Privilege: A tired old argument?

You should go read Jeremy Stangroom’s post, The Antinomies of Privilege, over at Talking Philosophy. Stangroom wrote his article way back in 2011, but it’s worth revisiting. Some people in the secular movement(s) have a poor understanding of privilege, i.e., the privilege of  a partial perspective, and how it relates to feminist standpoint. A key point from Stangroom’s article:

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.

Feminist scholars have made a similar criticisms, and I think many would agree with Strangroom’s identification of the problem, unlike the folks who took one gender studies course and stopped interrogating these issues. Feminists want to give marginalized people tools for both identifying and challenging obstacles. They do not claim that being marginalized deserves a special status or that anyone should just “shut up and listen.” They do, however, argue that if we want to make choices that benefit people with structural disadvantages, then we should take into account their experiences because the marginalized often have a better idea of what it is like to be marginalized than those who are part of the dominant group.

Yes, if we are concerned about marginalized people, then we should indeed listen carefully to their experiences, but the marginalized don’t get automatic privilege because of their disadvantaged status: “In the most recent articulation of standpoint theory, the project is not to identify one epistemically privileged social perspective, but to identify the contingent and local advantages different perspectives have regarding representing certain aspects of the social world that are relevant for answering particular questions” (Anderson, 2006). I strongly believe that positions of marginality can help us understand social problems, but they must be treated with the same charity and skepticism that we afford more advantaged perspectives. Intemann (2010) addresses some of the misunderstandings of standpoint in more detail:

[S]ome have interpreted standpoint feminists as claiming that membership in an oppressed group is sufficient for having a less distorted view of the world and that this epistemic advantage would be present in any epistemological context. This seems clearly false for two reasons. First, we can easily think of cases where members of oppressed groups have a less accurate view of the world either because they have internalized their own oppression or have lacked the educational resources useful for achieving certain kinds of knowledge. Second, it is difficult to see how oppressed groups would have an epistemic advantage in every epistemological context, as there are some areas of knowledge (for example, theoretical physics) where the experiences one has in virtue of one’s social position appear to be irrelevant to the content of the theories or evidence at stake.

My point in bringing feminist scholars into this discussion is to help combat the assumption that certain members of the secular community are paradigmatic representatives of feminist thought. So, this is partly a defense of feminist epistemology and feminist social science because I’m sure some people are already jumping on the antifeminist bandwagon. I’m not saying “serious” feminist are a homogenous group. They disagree all the time, but they are a a lot more cautious about how they use words like privilege and many agree that the inclusion of marginalized voices must be paired with critical reflection (and contrary views must be taken seriously).

Anderson, E. (2006). How not to criticize feminist epistemology: a review of Scrutinizing feminist epistemology. 

Intemann, K. (2010). 25 years of feminist empiricism and standpoint theory: Where are we now?. Hypatia25(4), 778-796.