“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  Upton Sinclair)  Prefacing a remark with “as a” can be a useful signal to listeners, and even oneself, to pay close attention to potential biases.  “As a white male from an upper middle class background, I’ve always thought that society was basically fair, and the best people were the ones who got ahead.”  Signal recorded.  But it is crucial to remember that ideology is about belief, not truth.  You can be deeply biased but also right.  Thus whether ideological factors matter depends on what the question is.  If we are interested in the truth value of alternative analyses—of texts, events, judgments—it doesn’t matter at all if particular arguments reveal biases.  If we are interested in why some ideas are widely held and others aren’t, we ignore ideology at our peril.

I’ll close by being honest.  I’m a teacher.  When I hear a student preface a remark with “as a”, I initially cringe.  Most of the time this reflects a mechanistic worldview in which one’s place in a few sweeping social categories determines experience which then determines truth content.  I feel like stopping everything and spending an hour, a week, a year on epistemology.  But sometimes there are exceptions, where “as a” is absolutely appropriate and illuminating.


Bruce Wilder said...

When people think they are speaking of their own experience "as a" [fill in the blank intersections] we can hope they are speaking genuinely from their own experience, but the categorical labels suggest two other less sanguine possibilities:

1.) They may be speaking to and about a constructed contrast between their own experience and the imagined life experience of a social identity that they do not share.

It is a natural rhetorical impulse to look for some contrast and to exaggerate the contrast. When the speaker does not actually know the context or content of her chosen foil, things can spin sadly out of control.

2.) The abstract and constructive nature of speaking from a frame that admits categories of "identity" that do not have an organic social and cultural foundation. Asian-American or Hispanic-American are not "real": they are political catch-all's that subsume not closely related, actual cultures that are informed by a rich cultural experience and instead abstract commonalities and a history of grievance made artificial by the abstraction.

Peter Dorman said...

Regarding your #2, Bruce, the most interesting example is "people of color". I realize that those who invoke it usually recognize, when they think about it, that it is essentially a tactical alliance of many disparate groups united for the purpose of gaining useful leverage. Its artificiality tends to be forgotten in practice, however, and "as a person of color" is among the most commonly heard self-identifiers.