Saturday, November 5, 2016

Taking a Stand on Standpoint

This continues my process of thinking out loud about identity politics; previous posts looked at privilege and microaggression.  The common theme so far has been the erasure of distinctions that serve a valuable social function.  In a way, that is the message today, although the distinctions at risk are far less subtle.

Standpoint theory is based on the premise that the authority—the credibility and effectiveness—of arguments put forward in a social context depend on the identity of the speaker and the priors implicit in the dominant social discourse.  A speaker who has a marginalized identity and whose perspective is at odds with the “ruling” priors will be discounted, “not heard”, unless the right of this person to be heard is successfully fought for.  The realm of social discourse is defined by such conflicts between suppression and resistance.

A useful perspective on standpoint theory is that it is a contemporary elaboration of the theory of ideology initially promulgated by Marx.  For Marx, the relevant identities were classes defined by their relationship to the means of production, such that class position predisposes a person to thinking about the world in one way or another.  The dominant class in a given social formation would be in a position to “universalize” their particular perspective; class struggle would therefore extend to the realm of ideas as well as actions as dominated classes attempted to “think for themselves”, moving from the plane of an sich to für sich.  In the twentieth century the theory opened out: it no longer depended on a particular analysis of social class, nor even on the primacy of such classes.  Any differentiated social position, such as one’s national background, religion, subculture, age, etc., could be the basis for ideological proclivities.  This wider conception of ideology begins to appear in Karl Mannheim and his program for a sociology of knowledge.  What standpoint theory does, to a large extent, is place the emphasis on a particular set of social differentiations (race, gender and sexuality primarily) and on the interpersonal level of speaking and hearing.

But a giant problem arises from failing to recognize what all this theory is about.  The theory of ideology was never properly about what is true about the world; it is a theory of belief, not truth.  In his better moments, Marx recognized the validity of any particular analysis of the economic order depended on objective criteria—logical consistency and the weight of empirical evidence.  The utility of a theory of ideology is to help us understand why societies typically labor under dominant ideas that are of questionable validity.  To point out the function of ideology is to liberate thought from the presumption that, if a particular argument is widely believed, it should be granted some corresponding measure of respect.  That’s obviously useful for a radical thinker like Marx or, I hope, me and you.

There was a form of vulgar Marxism that failed to recognize this distinction.  It regarded ideological status as equivalent to truth status, or more crudely, claimed that there are no objective criteria for assessing truth claims, only the interests of different classes.  If an argument could be shown to be consistent with proletarian ideology, it was “wrong” from a bourgeois point of view and vice versa.  There was no higher court of appeals.  This horrible philosophy, which gave us show trials and Lysenkoism, eventually fell into disrepute.  Its error is not in claiming that there ideologies, which there clearly are, but in construing the theory of ideology as extending to validity and not just the empirical question of who tends to believe what.

The fundamental problem with standpoint theory as a successor to the classical theory of ideology is that, like vulgar Marxism, it denies the possibility of objective criteria for assessing validity.  There is only the social arena of speaking and hearing and no reflective realm in which logical coherence and empirical support can be applied to assessing validity.  But wait!  I hear a voice say, “Of course there’s no reflective realm; that’s just your privilege speaking.  All realms are social and governed by the authority, contested or otherwise, of dominant identities.”  That’s an argument against the distinction between belief and validity, that there is no validity apart from the beliefs of those who claim to weigh it.  My response is this is exactly the error that deservedly sank vulgar Marxism.  Ideology, or standpoints, certainly cloud the process of assessing validity, but they do not require us to conflate validity and social authority.

On a practical level, it’s entirely justified for someone to stand up and say, “You’re not listening to me because you have not questioned a social framework in which my perspectives are ignored or even made unthinkable according to your unexamined assumptions.”  There really is a struggle to be waged to expand the range of views that are heard and taken seriously, and to call into question assumptions based on the experiences and interests of those who are socially dominant.  What is not justified is for the speaker to claim that being heard has anything in particular to do with being right.  We are all fallible and often fail even to identify and express our own interior thoughts and emotions, much less claims about the external world.

There is a second problem with standpoint theory that also reflects past problems in vulgar Marxism.  In the bad old days of the Third International, the theory of ideology was applied at the individual level: an author or political or cultural figure would be assigned an ideological label, and that was that.  Having been exposed as a purveyor of bourgeois ideology, there was nothing that could be said in your defense.  This primitive philosophy was rejected because its inherent reductionism became laughable when it wasn’t tragic.  Ideological factors exist and can be examined, but human beings are not reducible to them.

To be precise, there are two aspects of ideological “non-reduction”.  First, as an empirical proposition, the theory of ideology points to different distributions of belief.  If you plotted probability density functions on various dimensions of belief, different social groups (such as classes) would have different functions, but they would overlap substantially.  The second is that belief systems are not independent, separate components of human subjective life or behavior (including political participation and cultural creation).  There are many influences on who we are and how we act, many of which we scarcely understand, and the role played by a given ideological element can vary enormously from one person to the next or even one social situation to the next.  The field of mutual influence within a person is vastly greater than the field of ideological influences.  It’s important to recognize that neither shortcoming of reductionism is removed by pivoting from single to multiple ideological spectra, i.e. intersectionality.

The problem of reductionism haunts the rhetoric of “voices”.  Individuals are at risk of being reduced to the ideology or standpoint associated deterministically with their identity, and the content of their speech to this component.  To point this out is not to argue against affirmatively reaching out to include underrepresented groups.  Distributions of beliefs and perceptions really do exist, empirically, and these elements really do contribute to the content of what people say.  But we are never simply instantiations of an identity (as implied by the locution “speaking as a....”), and our personal voices may be anywhere across the distribution of views associated with our “category”.

To sum up, standpoint theory is a contemporary elaboration of the classical theory of ideology.  It shifts the emphasis to culturally defined differences, and it offers a more elaborate understanding of social process.  But it falls back on problems that appeared long ago in the guise of vulgar Marxism: the failure to distinguish between a theory of belief (or social authority) and a theory of validity, and a reductionist exclusion of the many aspects of belief and action that cannot be explained by this particular theory.

UPDATE: Epistemological confusion becomes legal liability in a Virginia courtroom.  Rolling Stone was found guilty of having deliberately published defamatory claims against a UVA associate dean; the article accused her of covering up a campus rape.  RS’s problem was that it relied entirely on a single source, the presumed rape victim, without doing the additional research to confirm her story.  As it turned out, a modicum of investigation would have shown the story to be false.

Pay attention to the mea culpa issued by the magazine:
In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again.
In a nutshell, they confused the claim of an individual from a victimized group to be heard with the empirical validity of her claim.  It was not only acceptable, it was right for RS to aggressively pursue this lead, but the objective criteria of validity still apply.  If you don’t think there’s any such thing as objective validity, try out that argument in court.

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