In my post yesterday on intersectionality and identity politics, I tried to argue that the internal logic of identity politics is flawed, and though motivated by good intentions, can’t actually yield a practical vision of politics that makes people’s lives better. I now realize that there is an assumption in this argument that I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and yet is crucial to the point, namely: the fact that oppression is objective. This is a fact that many intersectionalists seem to want to deny. Yet they can’t, because the very fact that we can talk about oppression at all relies upon its being in some sense objective.
Suppose Joey claims that Chandler has broken his arm. Joey might be in the best position to know how his arm feels, and so the first thing we need to do is listen to Joey and find out how his arm feels. However, there’s no reason to assume that Joey is best placed to know whether his arm is broken. Just because he feels like it is broken, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is – Joey’s interpretation can be mistaken. A doctor will listen carefully to Joey’s testimony, but will ultimately appeal to independent criteria to determine whether Joey’s arm is broken, and it is to these independent criteria that we should appeal when determining whether or not Chandler is guilty of arm-breaking. We can all agree that Joey is not the final authority with respect to whether his arm is broken. Yet some proponents of intersectionality seem to want to suggest that he could be the final authority with respect to whether he has been the victim of oppression or not. But just because in practice, diagnosis of oppression is inevitably more controversial and appeals to less well established facts, does not mean that is in principle any less objective.
The idea that we should listen closely to people’s testimonies and try to learn as much as we can from their experiences often seems to lead people to the conclusion that this subjective form of knowledge – people’s particular narratives and experiences – is the only kind of knowledge we can have, and the only kind of knowledge that can inform political action. And if that’s true, then we shouldn’t try to generalize from those personal experiences to more abstract, seemingly objective principles, because these principles will never be objective – they will only be the particular, subjective beliefs of dominant people, and will serve the interests of the powerful. This conclusion is, I think, mistaken. Of course, we always need to engage in careful examination of our norms and principles, to try to ensure that they are objectively valid, and not just a reflection of the interests of powerful individuals or groups. But unless we acknowledge some objectivity in our definitions of what constitute oppression or injustice, there can be no foundations for eradicating these, or for making people’s lives go better.
The reason for this is that there is no way to make sense of concepts like oppression or injustice, unless we understand them as having some objective criteria – that is, criteria that determine whether an action oppressive, independently of how it is experienced by those subject to it. If it did not – if oppression was entirely a matter of whether or not a person feels they have been oppressed – then there would be no way to distinguish between action that is oppressive, and action that I just don’t like very much. And clearly, when people claim to have been oppressed, they think they are saying something different, and more compelling, than merely “I don’t like this”. There are lots of things people could do (or refuse to do) to me that I wouldn’t like very much. I might like to win the lottery, or to borrow your car. We can all agree that the fact I would like to get these things but don’t get them is not oppression, no matter how strongly I might feel about it. And when I say I am being oppressed by something you do, I believe I am saying more than just “I would have liked you to do this”; I believe I am saying, “I have a right to this, and you ought to do it”. And the fact that you ought to do it does not depend on how I feel about it, or on the fact that I would like you to do it; because if it did, there would be no difference between you oppressing me, and you not lending me your car. As soon as I claim to be oppressed, I am appealing to some objective criteria of oppression, criteria that are independent of my subjective feelings and interpretations.
Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are. And listening to people’s narratives and experiences will be very useful here, for any plausible account of what oppression is presumably needs to fit reasonably well with our intuitions and considered judgements about what oppression is like. These criteria need not be set in stone – they can be open to constant revision. And (hopefully) obviously, the dialogue where we determine what these objective criteria should be needs to be open to as many different voices as possible, especially those who have typically been marginalized and oppressed. But ultimately, we need to try to come to a set of objective criteria about what constitutes oppression. And once we do, then we can use these criteria in specific cases to judge whether a particular claim to be oppressed is correct or not. This leaves open the possibility that the person who feels oppressed may in fact be mistaken. While she may feel strongly and in good faith that she has been the victim of oppression, this is not sufficient for it to be true that she has. She may well have been; but this is determined objectively, independent of her experience, interpretations and feelings. So therefore, it is at least possible for people to be mistaken about their own oppression. Trying to ensure that our beliefs about oppression and injustice are as objective as possible is essential, and I do not mean to deny that less oppressed people frequently fail to recognize the ways in which their beliefs about oppression are clouded by their own unchecked and unacknowledged privilege. In real life politics, this is by far the bigger problem facing social justice activists – people in positions of power and privilege frequently fail to examine the ways in which their privilege has shaped their views abut what justice and oppression are. Without a doubt, people with privilege have much to learn from the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My point is simply that the knowledge they gain is only of use if it informs general and objective principles that guide future political action.
The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.
For a more theoretical discussion of this line of argument, you might want to read this great post by Matt Bruenig: What does identitarian deference require?