Sunday, 20 September 2015

Partisanship and Identity Politics

I've been reading some interesting articles and 'Twitter storms' recently that generally assert that majority and privileged groups (usually white males) should not give an opinion on matters that relate to those not in the majority or privileged group. These assertions can range from politely pointing out that the speaker may not know what they're talking about, to anger that they're even expressing an opinion. To avoid any current controversies* the example I'll link to is of a debate that was scheduled to be held at an Oxford University college on abortion, that at least in part caused outrage because the speakers were all male. I bumped into a good response from Steve Bruce (2000) to these partisan assertions that the views of out-groups should not be seriously considered :
"One good reason to be suspicious of this argument is that it is not offered even-handedly, We do not find sociologists arguing that only aristocrats an usefully study aristocracy or that only fascists can study fascism. Such special pleading is offered only by people on their own behalf. Often it has the appearance of being a lazy way of asserting (rather than demonstrating) the superiority of their claims. Clearly, possessing some trait may be useful in understanding others with the same characteristic."
I think Bruce is right, though I would weaken his position that special pleading is only offered on people's own behalf to it being often offered on their own behalf.

We would not try to claim that the views of doctors about cancer patients should be discounted if those doctors have never had cancer, or that only astronauts have anything useful to say about astronauts. A plutocrat might have a very distorted and false view about the life of poor people, and is likely to not have recent experience of being poor, but she might be fully capable of understanding and sympathising with the life of the poor. It is entirely possible that a plutocrat can be right, and the poor person wrong, about something to do with the life and situation of the poor person.

Bruce goes on to say:
"In drawing a line between insiders and outsiders, we have to impute to the group a patently exaggerated (if not downright false) set of common experiences and interests. Obviously not all women or members of ethnic groups share the same experiences or hold the same values. Margaret Thatcher may have been Britain's first woman Prime Minister, but she was remarkably unsympathetic to what feminists defined as women's interests."
We should avoid the temptation to exclude people or groups from public debates because they don't belong to a particular club. If we are tempted to say that Group X cannot understand the situation of Group Y, or that they should not be allowed to express a view, we should turn the relationship around and ask if the reverse is true. If we find ourselves tempted to allow Group Y to comment on Group X but not the other way around, we should pause and examine our reasons to see if they are of equal worth.

ReferenceBruce, S. (2000) Sociology, a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

As an aside, I've found Oxford University Press' "A Very Short Introduction" series to be excellent.

* You can interpret this as laziness if you'd like. You won't be hugely wrong.