The objectivity of oppression

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?

Intersectionality and identity politics

I’ve been avoiding wading into the more-heat-than-light discussion about feminism and intersectionality, partly because more than enough bytes have been expended on the topic, but mainly because I don’t really fancy the backlash. But the pedantic, smart-arse side of me can’t keep quiet any longer, and I’m arrogant enough to think that what I have to say might fall into the light-generating rather than heat-generating category, so I’m giving it a go.

There’s clearly some deep misunderstandings going on amongst feminists and other lefty progressive types about what intersectionality is and what it demands. After all, the people who are troubled by the discourse of intersectionality are not white supremacists or Westboro Baptist style homophobes, but tend to be people with egalitarian political principles and a strong commitment to social justice. The more vocal proponents of intersectionality often explain this unease the rest of us have with it by reference to our implicit biases, and by the fact that those with power and privilege are usually reluctant to give it up, or feel uncomfortable having our prejudices pointed to out to us. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, I think the intersectionality sceptics do have valid reasons to resist the doctrine, or at least, to resist it in the form in which its proponents usually present it. Privileged though white, middle class feminists may be, it’s rather uncharitable to assume that any discomfort with intersectionality is merely a symptom of our desperate (albeit implicit) desire to hold on to that privilege.

As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial. It would be pretty difficult to deny that even though I experience some societal oppression as a woman, I am also advantaged by being white, middle-class and non-disabled, and that other women who don’t share these features of my identity will experience forms of domination and marginalization that I do not.  As far as I can tell, there aren’t many people, feminist or otherwise, who would argue against this specific part of the intersectionality story.

I don’t agree with those who say that the problem with intersectionality is that it’s a difficult, academic concept that ordinary people can’t possibly be expected to understand. It’s true that I don’t much like the word ‘intersectionality’. It’s a big, new, difficult sounding word to describe something that is actually a remarkably straight-forward and common sense idea, and that always gets my hackles up, as I suspect it’s often done in an attempt to make the obvious and mundane seem complex and profound. But I’m not going to fight with anyone about that. It’s useful to have a phrase to describe this simple idea, and if intersectionality works for you, then that’s fine – and, for better or worse, it looks like we’re stuck with it now. (It also seems worth mentioning that in my time as an academic I have never heard or read the word. Perhaps other academic disciplines use it, but it is never used in my field, and I had never encountered it until I started reading feminist stuff online.) So while there may be some initial resistance or confusion when meeting the term for the first time, I don’t think the reason to object to the discourse of intersectionality is that it’s just far too academic and complicated for normal people to understand. It’s actually incredibly obvious and easy to comprehend that if you’re a non-white woman, you’re going to be subject to both sexism and racism, which is a different experience from being subject to only one of these, and so on and so on, for other forms of prejudice.

So if this is what intersectionality is about, then I don’t believe many people on the left have any problem with it at all. I think the problem lies not with the idea of intersectionality itself, but with the identity politics that some of its proponents believe follows from it. We are told that if we accept intersectionality – which we ought to – then we also ought to accept a radical form of identity politics that says we can never generalize from people’s particular experiences, can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and where personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity. This is an unattractive – indeed, an incoherent – picture of what politics should be like, which followed through to its logical conclusions is entirely self-defeating. And as we are sold this vision of politics as part of the intersectionality package, if we can’t accept it we are told that we must reject the intersecting oppressions story too. But this is a mistake.

Starting from the uncontroversial idea that our identities are comprised of many different elements, resulting in complex, possibly unique experiences of oppression for each individual, comes the quite plausible sounding claim that each individual is the best judge of her own experiences. Given that we all have these multifaceted identities and experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, each person is likely to be best placed to recognize and understand the oppression she faces. I think this is likely to be true, or at least, most of the time, we should assume it to be true. And if we believe that, then we ought to pay close attention to people’s testimonies, listen carefully to oppressed people, and let them use their own voices to share their experiences and understandings of the injustices they have faced. This is all very sensible and attractive. Any attempt to eradicate injustice and improve the lives of oppressed people ought to begin by listening to those people and learning from their experiences.

But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better. Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles.

Suppose two women disagree about whether a certain action is sexist or not – one experiences it as discriminatory or oppressive, while the other does not feel this way about it. While it is useful to know how they feel about it, it doesn’t get us very far in deciding how to judge that action and whether to allow it or not. If we want to do more than satisfy people’s desire to be listened to – if we actually want to eradicate unjust practices – then we need to determine who is right and who is wrong. The two women presumably don’t think they are merely expressing their personal preferences about the action in question, in the way they might express a preference for tea over coffee. They both believe there is a right answer about whether the action is sexist, and that the other is mistaken. They can’t resolve this by reference to their personal testimonies and experiences alone. They will inevitably have to appeal to some beliefs they share, some general principles about what makes an action sexist. And as soon as they do this, they are having a discussion that anyone can contribute to, including men. They are appealing to abstract considerations and invoking a general argument that is in principle available to anyone, regardless of their personal experience. Once we’re doing that, men can contribute to a conversation about whether something is sexist, white people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is racist, cisgendered people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is transphobic – and they won’t necessarily be wrong, just because they lack personal experience of these forms of oppression.

Some intersectionality advocates seem to jump from the reasonable and probably true premise that people are best placed to recognize their own oppression to the unreasonable and clearly false premise that people can never be mistaken about their own oppression. It may well be true that women are best placed to define and recognize sexism, and that non-white people are best placed to identify racism. What is clearly not true is that women can never be mistaken about whether a particular phrase or action is sexist or not, or that whenever a non-white person thinks she has been the victim of racism, then she has. I may be accused here of erecting a strawman argument, that no intersectionalist actually thinks this. And yet in practice, I see this assumption at work all time, when men who question whether something is sexist are dismissed as ‘mansplainers’, or when accusations of racism are believed without evidence because it is a person of colour making the accusation. The danger with this line of thinking is that it really does lead to an Oppression Top Trumps, where we have to preface all our arguments with extensive details of our identities and past experiences to prove our oppression credentials before we are entitled to an opinion, and where personal feelings and experience trump abstract arguments and general principles.

While we ought to begin with listening to people’s stories, we cannot stop there, for on their own, people’s stories tell us nothing about what we ought to do, what policies we ought to prefer. And yet the logic of the intersectionalist’s identity politics tells us that we must stop at listening to people’s testimonies, because to do any more would be oppressive and unjust in itself. As soon as we start to abstract away from those stories, and form general principles, we risk oppressing the people who would disagree with those principles because they don’t quite fit with their own experience. But this is a totally fruitless and nihilistic approach to politics. On this logic, we couldn’t implement laws against sexual assault, for example, as all victims of assault will experience the harm of it differently, and indeed some victims might not experience it as harmful at all. On this logic, we couldn’t have a rule that punished breaking someone’s leg more severely than pinching someone’s arm, because there may be some people who find arm-pinching as distressing as a broken leg. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, in this vision of politics there could be no room for movements like feminism at all. For feminism assumes some degree of commonality among women, which the logic of this identity politics must deny. As soon as you call yourself a feminist, you are identifying yourself as part of a movement that speaks for and represents others. And yet these others are all radically and irreducibly different, from you and from each other.

It’s not obvious to me why speaking for others is inherently oppressive. Perhaps it would be better if all people could clearly and accurately express their views and experiences. But some people are always going to be more skilled at doing that than others. For some especially weak and vulnerable people, it may be physically impossible for them to speak for themselves. And crucially, it’s inevitable that some people are going to be better than others at highlighting the relevant connections between different stories, at drawing out the general features of people’s experiences that will enable us to construct our principles and guide our action. While one person may well have the best understanding of her own experiences, it’s possible that others will be in a better position to draw general conclusions from those experiences about what we ought to do.

Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. The implication of this is that sometimes, we may have to tell an oppressed person that they are mistaken in their judgement about particular cases of injustice. But the payoff is a vision of politics that allows us to do more than just listen to people’s stories, but actually implement policies and engage in action that makes people’s lives better.