A Problem With Studying One’s Own Oppression (updated)


Joseph Heath (Toronto) describes an obstacle to inquiry:

The problem is that, when you’re studying your own oppression, and you’re obviously a member of the oppressed group in question, people who are basically sympathetic to your situation, but who disagree with your specific claims, are going to be extremely hesitant to challenge you, because they don’t want to appear unsympathetic. Even a lot of people who are actually unsympathetic will say nothing, because they still don’t want to appear unsympathetic. So you are only going to hear from two types of people – those who are sympathetic but want to take a more radical stance, and those who we might label, for convenience, “jerks,” which is to say, people who are both unsympathetic and who are, for one reason or another, immune to any consideration of what others think of them.

He thinks this is a fairly common problem with “‘me’ studies,” and leads to a distorted view of the intellectual landscape, in which disagreement with one’s view is associated with a moral failing.

I don’t know how many talks I’ve been to where the question period goes this way. Someone presents a view that a solid majority of people in the room think is totally wrong-headed. But no one is willing to say things like: “I don’t think that what you are saying makes any sense” or “you have no evidence to support this contention” or “the policies you are promoting are excessively self-serving.” The questions that will be asked come in only two flavours: “I’m concerned that your analysis is unable to sustain a truly emancipatory social praxis” (i.e. “I don’t think you’re left-wing enough”), or else “you people are always whingeing about your problems” (i.e. “I’m a huge, insensitive jerk”).

Then of course, out in the hallway after the talk, people say what they really thought of the presentation – at this point, a whole bunch of entirely reasonable criticisms will get made, points that probably would have been really helpful to the presenter had they been communicated… So basically, practitioners of “me” studies suffer from a huge handicap, when it comes to improving the quality of their work, which is that only people who are extremists of one sort or another are willing to give them honest feedback.

…Since the only people willing to speak up on the right-hand side, so to speak, of the presenter are people who have views that are morally offensive to the presenter, it can easily lead to the perception that anyone who disagrees with you is, for that very reason, morally suspect. In other words, over time the “me” studies practitioner notices a strong correlation between “people who disagree with me” and “people who have moral views that I find reprehensible.” As a result, it is easy to lose sight of the possibility of reasonable disagreement – in particular, the possibility that people might broadly speaking share your moral convictions, and yet disagree with you about what should be done about them, or what justice requires in terms of redress, or even just about some entirely empirical or pragmatic question.

You can read the whole thing at In Due Course.

UPDATE (6/4/15): Audrey Yap (Victoria) responds to Heath here.

UPDATE (6/5/15): Part two of Yap’s reply to Heath has been posted. She writes:

My suggestion is to treat issues of oppression like we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics. My training is in philosophy of mathematics, and not every issue raised in that field requires specialized mathematical knowledge. But there are many debates about mathematical practice that require, if not a math background, at least some familiarity with the practice itself. This means that not every philosopher is well-positioned to have an important contribution to, for instance, the question period at a philosophy of math talk. And this does exclude many people from participation in these discussions, even people who would likely be able to make valuable contributions. But because they do not have the background knowledge, they will frequently refrain from participating so as not to appear uninformed or unintelligent. The situation in many fields that study oppression can be seen as parallel.

And, on disagreement:

It is important for those who study oppression to consider dissenting views. But those who study oppression know that there are already dissenting views in their field. There are substantive disagreements in philosophy of gender, philosophy of race, philosophy of disability (etc) just as there are in any philosophical field. So to say that the only form of disagreement entertained is either the entirely unsympathetic kind, or the kind that would like the views to be even more extreme, seems to neglect what actually goes on in those parts of philosophy. Of course, views that question the very possibility of the field don’t generally get included as part of its canon, but faulting that would be like blaming metaphysicians for not embracing the logical empiricists.

UPDATE (6/5/15): Professor Heath replies here.

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