Excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times from a couple of weeks ago by (my once-upon-a-time teacher) Kwame Anthony Appiah, applying his usual clear, precise, urbane style to the question of why it is so common (and perhaps troubling) for people to speak as representatives of a group. Here’s part of his argument:
Being a black lesbian, for instance, isn’t a matter of simply combining African-American, female and homosexual ways of being in the world; identities interact in complex ways. That’s why Kimberlé Crenshaw, a feminist legal theorist and civil-rights activist, introduced the notion of intersectionality, which stresses the complexity with which different forms of subordination relate to one another. Racism can make white men shrink from black men and abuse black women. Homophobia can lead men in South Africa to rape gay women but murder gay men. Sexism in the United States in the 1950s kept middle-class white women at home and sent working-class black women to work for them.
Let’s go back to Joe, with his NPR mug and his man bun. (Or are you picturing a “Make America Great Again” tank top and a high-and-tight?) Having an identity doesn’t, by itself, authorize you to speak on behalf of everyone of that identity. So it can’t really be that he’s speaking for all white men. But he can at least speak to what it’s like to live as a white man, right?
Not if we take the point about intersectionality. If Joe had grown up in Northern Ireland as a gay white Catholic man, his experiences might be rather different from those of his gay white Protestant male friends there — let alone those of his childhood pen pal, a straight, Cincinnati-raised reform Jew. While identity affects your experiences, there’s no guarantee that what you’ve learned from them is going to be the same as what other people of the same identity have learned.
This is a good starting point for a discussion that’s given far too little attention, it seems to me. Identity politics tends strongly towards the idea that only members of oppressed groups can speak legitimately to the nature and conditions of their own oppression. But you can think that it’s historically typical (and absurd) for the most privileged groups to monopolize all discourse (or lack of discourse) about the oppression of others while at the same time thinking that (a) what really is the best account of what’s going on is an empirical question, and (b) that there are special reasons why it’s quite likely that members of oppressed groups also – like members of privileged groups – will suffer ideological blinders about their condition, and therefore that we all (regardless of who we speak “as”) need to engage openly, without fear of being shut up, in the task of ferreting out the truth. This was – to the embarrassment of many on the current identity-focused left – Marx’s well-reasoned position. He thought English workers were oppressed partly by their openness to being fooled into a stupid racism about the Irish. Conveniently for the British industrial bourgeoisie, they didn’t see what was really going on. And that is, as Marx rightly saw, the very type of an ideological belief.
Calling all Trump voters …
Anyway, Appiah is always worth reading. After this, try his Cosmopolitanism.