The Antinomies of Privilege

There’s a tired old argument that seems to have gained a new lease of life in these less exacting times (bad internet!), which holds that privilege functions as an epistemological barrier when it comes to understanding sexism, racism, inequality, etc; and, conversely, that being part of a group that is in various ways marginalized, oppressed or subordinated confers a sort of epistemological privilege when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of that situation.

Obviously, there is a kernel of truth to this argument, but it is also highly problematic (especially for people committed to the importance of reason, evidence, etc., as mechanisms for assessing truth-claims). Here are some of the things you need to get straight about if you’re tempted to deploy this argument.

1. If you think that one’s lived experience has systematic and predictable epistemic consequences, then you have to accept that this might flow in the opposite direction to the one suggested by the argument above. In other words, it is entirely possible that structural privilege confers epistemological privilege even when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of the situations of the subordinated, marginalized, etc. This is not a particularly counterintuitive thought (indeed, one could argue that it underpins most of our ideas about education). It’s easy enough to find examples of precisely this sort of argument from amongst even those who champion the cause of the underprivileged. So, for example, you’ll find that Marxists bang on about false class consciousness, ideological state apparatuses, hegemonic projects, etc., to explain how the marginalization and powerlessness of the proletariat messes with its head so it can’t see the reality of its true situation.

2. Yes, yes, I know, it’s one thing to know something in principle, but that’s not the same as experiencing it – there’s a sort of knowledge that comes with experience (some might claim). Well, there’s certainly a sort of something that comes with experience, but whether it is knowledge, and what sort of knowledge, is a difficult issue to sort out. Consider, for example: (a) that people disagree about the nature of their experience as members of purportedly marginalized groups (and some get called “gender traitors” for their trouble); (b) that there’s a wealth of data that suggests we’re actually pretty bad at correctly understanding the situations we inhabit (and indeed, even our thoughts about these situations); and (c) that people do not necessarily experience what most us would take to be marginalized situations as being problematic (check out, for example, some of the literature on FGM; or ask yourself whether slaves in the ancient world would have accepted the legitimacy of the institution of slavery).

3. The annoying tendency of (some of) the marginalized and subordinated not to see or experience their own marginalization and subordination in quite the same terms as those of us who are less marginalized and subordinated would have it is a problem of individual differences (i.e., the fact that individuals cannot be reduced to group characteristics). This comes up in a different guise in a row that played out between socialist and radical feminists in the 1970s, and which is still relevant today. In essence, the problem is that it is… implausible to suppose that there is enough that unites all women, or the working class, for example, so that it makes sense to think mere “membership” of these groups means a common identity or interests. So, for example, the idea that the Queen of England has more in common with a working-class woman than does a working-class man, and is consequently better qualified to talk about their shared lived experience as women is… well, problematic, to say the least. (Similarly, one might consider how working-class politics in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by endless rows over pay differentials).

4. There’s an epistemological problem with the argument to epistemological privilege. Specifically, it’s not easy to see that it is possible to substantiate the claim that epistemological privilege necessarily flows from certain kinds of marginalized experience without falling into contradiction. This is because the moment you appeal to evidence, argument, etc., you are operating precisely on the terrain of epistemic equality. The trouble is if you deny that this evidence is generally accessible – if you really are committed to the view that there are certain privileged ways of knowing (and that you can’t know this to be the case unless you’re in a position of privilege) – then your position is simply an article of faith (in fact, it’s disconcertingly similar to the proof of god from religious experience).

5. Finally, there’s a rather subtle point about how you can know that some particular belief you have about your experience as a marginalized person is genuinely flowing from your epistemological privilege, rather than just being a possibly flawed everyday sort of belief. Or, to put this crudely, if you’re committed to the idea of epistemological privilege, it’s hard to see that you can ever be sure you’ve got it. Basically, the problem here is that if epistemological privilege (about certain sorts of things) belongs uniquely to the marginalized, then it seems to be required that the beliefs that are acquired via this privilege are valid even if they do not stand up to scrutiny in the court of universal reason (because if they do have to pass this test, then it seems there’s nothing in principle privileged about the epistemological situation of being marginalized – albeit de facto it might still be true that it’ll be easier to come by particular beliefs that turn out to be true if one is marginalized). However, if the court of universal reason has no jurisdiction here, it’s not clear you can subject your own beliefs to any sort of test. This is because it seems to be the case that even the most minimal of tests – for example, determining whether your beliefs are in accord with your experiences – requires that one makes use of the normal rules of rationality, evidential warrant, etc., all of which would also be available to the court of universal reason.

Okay, that’ll do for now. If you can sort that lot out, then good luck to you, you should carry on using the privilege argument. But the really cool thing here is that if you can’t sort any of it out, no problem, you can just tell yourself that these arguments are themselves a function of privilege. How lovely it must be to have recourse to a hermetically sealed argument that means you get to be right even if you have no idea why you’re right.

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72 Comments.

  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I agree that being oppressed confers no epistemological privilege.

    In general, people are not good judges of who they are or what their lives are about.

    Hence, they go to psychotherapists to make sense of their lives: that is, the psychotherapist often has tools for understanding one’s life better than one does.

    I suspect that a great novelist, for example, Tolstoy, understands the life of a woman, say,
    Anna Karenina, with more perspective, more insight than a hypothetical Anna Karenina would.

    In fact, one of the reasons that one reads novels is precisely to understand one’s own life in the terms that a novelist depicts that of another.

    Those who are credited with best understanding the life of the oppressed often come from privileged backgrounds. Marx was a petit-bourgeois, Engels the child of great wealth and Michel Foucault the son of a prominent doctor.

    Few on the left would claim that Marx, Engels and Foucault lack insight into oppression.

    Now, it is the case that the wealthy and powerful, for many reasons, among them, to
    continue with a clean conscience about the source of their privilege, generally do not pay much attention to the situation of the oppressed and often rationalize oppression and injustice in rather poetic terms, but if they wanted to, they could study situations of oppression and even struggle against them.

  2. It’s all a function of “education” and “nature”.

    On Education;

    The better educated you are, the more privileged or the more informed you are to understand, empathise and pass reasonable, rational comments and maybe, even judgement.

    The less educated you are the converse is true.

    On Nature;

    The “nature” part, I mentioned is that, all of us are born with different capacity (genetically) to learn from experiences, absorb information and to interpret them. Some people do this better than others.

    Privilege – could thus be translated as better education/information, but the interpretation of it, is somethink else I guess.

  3. I was told that I cannot read the bible correctly because I have not had a personal experience of god. This person claimed a privilege of knowing by being a member of a group of knowers, of which I was not a member, therefore my reading of the words choose and kill, within full context, was erroneous.

    I mention this encounter to point out that some instances in which a person claims epistemological privilege might stand upon self delusion.

  4. “(bad internet)”
    Physician, heal thyself. Might I suggest discussing actual feminist epistemologists (among others) who have been working on this problem for over 30 years? Alcoff and Porter edited a volume years ago that serves as a decent introduction.

  5. @Amos – Yeah, I tend to agree with all that.

    @POD – Yes, the point about education is pertinent (as I noted in the original piece).

    @Steven – Yup, there is that equivalence (same with the argument from religious experience).

    @Gramsci – Yeah, that’s an appeal to authority disguised as a suggestion. I’ve read the work of feminist epistemologists, of course (check out, for example, my interview with Miranda Fricker in “New British Philosophy”; or have a look at “Why Truth Matters”, generally), but the idea that one cannot flag up a few of the problems in an argument without conducting a scholarly review of literature is ridiculous (and it’s not the absence of that sort of thing that’s the problem with internet debate).

  6. An extreme example of claimed epistemological privilege can be found in Canada where the First Nations indigenous people maintain that no non First Nations person should ever be accepted as a writer or commentator on First Nations problems.

    The same problem probably exists in South Africa although it may not have been so rigidly codified.

    I personally think this is incorrect. It is possible by observation and empathy to recognized the horrors of human situations without necessarily having experienced them in the first person.

  7. Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

    Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”

    Zhuangzi said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

    Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

  8. Re Amos Dec 30 th. 6.42

    “I agree that being oppressed confers no epistemological privilege.”
    Surely being oppressed must confer ‘ epistemological privilege’ about being oppressed.
    I have never been oppressed I know a lot about it but I have never experienced it. Those who have been oppressed have the advantage of me surely.
    Say I went on and on to you about what a marvellous place Paris is, what you can do, see, and learn. Suddenly it becomes apparent to you that I have never actually been to Paris. Would you not be justified in telling me I do not really KNOW what I am talking about. Granted I may have great knowledge, but I have no experience.
    “In general, people are not good judges of who they are or what their lives are about.”
    I am not sure I agree here. Almost certainly some people are like that, but not in general as you state. I do not know what percentage of the population consult Psychotherapists: is it that many? I imagine that quite possibly the percentage is greater in the privilege than the underprivileged.
    “I suspect that a great novelist, for example, Tolstoy, understands the life of a woman, say,
    Anna Karenina, with more perspective, more insight than a hypothetical Anna Karenina would. “
    I agree, I have met women who have the Karenina syndrome. If I had the ability I could possibly write a novel about one. However If it is epistemological privilege (Whatever that means, if it does not mean what I suggest here) is important I can only write as I see and observe and deduce, It is not possible to write from that woman’s viewpoint. I agree that I might have more insight into her condition than she does but I lack an essential ingredient, I am not her; I can never share her feelings. What if I could; what difference would that make I wonder?
    Why do the wealthy and powerful not write about and assist the underprivileged. I would say simply because because they have never experienced it and are too comfortable in their own lives. I do not deny them their comfortable lives we only live once it seems, and I am reluctant to criticise them adversely when they fail to assist others for all I know they may be not so happy as they look. My father was epistemologically privileged twice. Once as as a member of a poverty stricken working class family where drunkenness and some violence took place. Secondly as a reasonably successful man who ran his own business. I only really understand the second as his son, and all benefit that I derived from his transition upwards from one class to another. His early days sound awful I could not write about them. I was not there. All I could do is give an account in my own words of what he said, and sympathise with his plight. It may be of interest to say that a decided transition from left to right also occurred in his political views as he progressed in life.

  9. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Don:

    No, I can’t live the experience of anyone else, but the experience that people have is determined by their way of seeing themselves and of seeing the world.

    The way that people see themselves and the world often is distorted by irrational assumptions about who they are, how society functions, what others want or expect from them, and finally, what matters in their life.

    I use the phrase “irrational assumptions” to refer to assumptions that prevent people from flourishing, from living a good life, from being autonomous or from at least striving to flourish, to live a good life and to be autonomous.

    Often, although not often enough, another can see through those irrational assumptions and try to get the person involved to see through them too. The other is aided by a sense of empathy and at times, by critical reflection on what matters in life and how our societies function and whom our society benefits.

    I don’t know what percentage of the population seeks psychotherapy, but the percentage which could benefit from good pyschotherapy is very high. Unfortunately, good psychotherapists are scarce.

  10. @Don – The basic problem is that the connection between experience and knowledge, even knowledge of the nature of the experience, is problematic. So, for example, one could plausibly argue that the nature of oppression is such that it (often) functions to distort the way that the oppressed understand their experience of oppression.

  11. Everyone has privileged access to their own situation, which is to say that none of us really understands anybody else’s situation. (I’m quite convinced nobody understands mine.) However some peoples’ situations can be generalized so that they are more like each other than like other peoples’. This would seem to be the basis of all human politics, the workings of which give rise to civilization as we know it. Not altogether a bad thing.

    Advantage-seeking being what it is, there follows a lot of ugly mutual back-scratching around unrelated issues and creation of dubious classes, but how to say what is ‘unrelated’ and ‘dubious’? The Queen and the (female) Housekeeper have a genuine shared stake in gynecology.

    Possibly the problem arises when people try to pronounce across lines of privilege. Mitt trying to speak for workers. People arguing about whether OWSers are more like Mitts or more like Workers. A man can be a feminist supporter, but he will always be suspicious as a feminist activist with the danger of (real or perceived) mansplaining.

  12. Mike,
    Congratulations on your enlightenment. I knew you had it in you all along.

    I prefer the view that knowledge of things can be made by observing the interactions of the parts (holism). I find difficulty with the reductionism view that things are only a sum of its parts.

  13. I’m inclined to agree with your critiques, so far as they go. There are lots of sloppy arguments out there. But in order to know how far your critiques go, it would help to see where you contrast with others. After all, it comes across as a critique, not as a positive manifesto, so it feels incomplete unless you go out of your way to make references.

    I don’t read Gramsci’s comment above as asking you to do a literature review, as much as he’s asking you to engage in a conversation with specific philosophers and sociologists: giving credit to the ones you are echoing, and discredit to the ones who you think deserve skepticism.

  14. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Hello Ben:

    I took Gramsci’s comment in much the same sense as Jeremy did.

    Instead of outlining the arguments against Jeremy’s position, Gramsci simply told him to read a certain book. It would have been more helpful if Gramsci had given a rough sketch of the arguments against Jeremy’s position.

    Not all of us have access to a university library and so to cite bibliography without explaining the arguments of said books is not helpful in this blog or on blogs in general.

    It would be very different if after outlining the arguments against Jeremy’s position (or any other), the person posting were to link to online texts.

    However, when you speak of the need for Jeremy to cite specific philosophers and sociologists, although I know that Jeremy is a very well-read and learned person, I would like to point out that some of us who participate in this blog pick up our ideas, for what they are worth, from conversations, from articles online, from blogs, from youtube, from the zeitgeist, from sketchy and incomplete reading during a whole lifetime and are often unable to cite exact sources for our ideas. I know that you work in a university setting where citing sources is part of the rules of the game, but not all of us participating here come from the world of academia.

    I think that both those who come from the world of the universities and those who come from other settings have something to contribute to these conversations.

  15. Hi S., I won’t speak for Gramsci. But speaking for myself, I’ve assumed that Jeremy has access to the literature, because I know he works for a publishing company. Also, he’s got degrees in sociology, so I don’t doubt that he’s read the heavyweights. My point is that the initial post feels really incomplete without knowing the places of agreement and disagreement. I think that pointing to interlocutors ought to make the post more accessible, not less. That’s all.

  16. @Ben – I think Amos has largely made my response, but suffice it to say that I think Gramsci’s point was intended to be destructive rather than constructive.

    Thing is, my post isn’t directed towards the work of the likes of Butler & Harding, it’s directed towards the standpoint theory-lite (or whatever you want to call it) that is flourishing in some of the murkier corners of the blogosphere right now (it’s possible you won’t think the corners murky, but there you go!).

    There’s nothing disreputable in just saying, “Hang on, this stuff is a lot more complicated than you realise, you need to think about x, y and z” (which is not to say there’s no merit in your suggestion, it’s just likely a bigger task than I’m inclined to take on).

    ps., I don’t work for a publishing company, exactly…

  17. I wouldn’t call what you’re doing ‘disreputable’. I think you’re right on in your proposals. But I don’t know what degree of right you are, because I don’t know what you’re contrasting your view with.

    So, e.g., I believe that structural privilege and epistemic ignorance are in a positive, substantial, non-trivial relationship with each other, with respect to certain areas of knowledge. But while my view on this is perfectly consistent with your remarks in (1), the contrary view also seems consistent.

    Further, I can nod along with (2b), on the following condition: however bad I might be at seeing my own situation, you (the third person) might be even worse at making that assessment. If that holds true, then while it’s consistent with what you say, it’s also potentially inconsistent with what you want to say. I don’t know. Etc.

    All I’m saying is that if you compared and contrasted your view with others, then I’d have a clearer understanding of the extent to which we are inclined to agree.

  18. Hey Ben – I’m happy to settle for some degree of right! :)

    Sure, I take your point, but my intent is more modest than your follow-up points allow. It isn’t my intention to say what I positively think about these issues (because I don’t think that’s possible in a blog post). Rather, it’s to flag up some of the places where the argument gets tricky, because it seems to me that some large proportion of people (in the blogosphere) who invoke these sorts of arguments don’t really have any idea of the complexities involved.

    My position here isn’t particularly that “standpoint theory” (in quotes, because I’m using it as a catch all name for the different varieties of this argument) has nothing going for it (though, as it happens, I think it has very little going for it), it’s just that if you’re going to appeal to epistemic privilege then really you ought to have some sort of idea about the trouble you’re going to find yourself in once you start to think about exactly what is involved in what you’re claiming.

  19. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The myth of the superior epistemic status of the oppressed is not only found in the blogosphere, but has been a constant on the left as long as I can recall, the epistemological equivalent of what Bertrand Russell calls the fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed.

    The fact that most great leftist thinkers, with the exception of Gramsci, have come from bourgeois backgrounds, would call that myth into doubt, but few seem to pay much attention to that contradiction.

    In fact, Lenin, not much in fashion these days, but a political realist, notes in “What Is to Be Done”, that the working class, without the teaching and organization provided by a vanguard movement, that is, by Mr. Lenin and his Bolcheviks, cannot attain revolutionary class consciousness.

    The left not only believes in the superior virtue and superior epistemic status of the oppressed, but also their superior musical ability. In my youth I participated in a political group and after each meeting or demonstration we would gather in the apartment of one young lady, drink tea (no beer) and listen to recordings of genuine coal miners singing working songs inside the mine or genuine longshoremen chanting as they loaded ships. I would point out that the singing was off-key and that there were superior recordings available performed by trained musicians, but that was heresy.

    The above is not written to put into doubt the very real facts of oppression and exploitation nor my conviction that the political left, in one or another form, is the most rational way to deal with social and economic injustice.

  20. I’m sure that there are individuals who suffer an epistemic disadvantage through being advantaged in so many other ways – I’m talking about people who have experienced very little in the way of fear, financial and other hardship, humiliation, physical abuse, etc., and don’t have much idea what these experiences are actually like. Even if they’ve read widely, the experiences described there may not be as vivid to them as to the rest of us. To use the idiom, these people don’t know they’re alive.

    Such people will not know what they’re talking about in some discussions.

    But it’s arrogant and stupid to accuse a particular individual with whom you’re having an argument of being one of those people, based on some superficial characteristics such as biological sex or national origin. We seldom know what other individuals have and have not experienced in their lives. Our judgments that someone is one of “those people” are very fallible indeed. Also, it’s just not an argument to say that someone else’s argument lacks cogency because, “You’re one of those people.” That’s an evasion of the responsibility to argue, not an argument in itself.

    And as Jeremy says, sometimes an individual someone who might be superficially judged to be ne of “those people” might be thought of that way precisely because of aspects of his/her life that actually bestow an epistemic advantage – such as having had the opportunity to get a rigorous education, or having had the opportunity to read widely in the canon of great literature.

    I have nothing but contempt for individuals who play the “privilege” card. Over on my blog, it is one of the very few things that is likely to get comments deleted or the commenters themselves banned from the blog.

    This does not entail that there are no tendencies for certain categories of people to miss out on certain experiences or to think in certain ways or whatever. These may be worth discussing. But when it’s applied at the level of attempting to trump the arguments of individuals, or to to try to silence or discredit individuals, it’s bullshit.

  21. I’m not sure you get to point out that Lenin believed in epistemic vanguardism in one paragraph, and then argue that “the left… believes in the superior virtue and superior epistemic status of the oppressed”. These proposals are at cross-purposes.

    I also doubt that this really has a lot to do with the left, except in the very narrow sense that is based on a truncated history of 20th century academic politics. One of the useful things about Jeremy’s post is that he points out how right-wing culture warriors have used standpoint epistemology to defend their wacky exploits.

  22. Maybe someone already brought this up and I missed it: Bertrand Russell also taught that knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description are two very different ways of knowing. If he is right, that might impact the issue you are addressing.

  23. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Hello Ben:

    When I was speaking of the left, I was speaking of the real-existing left that I’ve known during my life-time.

    I’m old, but not so old to have known Lenin.

    In any case, when I speak of how the left behaves and has behaved in my experience, I’m generalizing.

    I know that you are on the left as is Jeremy and neither of you commit the errors that I mention.

    If I left that impression that Jeremy and you commit the aforementioned errors, my apologies, since my intention, which I thought was clear, although evidently it was not, was to show that the arguments in Jeremy’s post could be extended not just to the blogosphere, but to many participants in leftist movements.

    In fact, as I point out at the end of my previous post, I’m of the left myself and at least I try not to fall into the mentioned fallacies.

    I agree with you that what Jeremy points out can be used to criticize the use of standpoint epistemology by rightwing culture warriors, but I thought that a little “in the family” criticism of leftist fallacies was also appropriate.

    If we don’t criticize ourselves and learn from our mistakes, fallacies and blind-spots, we are never going to get anywhere.

  24. For sure, that’s how I read you; I didn’t get the impression you are worried about. My point was just to make the kind of imminent critique about claims you made. They don’t hang together very well.

  25. @Ben – But there is that tension in Marxism, actually.

    The standard Marxist line is that the proletariat, as the bearers of the emancipatory potential of humankind, hold a privileged epistemic position in that they are in the position to discern accurately the true nature of capitalist society (so there’s the whole idea that you get this transition as the proletariat become a class for itself, etc). Marx even talks about the conditions that have to be in place for this to occur (e.g., immiseration, polarization, concentration of labor, etc). Plus, allied to this, there’s a whole moral dimension. The proletariat is kind of representative of universal humanity. So, for the first time, class struggle will result in the triumph of humanity, with the idea that you’re going to get the abolition of alienation, etc – and with it the institution of a society without systemic conflict.

    But, on the other hand, there’s also the idea of epistemic vanguardism. So, for example, as well as Amos’s point about Lenin, you find Gramsci flagging up the importance of organic intellectuals in the production of a counter-hegemonic movement (or “war of position” if you prefer). And there are even hints of it in Marx’s own work. For example, he’s talking here about the Communist Party:

    on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible you already know all this!

  26. @Russell – Yes, I pretty much agree with all that.

    There is actually a big problem with how the privilege argument is used in the blogosphere, which has to do with people getting confused about levels of abstraction. You can’t jump easily from talking about what might be true of a group (which, properly defined, has a curious ontological status, anyway) to talking about people who are ostensibly “members” of that group (which itself is conceptually problematic since groups are abstractions).

  27. But the comments I’m responding to were not about specifically what Marx believed. They were about what ‘the left’ believes, that amorphous body. In this context, if it seems as though the left believes a contradiction, then I’d be inclined to respond by saying that there’s no such thing as a ‘leftist belief’.

    (Of course, the dialecticians of the left certainly believe in true contradictions. But that’s not ‘the left’ — it leaves too many people out.)

  28. But it isn’t (necessarily) what Marx believes (whether Marx was into vanguardism is moot). This stuff is a fairly standard Marxist (i.e., leftist) line. There just is a tension in leftist politics between epistemic privilege (i.e., the valorizing of the oppressed by virtue of their oppression) and epistemic vanguardism.

    You’re going to want specific examples, right?

    Okay, check out the tension between the democratic centralism as practised by the Socialist Workers Party in the UK (which is much more “centralism” than “democratic”); and the line they take on a myriad of different issues in their paper, “The Socialist Worker” (where they celebrate the wisdom of the workers).

    Another example. Have a look at the Facebook page of Occupy Toronto. The last time I checked it was replete with complaints that although ostensibly committed to the wisdom of the crowd, the reality of the Toronto version of the movement is vanguardist.

    I could cite many, many other examples of this sort of thing. Amos has got it right.

    But, of course, it’s also the case that the right go in for this sort of thing. I don’t know if you know the literature on Thatcherism, for example. It was precisely characterised (by Hall and Jacques, IIRC) as “authoritarian populism”. So, on the one hand, it celebrated the wisdom of the “man on the Clapham omnibus”. But, on the other hand, it was authoritarian, when it turned out that s/he didn’t buy into the whole Thatcherite project (actually, it was this tension that precipitated the Poll Tax crisis, which brought down Thatcher).

  29. I have just returned from celebrating with my family an occasion – namely the birth of Jesus – with a distinct lack of epistemological privilege with respect to that occasion (i.e., the birth). Only those who believe in the truth of this birth both historically and in terms of its connection to a transcendent and omniscent entity (God) would believe they have the epistemological perspective that gives them a true understanding of Christmas. We (the not so committed believers) put one foot in this occasion (or a toe perhaps) and are quite willing to enter into the celebratory accompliment – presents (gifts to Jesus) and eating and drinking, etc.
    I make this observation (such as it is), to note the double edged nature of Thatcher’s popularity. Taxes were high and union control was very strong, especially in the Nationalised industries. This control was contrasted by Thatcher and the Conservatives as the means by which individual freedom was being denied. Two epistemological privileges were in opposition – solidarity and equality versus individual freedom. Thatcher set about confronting the unions to realise the freedom that many felt had been taken away and the media certainly made a field day of portraying the unions oppression. We could now all come to partake in another epistemological privilege – self determination and realize the vacuity of solidarity and spurious equality. Freedom was the beatific state that we could all partake in. The workers belief in a socialist state was but a form of false consciousness – socialism was not a different form of reality, but unreal, a delusion. Selling shares in former state assets and the growth of credit helped this “alternative”, become the only real. Finance and acquisition overtook and swallowed collective support. Each supporter was now a part of the new individualistic collective. Many became shareholders and now had an interest in the well being of their investments and of course from the pursuit of individual interest the interest of all emerged.
    There wasn’t so much a vanguard as an inspirational few individuals who would show us the way to realise our capacities. But as we know individualism without compassion is simply exploitation by another name and so the oppressed emerge once more.

  30. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Hello Ben:

    I was sloppy in the use of the word “left” in my post above.

    At times there is a huge difference between the theoretical writings of major leftist thinkers (Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hobsbawn, etc.) and what most members of the actually existing left believe on the ground, a difference which leads me to refer to the left in such sloppy terms, when I should have referred to “many leftists whom I’ve run into” instead of an amorphous entity which I called the “left”.

    In any case, Jeremy says it much better than I can: “there just is a tension in leftist politics between epistemic privilege (i.e., the valorizing of the oppressed by virtue of their oppression) and epistemic vanguardism”.

  31. I don’t deny that there are tensions. I deny that you can make a claim about what ‘the left’ believes, while providing evidence to the effect that it believes the contrary. At the very least, further explanation is needed.

    When I was at St James Park (before the eviction), Occupy Toronto seemed radically democratic. 20+ people gathered in a circle, independent voices piping up sporadically, one by one, with no chair making rulings. It’s not very effective, but beautiful to see. So I suppose that it’s possible that the communal decision-making that I saw was window dressing, or that something changed after I left (perhaps in response to the eviction), but it gives me pause.

  32. @Ben – Ha, we were probably at St James Park at the same time (I live 5 minutes away).

    I think there were already tensions bubbling beneath the surface at that point (people worrying about what had happened to money that had been donated; the role of the unions, etc). But yes, this stuff became more visible after the eviction (perhaps not surprisingly).

  33. @Russell:

    I would hope that you would support the right of whatever minority group to gather for a focused discussion around whatever shared epistemological facts/experiences. I’m not sure whether the Marxist/Feminist critique is acting as a dogwhistle here, but let’s get away from it and talk about an an alcohol-abuse recovery support group. We imagine an MFCC who joins the group as a member to spread the word that the other members need to “stop agonizing and be good to themselves.” The other members say, politely at first, that they all tried that and it never works. The MFCC insists, occupying important shared time. Do you have “nothing but contempt” when they ask her to butt out? Is it any better if they ignore her and just talk over whatever she says?

    It appears that Jeremy is putting a very high standard in place for not admitting someone to a conversation. “If you can sort out” bullets 1-5, then it’s allowed; otherwise you stand convicted of … snottiness, I guess. You-Russell say “arrogant and stupid to accuse a particular individual with whom you are having an argument of being such a person”; but if the individual is pushing his way in to a seminar discussion on the basis of some overgeneralized Wikipedia reading, is it necessary to refute his arguments in detail before sending him along?

    And if you say to the alcoholic ex-cons, “The only reason you’re not listening to me is because you aren’t MFCCs”, which foot is the shoe on? Who has the privilege? I think the main reason the victim/privilege arguement doesn’t work is because nobody believes it applies to them. Best not to go there. And if somebody goes there with you, best to try Active Listening.

    And do you support the unqualified right of minority groups to gather?

  34. @Marshall – There is a crucial difference between (a) saying that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and then demonstrating this by referencing evidence, etc; and (b) saying, in the face of countervailing evidence, argument, etc., that they necessarily don’t know what they’re talking about because they’re privileged, and therefore epistemically disadvantaged.

    A proper analogy would be if the alcohol-abuse recovery support group simply refused to countenance the possibility that “stop agonizing” might work on the grounds that the advice came from somebody who could not possibly have anything to contribute to the conversation. (With a few complications, whether that advice works is an empirical matter, which can be investigated by anybody, regardless of their privilege or absence of it.)

  35. Here’s a further analogy to show the difficulty with the argument that certain sorts of experiences confer epistemic privilege.

    Suppose the alcohol support group were religiously inspired. Its members pray during each meeting, and place huge emphasis on the importance of faith in remaining sober. They genuinely believe that it is only by the grace of god that they are able to succeed in their attempts to avoid substance abuse.

    If I then come along and say, “Well, hang on a minute, since it seems vanishingly unlikely that God exists, it’s hugely implausible that your sobriety really has anything to do with God”, can my argument be dismissed solely on the grounds that I’ve never been an alcoholic, never experienced its ravages, never experienced the transformative power of the support group, and never experienced God’s love, etc? In other words, can it be dismissed on the grounds that my privilege (i.e., the fact I’ve never suffered alcoholism) means I’m necessarily epistemically disadvantaged, and their experiences mean they have proper situated knowledge?

    No, it can’t be. That would be the death-knell of rational enquiry.

  36. Re:-Jeremy Stangroom December 30, 2011 at 12:42 pm
    I find this somewhat difficult to understand. If one has an experience surely that is that; it is an experience. I found myself in an unfamiliar empty house recently in which there was no lighting it was quite black. I was trying to follow somebody using the house as a short cut to another locality. I lost track of the person and was stranded in the dark with no idea which way to turn. In an unfamiliar locality I could additionally not remember where I had parked my car even if I found my way out. So that was my bad experience. It remains as a bad experience even though I eventually discovered I was dreaming. Understanding the nature of dreaming does in no way alter the nature of my experience of being lost in a darkened large house. The nature of dreaming does not distort my understanding of the experience of lost in a darkened large house.
    I suppose it is possible to oppress in a nice way, or in nasty way. It seems reasonable to infer that peoples’ experience will in such a case vary. I do not see where distortion comes in here it suggests that their understanding is somehow defective, but defective compared to what?
    “even knowledge of the nature of the experience, is problematic.”
    I can understand how this can be the case were we discussing the problems of human perception, but I don’t think that is what you have in mind.

  37. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Hello Don:

    It’s about the knowledge of our experience, how we codify it.

    Let’s take a young lady, in some unnamed society.
    She is refused education and forced at age 12 to marry a 55 year old man who has 4 other wives and beats them and her too. When asked if she has a good life, she honestly answers “yes”.

    Does that young lady know what her experience is about, does she have the conceptual tools for rationally deciding if her life is good or not?

    Let’s take Joe, who lives in an unnamed American state, earns a bit more than the minimum wage at a deadend job, has 6 children, no health insurance coverage and votes Republican because Rick Perry and George W. Bush are the kind of guys whom he’d love to have a beer with, Obama talks like a wimp and Michelle Obama looks like a ball-buster to him, even though the Republicans consistently vote to limit the minimum wage and are against public healthcare insurance.

    I have no doubt that Joe experiences Rick Perry and Obama as guys whom he would love to have a beer with, but is he rationally codifying his experience?

    Aren’t there powerful groups in society which manipulate Joe’s opinions so that he will keep voting against his own rational interests?

  38. Hi Amos
    thanks for the reply.
    The young girl of 12 you say HONESTLY answered yes. she has a good life. The fact that you and I think, or perhaps know, there are far more better lives does not really impact her honest reply. In fact she may have observed others whose lives are far worse than hers.
    You might ask do you and I have good lives and we might I think, well reply in the affirmative. I am sure that there are others who would think our lives were abominable. Who would want to spend hours and hours replying to philosophical conundrums, reading boring books I speak for myself here not wishing to give offence. Only owning one property never going on luxury ocean cruises I could go on ad nauseum here. How would I fare were I to win the National lottery would I at some time look back on my financially restricted life and think god that was s***t. I really do not know. All I know is what I know all I experience is what I experience and so far it is OK.
    I see your point about manipulation of an ignorant man but is he actually unhappy? It does not seem so although we know things could be better for him.
    “is he rationally codifying his experience?” No not in our book I guess, but it is his experience, his life. Where is the ‘Great criterion of supreme experience and understanding’ against which we can measure all experience and understanding thereof? It does not exist for the simple fact that these things are Private never Public and subject to the vicissitudes of human nature.
    I am presently reading an interesting book by the first Black female Judge in this country. It speaks of her childhood experience of abominable violence and ill treatment at the hands of her mother and how she extricated herself from this nightmare. Well worth reading:- Constance Brisco, Title “Ugly”

  39. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Don:

    I think that oppression has to do with the lack of opportunities to live an autonomous life or with the lack of those goods which are basic to an autonomous life: e.g., food, shelter, social order, personal freedom, human rights, etc.

    Oppression is not the same thing as exploitation, and I’m going to talk about oppression, not exploitation.

    There is no fixed content to an autonomous life: it’s up to each person, as you point out.

    We’ve both been as well educated as anyone can be
    in our respective societies: that does not mean that we’ve both been to the best of the best among universities, but we’ve been close enough to that not to complain.

    So if I decide that I want to vote for the right knowing well that the right is going to cut my healthcare benefits as a retired person, because I dislike overweight people and because Michelle Bachelet, the probable next presidential candidate of the center-left is overweight, then I “know what I’m doing”.

    I have full access to all the online literature about people with phobias about obesity as well as to information about Ms. Bachelet’s political program and previous presidential administration.

    Thus, my decision to vote against my healthcare benefits is a rational decision, if I make it with my eyes open, if I’m playing with a full deck, so to speak.

    My thesis is that one factor often, although not always, found in those who are oppressed is that they have not sufficient educational (in the broadest sense of the word “educational”) opportunities to evaluate their situation with their eyes open.

    It’s difficult to say why some oppressed people have their eyes open and some do not. I’ll not hazard a guess.

    In any case, some oppressed people can see their situations rationally with very little formal education; some cannot.

    If the young lady mentioned above, who at age 12 without any education is forced to marry a 55 year old man who beats her and who still insists that she has a good life, is allowed to go to Harvard and after getting her doctorate in philosophy in Harvard, still insists that she wants to marry a man over 40 years her senior who beats her, then that’s her rational decision.

    She could even study philosophy or whatever for 3 or 4 years at a Catholic university (there are some good ones in Chile) and she’d still able to decide with her eyes open, unless because of some personal defect, she refuses to open them.

    What’s the point of philosophy if it doesn’t allow you to make more autonomous decisions about your own life insofar as autonomous decisions are possible to make?

  40. A cancer victim is not, of course, an oncologist.

    If we wish we wish to step into the realm of ‘alcoholism’, there may well be a certain ‘what-it-is-like‘ knowledge that the ‘alcoholic’ may have privileged access to – only other sufferers may seem able to comprehend what the terror of severe alcohol withdrawal is like.

    Of course the condition of the drinking ‘alcoholic’ is such that he, of all people, is least able to understand his own situation. He is in a constant haze, full of delusion and self-deception. And for those ‘alcoholics’ who have found assistance in ostensibly secular mutual help programs, it is often a matter of them having been persuaded by what it is life-improving to believe. The AA is a quasi-religious group, it helps many people, but it is not there to promote truth.

    Those best placed to speak about the truths of ’alcoholism’ will be psychiatrists, not those who have suffered deeply traumatic experiences and are immersed in delusion or useful dogma.

  41. Marshall, I don’t support any unqualified rights. As you probably know I have an almost libertatian suspicion of state power when it’s used to interfere with our private decisions about our lives (though I reject the popular libertarian analyses of property and certainly do not consider myself a political libertarian). But however suspicious – some might say paranoid – I am about state power, I am not someone who believes in any absolute and unqualified rights.

    That said, if you want to get a bunch of like-minded people to gather in your own home, or a bunch of people with similar ethnic backgrounds, I’m fine with it, and I don’t think the state should stop it. If you want to get together a private group of recovering alchoholics, or whatever it may be, fine.

    But if that group goes out into public discussion, and claims that others who disagree with its consensus must be wrong (e.g. about the most effective way to overcome alcoholism) because everyone outside the group is epistemically disadvantaged, I won’t be imnpressed. If they argue against particular individuals on the basis that those individuals belong to “privileged” groups (e.g. male, or middle-aged, or well-educated) I’m going to call bullshit. That’s avoiding substantive argument, and (FWIW, if this is even relevant) they don’t know what life experience those individuals have that they can apply to getting a sense of alcoholics’ plight.

  42. @Jeremy

    No, it can’t be. That would be the death-knell of rational enquiry.

    Gnus are supposed to be the realists who value truth above comfort. If rational enquiry is not “how things are” then away with it. Postmoderns did not invent these problems, but uncovered them. Personally I doubt a death-knell will turn out to happen.

    Suppose the alcohol support group were religiously inspired.

    You’re feeding me a straight line, right? The Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program: “3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God… 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God….”. These people have a long track record. So you go to an AA meeting and speak as you said and find yourself dissed and dismissed. The group session leader leader (following his method) comments that you need to stop attacking others and focus on your own insecurities and “7. Humbly ask God to remove [your own] shortcomings.” Would you reject this intervention on the grounds that you hold a relevant Doctorate and you understand these things as a result of your privileging experience in grad school?

    I don’t understand why you reject the alcoholics’ lived experience of themselves, their disease, and the progress of their cure. And insist on them rejecting themselves. Also your unwillingness to look at the relevant literature, which shows better-than-default outcomes. What does mean “Epistemic Privilege” mean, except “I know my life better than you do”? Is it a case of, “When it comes to he-said-she-said, what I said wins”?

    On a practical moral note, if you were really the kind of person who likes to go around undermining alcoholics’ sobriety in the name of Political Correctness and happy fun, I would like to offer you a free quarterstaff lesson. No charge, professional courtesy. But I’m sure you are not that sort of person.

    But to return to your earlier, more reasonable point (at 2:32), I notice that the way you have set it up it is the responsibility of the group to convince the intruder that what they are up to is reasonable by the intruder’s standards. That’s too Jacobin Club for me. In a post-enlightenment society the burden should be on the intruder to show that there is a secular offense (harm to somebody). Consider alternative sex practices and the doctrine of “Consenting Adults”: should I have to justify to whoever stops by my decision to be a Queer (homosexual, submissive, cutter)?

  43. @Marshall

    Yeah, I was aware that AA has a religious dimension, of course.

    I don’t understand why you reject the alcoholics’ lived experience of themselves, their disease, and the progress of their cure. And insist on them rejecting themselves.

    And I don’t understand why you think I’ve said anything like that. :)

    This is an argument very specifically about how one establishes the truth of some particular claim. So it is entirely consistent to think:

    a) That the methods of AA are successful and should be encouraged, etc;

    and

    b) That AA doesn’t work in the way that the members of AA take it to work (on the basis of their experience, etc).

    If b) turns out to be the case (and given that I don’t believe God exists, I guess I must think that b) is true), nothing follows from that in terms of what it is right to do (e.g., it might well be the case that even if I’m right, I’d be acting immorally if I gatecrashed an AA meeting to spread the good news). That’s another argument, and part of that argument is a moral argument (and part of the reason I am not a new atheist, for example, is precisely because I don’t think that truth is all that counts in a moral calculus – and yes, I realise that some new atheists also claim that they don’t think that truth is the only thing that counts).

    Epistemic privilege means more than “I know my life better than you do” It means I *necessarily* know my life better than you do; and my understanding of my life, and the claims I make about it, necessarily trump the way you see my life, regardless of the arguments and evidence you marshal to support your view.

    And I say again, that view is a death knell of rational enquiry, because it places a whole chunk of social behaviour, etc., and a whole raft of truth-claims, outside of its reach.

    I’m not quite sure why you think this argument is about rights (i.e., whether or not people have the right to behave in the ways they choose to behave, etc)?

  44. Hi Marshall,
    It would, of course, be rather odd and morally suspect to actually turn up at an AA meeting trying to cast doubt on their methods.

    It seems rather better to imagine a scenario such as a conference on alcohol-abuse and its treatment, and any disputation going on there. Literature regarding the efficacy of the AA 12 step programme is, as I understand it, rather thin on the ground (and also far from conclusive). It is hard to study such things and harder still to separate what is apparently helpful about the AA from what is distinctive about it. But in so far as such literature exists clearly one needn’t have gone through any such program or suffered from any such ‘illness’ in order to assess it.

    Indeed being an AA member may make it rather hard for someone to objectively consider the efficacy of the system they have subscribed to. The AA member has an ‘identity’ and an ideological, indeed religious or quasi-religious, set of convictions that come under threat when the methods of the AA are brought into question. The AA member researching the efficacy of what is distinctive about the AA methodology would hardly be looking into the question without an opinion he very much hopes to confirm.

    It seems plausible to think the AA does help many people improve the quality of their lives. It seems quite plausible to think that having the opportunity to talk to others about your problems amongst people who have had similar experiences will be of some therapeutic value. And that having a mentor with similar experiences to call on when you are struggling will also help. But none of that suggests that the distinctive ideology of the AA is true. At best, it might suggest it can be useful to believe.

  45. @Russell:

    Actually I find that talking about Morality as Virtue rather than Rights makes more sense. But thank you for rising to my challenge.

    What you say is what AA (a community run by alcoholics does): it goes out in public and pitches itself as an organization that has the particular advantage of being alcoholics helping other alcoholics. As a result of documented success, I think it is a common opinion that recovery groups are “best” run by people who have recovered.

    If that’s “bullshit” then as community-minded activists we should maybe be working to marginalize AA and other 12-step programs? And throw the people who find it to be a support out on the street? I don’t think so. I think we should “accomodate” AA, come to understand how it works, and help it to work better.

    I can’t imagine what it take to have “nothing but contempt” for people who lead and mentor in AA.

    @Jim:

    Point well taken, if you are an alcoholic then your goal is not to learn “the truths” about alcoholism, but to stop drinking. And the evidence shows that compared to psychiatrists, ‘recovering’ alcoholics are affordable, available, and at least as effective.

    A tangential point, I think that alcoholics are an extreme example of the way all humans are: “in a constant haze, full of delusion and self-deception”. And therefore like the alcoholic, our immendiate need is to find support towards a better way of life. Clear thinking will be a help, believeing that you already have the answers and that other people do not because they can’t justify themselves to your satisfaction will not. Eudaimonia (a just life) requires arete (absolute virtue), and also phroneisis (practical wisdom).

  46. Marshall, I know you’re doing this inadvertently, but you’re twisting my words.

    Before we get to that, there’s quite a bit of scientific evidence that the approach adopted by AA is not best, at least not for everyone and maybe not at all.

    Now, imagine if AA spokesmen responded to arguments based on that evidence by saying, to the person giving the argument,perhaps some sort of clinical psychologist or whomever, or just any of us citing the research, with: “Check your privilege. You’re old and rich and white and male and not an alcoholic yourself.” I would, indeed think that was a stupid and contemptible approach to debate. It’s bullshit as a way of arguing. They actually need to discuss the evidence, and try to show how it supports them, not try to discredit opponents with the “privilege check” card.

  47. Hi Marshall,

    I certainly don’t believe I have all the answers about alcohol abuse or indeed anything else. Nor did I mean to dismiss out of hand the experience of others simply because they cannot provide convincing empirical evidence that what seems to work for them(a) works best for all individuals and (b) works for the reasons they believe. It seems I could have expressed myself rather better. I should qualify what I said about the AA – I certainly do not think it is out to promote lies. The AA teaches what they sincerely think is both true and positively life-changing, just like any other religious group. I am sceptical about the truth of the dogma you will find in churches and church hall meetings, but that does not mean I am not open to the idea that the lives of some may go better if they believe in it.

    This does seem an interesting topic to return to…

  48. but that does not mean I am not open to the idea that the lives of some may go better if they believe in it.

    Well, anecdotally, I know a few people where I’m as certain as I can be that their lives are better than they would be otherwise because of their religious beliefs. (And, of course, I realise that anecdotal data doesn’t count for much.)

    In particular, I know a couple who (quite reasonably) made a work/lifestyle choice that indirectly led to the death of their young daughter. As far as I can tell – and, of course, one can never be sure about this sort of thing – the only thing that has kept them going over the last thirty years is the thought that they’ll get to see her again.

    If that’s right, then how we should view their refusal to countenance the possibility that their faith is not inviolable is interesting. Certainly, I think if one knows the literature on cognitive dissonance, then one would not be surprised if they reacted with extreme prejudice against anything that threatens the integrity of their worldview.

    And, you know what, I certainly wouldn’t stand in judgement over them if that is how they reacted (there but for the grace of God, go I, and all that).

    But, of course, none of that has anything to do with the whether they are actually epistemically privileged as a result of their particular life experiences. They are not.

  49. The question I think we are working on at the moment is: Should we, post-Enlightenment some-kinda-humanists all, desire that this institution of AA prosper or dwindle? A, eligible for public grants; B, abatement notice (shut down until critical repairs are signed off); C, permanent closure and Sheriff’s auction; D, ongoing discussion, let ‘er drift.

    I’m not trying to nail “best”. Some people look at what how they could address a problem (alcoholics in the community … “they” definitely including the alcoholics themselves …) and considering available resources, decide that starting an AA meeting is “best thing to do”.

    Full disclosure, I myself have never attended AA meetings, and on matters of AA protocol I would certainly defer to someone who has. (Epistemic privilege!) I don’t consider myself to be an alcoholic. I have and do know alcoholics and ex-alcoholics.

    @Russell:

    I think of myself as pointing out unintended consequences.

    I think the setting of this conversation makes a difference. At an NSF meeting, you’re quite right (but other constraints would apply). The picture I get from Jeremy’s 2:46 post is (#1) that the narrator comes to the meeting and when it’s his turn to speak, he does so as summarized in the quoted text. Narrator is claiming the right (or privilege) of setting the group agenda (option B or C), which I think is pretty rude.

    The only relevant privilege-maker is being an alcoholic, and I think that’s legitimate. AA would give an alcoholic academic a chair and a cup of coffee. There are qualia associated with various kinds of experience. Trauma really really changes people. None of this is to say that outsiders can’t make useful observations but like becoming a scientist or getting married, there are some things you don’t know until you’ve been there. Ex-cons are very good at bullshitting social workers because they have developed specific survival skills.

    So if AA and your program are competing for a grant, it seems to me perfectly acceptable for AA to raise the “treatment for …, by …” flag. You are entitled to submit a rebuttal and the board can make a judgement. I don’t see that you can just yourself rule it out of order.


    @Jim:

    Elegantly put.

    (a) Claim that AA works well for many, not “best for all”. There are dissenting opinions, sure.

    (b) That’s what I said before, I don’t think they are doing what they say they are doing, but they are not making it up, they are doing something else. Which is why their “epistemic claims” belong in a separate category (… what I take Keith Ward to have been at).

    Claim that the lives of all go better for having AA as a live option in the world. (Option A, above).


    @Jeremy:
    one would not be surprised if they reacted with extreme prejudice against anything that threatens the integrity of their worldview.

    That’s because they have been browbeaten into the idea that everybody has to believe the same thing, no superstition allowed (Enlightenment thinking). Whereas if they could be taught (…rather, remember…) that they have their own unique and valuable-to-themselves experience of the world, no such threat could be made, only simple disagreement.

    Your last paragraph is contradicted by the one before, Mr. Hard Nose.


    Speaking of getting back to work…. A prosperous New Year to all!

  50. Marshall, I can’t speak for Jeremy but I don’t think the original post was about people crashing a private meeting. The point, as I see it, is about whether “Check your privilege!” is a good argument in public debate. And the issue then is that it has all sorts of problems as an argument. Again, whether or not someone presenting the evidence on what methods are most successful in treating alcoholism is an alcoholic herself is not the point. The question is what the evidence shows. That evidence may include reports from alcoholics who have been through an AA program, but it will include much else. Replying with “Check your privilege” is an argument evader and a conversation stopper, not an argument in itself.

    Unfortunately, “Check your privilege” has become a very common “argument”, and not just in the blogosphere. A more specific version of it is, “That’s mansplaining”, which just means that the interlocutor is male and therefore lacks credibility.

  51. @Marshall, @Russell

    Russell is right. The original post wasn’t at all about people crashing a private meeting. It was simply about the weaknesses of the argument to privilege (as conferring epistemic advantage and/or disadvantage, etc)

    It was actually motivated by reading the “mansplaining” thing just once too often.

    The way I phrased my AA example was a little misleading, I admit (basically, I was just running with an example that I think Marshall first came up with).

  52. AA isn’t exactly private, they are a player in the public square. If the join-the-meeting scenario is too trollish, try the grant-application scenario I outlined, which seems to me to be the same thing writ slightly larger. Should the AA group be prohibited (is it unfair) from defending their space (use of a meeting room in the public library, for instance, against a program of reading related literature lead by a medical doctor) by using the bullet point that they are “Alcoholics serving Alcoholics”? We are at the point of agreeing to disagree, I suppose.

    I agree that use of “privilege” (and what comes to the same thing, “victim”) language is often inflammatory. But the right of people to argue from their own experience seems to me unchallengable.

  53. Hi Marshall,

    The thing that you are looking for is always in the last place that you look. If one joins AA – or any other form of treatment – and recovers one is rather bound to think the treatment was efficacious. An AA member might be shown conclusive evidence that AA membership recovery rates are no better, or indeed lower, than that of spontaneous recovery and still be expected to maintain that the AA helped him and many others besides. Post hoc ergo propter hoc combined with commitment to a worldview that one does not want to be shaken.

    Even if we establish that joining the AA does much more good than harm – and this is not a spurious question – we still remain unclear what aspects of the programme are efficacious, what irrelevant or counter-productive, and we cannot expect the recovering alcoholic who has been through the AA to tell us. He may say it was his own ‘atheistic’ re-interpretation of the 12 step programme, he may say it was more the finding of a community of non-drinkers to replace the friends he had to turn his back on, he may say it was hearing the horror story testimony of others and realising where his life could end up, he may say it was the opportunity to discuss his problems with non-judgemental people with some idea of what he was going through, he may say it was the demonstration of the fact that beating his addiction was possible as shown by the example of others, he may say it was simply the public admission of his problem or he may praise God Almighty for revealing himself in fellowship and prayer.

    Of course he might also say the whole business was no bleeding help at all and that by the time he’d satisfied the conditions of his wife’s ultimatum or the court’s order he’d worked out for himself that his life would just go better if he stopped drinking. You can canvass the opinions of as many AA members as you like about what they thought helped them and you will learn nothing except what they think helped them. The problem is not essentially that you are dealing with alcoholics and a quasi-religious group – it is just that when it comes to understanding ourselves and the impact of our experiences, epistemically we are each distinctly underprivileged. There is, in the absence of empirical studies, reason why we might think that some of these techniques might work more or less than others. And I don’t doubt that Mentors who work for the AA learn something about how to speak to other people with problems, how best to approach them. That they may swap tips and so on. And of course they all share a certain knowledge of ‘what-it-is-like’ to have the DT’s and so on. But people don’t necessarily know what helped them as such, they do change their opinions about these things and they have no way to run clinical trials in their lives to see what they would do if parts or all of the above were removed.

    For the AA to continue it seems that it needs to end up based on sound scientific basis. The need proper studies that take into account drop-out rates and so on. And there has to be some analysis of what bits work and what bits can actually be harmful to some. Assuming the 12 step programme works – and that should be established – it should be made secular (there are forms of this and atheist alcoholics do talk of how they ‘get round this’ in their heads). That’s not to say there can’t be room for specifically religious groups to incorporate prayer or worship into how they treat people but I don’t think that should be a set part of what the major organisation for helping alcoholics should be. It shouldn’t be based on a basically religious programme written many many years ago.

    Treatments for an ‘illness; or a psychological problem (and there are often underlying mental health problems) have to be based on sound methods. And people have to be treated with that in mind –you might make somebody sober but still cause them unnecessary psychological damage in the meantime. So when the AA mentor tells you that he knows that the AA works, and how it works, and he doesn’t need psychologists and psychologists – people with proper medical training – because he’s had 20 years of experience in dealing with alcoholics you nod politely, and ask to see the figures not because you think he’s lying but because you’re aware of such things as confirmation bias and the like.

    Such are my thoughts on the AA and the value of personal experience. I don’t expect you to like them but we can’t just say people always know how to evaluate their experiences and interpret them. What do we do with people who think satan is sending them messages in morse code via a dripping tap, what do we do with the paranoid and those suffering hallucinations? They are only the more extreme cases but people just are not ‘epistemically privileged’ in quite the way you mean.

    One cannot but think that breadth and width of experience can teach us some things in the absence of empirical data. And one cannot but think there are things to learn from the testimony and anecdotes of others. But that’s not the way to the type of knowledge we need to help deeply troubled individuals.

  54. @Jim – That should be a blog post in its own right. Good stuff. :smile:

  55. Why thank you Jeremy,

    I can always dig it back up again in a few months and polish it up a bit I suppose. I don’t imagine all that many will have read it.

    Btw. I’d entirely agree with you on what you said about religious beliefs helping people. When one considers the type of case you mention it just seems obvious that religious belief can bring someone a form of comfort that no atheistic philosophy could easily replace. (And if the young anti-theist dismissed this without very convincing evidence, well, I’d be rather inclined to think they were epistemically under-privileged – they just hadn’t seen enough of life.)

    Oh yes, and this was on my mind…

    If x is a worldview, an interweaving set of values and practises (including norms about sexual behaviour), if it holds that certain questions can’t be asked and its proponents respond to a scientific hypothesis with moral outrage, if it has academic domains to which only certain ‘types’ may be admitted, if it fosters certitude and allows the sense that the Others “just don’t get it” whatever rational arguments they may present, and asserts that there is esoteric knowledge that is only available to a certain ‘type’ of person and only once they are suitably educated or ‘enlightened’ then would you guess that x is a religion or just a certain form of feminism?

  56. @Jim – Or if you had time you could dig it up again in a few days… (Seriously, if you were so inclined, because this sort of thing needs to be said right now, I think. Completely understand if you’re not so inclined, of course!).

    I thought the big weakness of Dawkins’s book, Unweaving the Rainbow, where he sort of argued that science was just as effective at providing meaning as religion, was that he just didn’t get to grips with the fact that religion offers people the hope that they’re not going to be separated forever from loved ones who have died.

    (Mind you, it’s hard to think that Dawkins doesn’t get the point, especially if you read the lament he penned to Douglas Adams.)

    Love your last paragraph. That also perfectly describes sociology in the Academy in the 1970s and 1980s. You just didn’t tend to find right-wing sociologists, for example – I can only think of Peter Saunders, really.

  57. I’ve read Dawkins’ piece on Douglas Adams a few times. It is quite a touching article. I recall he wrote about him in the God Delusion too.

    I was a great fan of Douglas Adams, I presume somebody must have written a “Hitch-hiker’s Guide To Philosophy”, but he had a philosophically-inclined mind. What the New Atheists might have been if he’d led them…

  58. “I recall he wrote about him in the God Delusion too.”

    Yes, he did:

    Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, funniest, most open-minded, wittiest, tallest, and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh — though not as much as you made me… Douglas’s conversion by my earlier books — which did not set out to convert anyone — inspired me to dedicate to his memory this book — which does!”

    Again, quite touching.

  59. Wandering in late to say: surely experience and the interpretation of experience are, to an extent, separate things? From what little I’ve seen, much of the privilege-related discussions on the internet take place at a much more basic level: the disagreement is less about the interpretation of experience as it is about the empirics of experience.

    For instance, a person from an ethnic minority is better placed to comment on the frequency of unambiguous racial harrassment (as opposed to, say, subtle discrimination, which is open to interpretation) than a person from the ethnic majority whose life, by necessity, means they are far less likely to even encounter instances of the phenomenon being discussed.

  60. Kathrine Switzer Interviewed | Talking Philosophy - pingback on April 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm
  61. I doubt that those crying the cries of faux-hurt at “privilege” would understand the contents of this post, but that’s their loss. Maybe their lack of intelligence is their only real lack of privilege.

  62. I know this post is now very old, but I wanted somewhere to stick this snippet from Bertrand Russell’s biography, which is suggestive in terms of the points I was making in the OP.

    He’s talking about his experience of visiting Soviet Russia for the first time:

    I am infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere – stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse. I cannot give that importance to man’s merely animal needs that is given here by those in power. No doubt that is because I have not spent half my life in hunger and want, as many of them have. But do hunger and want necessarily bring wisdom? Do they make men more, or less, capable of conceiving the ideal society that should be the inspiration of every reformer? I cannot avoid the belief that they narrow the horizon more than they enlarge it.

  63. One experiences another being and judges the other’s experience distorted.

    Remarkably funny.

  64. On liberal bullying | Towards a Free Society - pingback on October 19, 2012 at 7:13 am
  65. Privilege: A tired old argument? | insecular - pingback on May 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm
  66. I realise this post is quite old, but I have come to the privilege debate very late via the rumpus over Ron Lindsay’s opening speech to Women in Securlarism. Full disclosure: I know precious little about feminism, and even less about privilege. But funnily enough I find myself holding a sort of trump card in that I have a diagnosis of Bipolar I and thus belong to the much maligned minority of people who have a mental illness.

    Contrary to all the expectations of the “Watch your privilege” crowd I am however going to throw my trump card into Jeremy’s pool, with one slight exeception that I do not believe I generally have any epistomological advantage except in one very special case. So special that people are willing to pay hard cash to gain access to it.

    I have to go a long way round to make this point, so please bear with me. I am fine at the moment, but it won’t surprise anyone to know that being a mental health patient is not a bed of roses. Most people who are there to treat you try to do their best, but sometimes things can go wrong. Badly wrong at least a couple of times in my experience: I was once asked to lick up some water off the floor by a senior staff nurse, on another occassion I was denied my legal right to free access to a solicitor (this is in the UK where all mental health patients detained under section are entitled to free legal representation).

    The mental health authority where I live recognises that things do not always go well in the care that they give, and so invite service users with lived experience to participate in most of the committees and boards that go up to make the decisions by which the health trust functions. Because I wanted to make a difference I got involved with the Service User Council, which can be found here:

    http://www.hertspartsft.nhs.uk/your-involvement/service-user-and-carer-involvement/service-user-council/

    In the two examples of mistreatment I give above, I don’t think I have any special knowledge of what it is to be abused or to have your legal rights denied. It feels abusive and degrading, but I am sure I share that insight with anyone else who has ever been abused or degraded ie. practically everyone who has ever lived. Nor do I believe I have any special knowledge about mental illnesses themselves, in fact it is quite a feature of a person with such a condition that they can lack insight into their own illness. This can be rectified through education, but you have to acknowledge that it is the health care professionals who have the real secialist knowledge.

    I have read a scientific paper where a small group of mental health professionals passed themselves of as having a condition, and got themselves admitted to several institutions to see first hand what it was like to be treated on a mental health ward. I think there are very few non-patients who have ever tried this – mental health is not renowned for its secret shoppers. So the one special case of epistomological privilege I am claiming is that I know what it is like to be a mental health patient. If you follow the link above you will find that my local health trust, and probably others across Britain, will pay £10 per hour for access to that knowledge.

    The kind of things that I have done are to participate on decision making committees, to sit on an interview panel for a consultant psychiatrist, to get involved in the designs of new facilities. More recently, although not paid, I have visited a construction site for a new build, and done an annual building inspection of a rehabilitation unit. The difference between a service user and the professionals who also take part in these activities is that we sometimes spot things which might not work out so well – we see the decisions, plans, recruitment etc. from a patient’s perspective. We are kind of there to remind everyone that no matter how well meaning and skilled all the experts can be, sometimes they can get it wrong.

    The “Check your privilege” mantra did have at least one useful outcome: I checked mine and found I had a trump card. Now that I have squandered it on the “wrong” side of the debate, I shall have to get back to reading about Ron Lindsay’s woes at the hands of the under-privileged feminists.

    PS if you think I may have supplied “too much information” (my real-life identity is easily discovered through my eponymous Twitter account) please let me reasure you all that I am also signed up to the Rethink campaign to speak openly about mental illness. For too long those of my ilk have hid our light under a barrel. javascript:grin(‘:razz:’)

  67. Also a late-comer to the debate, and through the same sources as the poster above.

    I thought the point of “check your privilege” was “be aware of the epistemic limits your own social/political/etc. position may entail, and be ready to listen to other views that may fill in information you don’t have, especially on points related to social justice”, not “first-hand experience = trumping epistemic privilege”.

    I’m aware that the phrase gets used in ways that make it look more like “you don’t have the first-hand experience, so shut up, your point of view is of no interest”, but that doesn’t /have/ to follow from the idea that most (all?) positions come with a tendency to their own in-built blind-spots. Or even from the view that a lack of first-hand experience is, other things being equal, an epistemic handicap in assessing a particular phenomenon. And both of these points are compatible with the idea that first-hand experience isn’t an unfailing source of insight.

    Also, I don’t buy that an “outside” point of view is always and as such more “objective”, or even that an “educated” one is – unless we are using a very broad sense of “educated”. As an academic, I’m only too aware that academic qualifications are no automatic guarantors of epistemic privilege or lack of blinkers, and can often bring its own blinkers. (Conversely, I’m certainly not inclined to think that attendance at “the university of life” automatically confers great wisdom; it has classes of degree as much as the formal system, if less overtly.)

  68. Thanks for the recent comments, which I’ve read and enjoyed.

  69. I have a completely different understanding of what the phrase “check your privilege” is to Not Diogenes. I see it as a thought limiting cliche, and an instruction to someone to do some entirely unspecified task. Neither of which qualifies it for use when people are trying to have a rational discussion. Shouting “boo” and running out of the room would have a similar effect on the discourse.

  70. I agree with Pogsurf. But I should say that this piece wasn’t written specifically with the “check your privilege” phrase in mind (though, of course, it’s relevant to it). The argument I was addressing was specifically to do with the idea that one’s membership of specific (marginalized) groups leads to a certain kind of epistemelogical privilege.

  71. Against warranted deference | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

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