It happens every day. In fact, it is pretty hard to avoid it. There are some things that can only be understood with a slap on the forehead. Things so mind-boggling that one wonders how humans managed to evolve thumbs while being this mentally inept. Case in point:
Do I even have to tell people who wrote the article? Better yet, let us see who can guess who wrote it just from the quotes. No peeking at the link until you finish reading my responses.
The author’s position is that as a result of “epistemic privilege”, women see sexual imbalances and other disparities more than men, therein making them inherently “right” in any discussion about sex, gender, race, and so on. As the author explains:
This enhanced awareness leads to something called “epistemic privilege.” (Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that deals with how we know things.) Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally—though not universally—the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition,” it’s because folks in a historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.
While this notion is not illogical, it is flawed. The notion fails to take into account whether the person’s observations are objective, whether they were something taught to the person, or whether they result from confirmation bias. It is true, for example, that a black person would see more racism than a white person. A black person is more likely to experience it and therefore be more aware of the nuances of racism. However, it is also possible, and does indeed happen, that as a result of experiencing racism and being told about racism that some black people see racism where there is none.
The same thing happens with sexism. There are plenty of cases where women, particularly feminist women, see sexism where there is none. Confirmation bias, a type of selective thinking in which a person looks for what confirms their beliefs and ignores what contradicts or disproves those beliefs, plays a major role in the way people look at discrimination, which the author graciously demonstrated:
Here’s an obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are intellectually aware of the reality of rape. Most understand that it is men who almost always do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation.
Firstly, while most people believe only men are rapists and only women are victims, recent studies suggests that sexual violence is likely even between the sexes, particularly child sexual abuse.
Secondly, “privilege” has nothing to do with whether men or women fear going to a particular area. Rather, it is the social norms that tell people how they should outwardly respond and internally feel. Men are not allowed to appear vulnerable, so if men are afraid of being raped, they would not likely admit it. In contrast, women are told to be fearful, so it is hardly surprising that so many women would fear being assaulted if in the “wrong” place.
Thirdly, even if men were not likely to be raped, they are very likely, indeed more likely than women, to be assaulted in some other fashion. Men far more likely to be victims of random violence than women, and they make up the majority of those assaulted by strangers. Men do not have the “privileged luxury of ignorance”; what they have is the social enforcement of feigned self-protection. Men are required to appear strong, and it seems rather telling that a feminist, who should be aware of gender roles, would fail to notice that putting on a tough face is not the same as not being at risk.
Fourthly, there is nothing to support the idea that women have a better understanding of this dynamic even if it were true. Anecdotal experiences are not concrete evidence. Each person’s life experience differs from the next, and there is no guarantee that the conclusion a person reaches is universal, let alone correct.
The author tries to explain away these obvious flaws with the concept of standpoint theory, the idea that “(1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.”
The author further cites another theory called “strong objectivity” to try to shore up this assertion:
Strong objectivity is a term first used by standpoint feminist Sandra Harding to describe research that starts from the experiences of those who have traditionally been left out of the production of knowledge. Harding suggests that starting research from the lives of women “actually strengthens standards of objectivity”. Strong objectivity can be contrasted with the supposed ‘weak objectivity’ of supposed value-neutral research.
The inherent flaw in all this is that no one bothers to test whether any of this is objective. Indeed, if one automatically assumes that women have a better insight than men, one is clearly not objective. The only way to produce an objective analysis is by giving both sides’ experiences the same weight. The reason is because both groups bring different experiences to the table, and it is possible that neither of their understandings of the world is entirely accurate or unbiased. As one commenter named Sam put it:
The thing is, I do find privilege to be an important concept and do agree that those who possess it need to reflect a little harder. So, yeah, totally fine with your conclusion, but you cannot use standpoint epistemology to get to that point, because it doesn’t say “think harder”, or “reflect”, it assigns truth based on a priori criteria, and thus pretty much makes your reflection obsolete in the first place.
This way, interestingly, the very notion of an epistemic privilege *creates* circlular oppression in itself, because the a priori denial of a perspectives admissibility can undoubtedly seen as oppression, which, within the logic, would automatically grant the oppressed epistemic privilege within the debate itself. So, basically, feminists using standpoint epistemology to explain why they’re right basically create a gender discourse in which people who aren’t feminists possess the epistemic privilege. And ad indinitum. The whole thing really doesn’t make much sense, and again, as I said back in 2009, it’s only useful as an epistemic backup of feminist theory on the first glance, because it can be taken apart so easily.
Ultimately, the author is trying to get to a basic point:
Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it. […] Again, power obfuscates; oppression clarifies.
The problem is that this is not necessarily true. Those with power can be very aware of the power afforded to them, just as those without power can overestimate the power afforded to others. The idea that oppression clarifies also does not parse because oppression by its nature is blinding. The intent is to keep people in the dark, so the notion that those who are oppressed would have a better understanding than the so-called oppressors is just biased wishful thinking. At best they have a limited view of the world colored by their experiences. This would make them less objective, not more.
As this relates to relationships, which was what the author wrote about, this means that women’s understanding of relationship, sex, and power dynamics are not superior to men’s, just different. And the author is clearly aware of that, hence the inane feminist jiujitsu the author uses in order to support a weak and ironically sexist argument.