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:
4 Reasons Demanding ‘Objectivity’ in Social Justice Debates Can Be Oppressive
Of course it can. Sian Ferguson graces us with this gem of an insight and provides one of the most hypocritical reasons for this warped logic. As Ferguson explains:
Picture this: You’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter when you come across an important discussion on something that affects you personally – like, say, sexual assault when you’ve been sexually violated before.
Since it’s something that’s very important to you, you decide to contribute to the discussion by offering your personal perspective, experience, and feelings around the subject.
Only to have it dismissed because you’re, supposedly, too emotional or too subjective.
Having your perspective dismissed because it isn’t “objective” enough is an incredibly frustrating – and unfortunately common – experience.
It is a common situation, however, the situation Ferguson describes typically happens to men, particularly white men, and male victims. Feminists and progressives are keen to tell men that their life experiences are anecdotal and do not represent any accurate indication of society. In most social justice circles, these experiences are simply dismissed as subjective nonsense.
Yet Ferguson states:
But a lot of us – both in social justice circles and out – tend to glorify objectivity in debates. Often, we think arguments and discussions are better when they’re unemotional, unbiased, and unattached from personal perspectives – exactly as we were taught.
By oppressive systems.
And so, glorifying objectivity in social justice debates can be really harmful for a number of different reasons.
Ferguson does not show that these “oppressive systems” taught anyone anything. The claim is presented without evidence and argued from a weak point of “some black feminist said subjective truth is truth.” Do not take my word for it:
In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins gives a brilliant explanation of how positivism – a school of thought that values objectivity and provable arguments – benefits white men the most. […] At risk of oversimplification, black feminist thought centers the lived experiences of marginalized people. It argues that subjectivity is valuable because people’s lived experiences are valuable – because people’s spoken truths are, in and of themselves, truths.
This is nonsense. It ignores that people can misperceive the world around them and draw incorrect conclusions. It ignores that people can be influenced by various ideologies and draw incorrect conclusions. It ignores that people often only see part of the picture, which could lead them to draw incorrect conclusions.
This is why objectivity is so important. It is not there to deny anyone’s lived experiences. We use it to keep those experiences from skewing our understanding of the world around us. It is easy to assume one’s experiences represent the whole of reality. It is harder to accept that one’s experiences may only show a small part of what happens. Yet Ferguson seems to ignore this and instead argues for why the argument “against the idea that objectivity – which involves an emotional detachment from knowledge – is important in all academic fields”:
1. Often, Those Who Seem ‘Objective’ Are Actually Just Privileged
I’m white, so I’ve never experienced racial oppression.
Let us stop there. The above statement is wrong. It is not that Ferguson cannot experience racial oppression; it is simply that in the current society Ferguson does not. There is nothing preventing this from changing over time.
When I see racist remarks, I don’t feel personally attacked, so I don’t express anger or feel like crying. So I’m able to talk in a way that seems calm and cool. To many people, then, I might seem like I’m being fairly objective during these debates.
Here’s the thing though: My distance isn’t a sign of my being more rational. It doesn’t mean my arguments are more logical. And it doesn’t mean I’m objective.
Being able to remain unaffected during discussions about racism is a result of my white privilege.
This is correct. One can be irrational and illogical despite not being affected by a given issue. Yet the primary concern is whether one’s experiences skew you toward a specific view. A person who has never experienced an act is more likely to be objective because they do not have that baggage. In contrast, for someone who regularly experiences the issue “it can be incredibly difficult for them to seem calm during debates about something that affects them so often and so intimately”.
This is why objectivity is so important. That intimacy could lead those people to draw conclusions based on their unique experience irrespective of the broader situation. It does not mean their conclusions are wrong, only that they are skewed. Ferguson provides an example of this:
Because I’m queer, I’m deeply hurt by heterosexist remarks. If someone erases queer people or says something heterosexist, I get flustered. I cry easily. I struggle to avoid getting emotional, because I become (rightfully!) angry about the bigotry directed towards me.
My queerness is an intimate part of me, so I view an attack on queerness as an attack on me.
While a straight person might seem more calm when it comes to queer issues, they’re certainly not more knowledgeable about being queer than I am.
A straight person who works with numerous GLBT people could indeed have a broader knowledge and better understanding of being “queer” than Ferguson. Ferguson only has the one personal experience to work from whereas the straight person could have dozens to hundreds to work from. The assumption that because one personally experienced something that one is inherently more knowledgeable about it is flawed, and it is one of the reasons why subjectivity can be problematic.
2. Everyone Speaks From a Social Position and Has Biases
When it comes to conversations about social justice and oppression, objectivity is a myth.
None of us is unbiased. Not even the most level-headed person can be completely objective.
No one argued otherwise. The point of objectivity is to remove oneself from those biases in order to reach an objective position. This is not easy to do. People have various ideological, political, and philosophical positions that would affect what they are willing to consider. They have personal situations — race, sex, sexuality, religion, mental health — that would affect what they assume is “true”. Yet this does not mean people cannot see beyond those aspects. It takes effort, but it is possible.
However, if one were bent on arguing “no matter who you are, your perspective will always be affected by the privilege or oppression you face”, then it would be impossible for one to seek objectivity. One cannot be objective if one continues to preference one set of experiences over another.
3. Striving Towards ‘Objectivity’ Is Used to Justify Tone-Policing
I often see privileged people dismiss marginalized people’s arguments in the name of “objectivity.”
They may say things like “I would like to have an objective discussion with you, but your tone is too angry and rude” or “How am I supposed to take your argument seriously when you’re so emotional?”
This happens to me a lot when I discuss queer issues. When I discuss corrective rape, biphobia, and the mistreatment of queer people in the workplace, it’s so much more than a debate to me.
The memory, or the threat, of those things happening to me is incredibly unnerving. For this reason, I’m emotionally attached to the debate – something which could cause me to seem angry or rude.
Or perhaps Ferguson is being angry and rude. Allowing emotions to control you is a bad thing. There is no way around that. One can be passionate, yet uncapped passion is useless. It is merely rage and ranting. It feels good, but it solves nothing. No one can have a conversation with someone whose would rather shout demands or lecture rather than dialogue. The point of having a discussion is to exchange ideas. If one person is only concerned with getting things off his chest, then there is no exchange of ideas, only venting.
The irony of Ferguson’s complaint is that feminists and progressives tone-police other people. They push for an emotional response, and the moment men, heterosexuals, or white people get emotional the leftists will say, “We can’t argue with you because your tone is so angry and rude”. Tone-policing happens on both sides, but those on the left seem to only care when it is done to them. When they do it to others, it is completely acceptable.
4. Sometimes Emotions Are Just as Important as Facts
That is a completely idiotic statement without any justification, but let us see how Ferguson tries to make this sound rational:
Glorifying objectivity often leads us to dismiss people’s emotions.
We often see emotion to be the antithesis of cool, sound, calm reasoning and rational debate.
Here’s the thing: Oppression doesn’t simply affect people in political and economic ways. It also affects a person’s emotional and psychological health.
When women are constantly told they’re inferior to men, they feel less valuable.
When non-binary people are constantly told they don’t exist, they doubt themselves and their identities.
When mentally ill people are constantly told they’re lazy, they feel useless.
When queer people are constantly told they’re abnormal and deviant, they feel disgusting.
When trans people are constantly told they’re undesirable, they feel worthless.
The point is that oppression affects your feelings. Feelings affect how we make decisions, how we interact with others, and how we view ourselves.
Feelings are important because psychology is important.
Because of this, dismissing emotions in social justice debates erases a key aspect of oppression and hinders our understanding of one another’s experiences.
Objectivity does not require one to dismiss emotion, only to set it aside in order to understand the cause of the problem. We use the emotions as a springboard to search our culture for those answers, not only to determine their cause but to also determine their validity. Are people actually feeding these groups the negative emotions or are those groups reaching those conclusions on their own? Is it a combination of the two? If so, to what degree?
Those are questions one cannot ask if one simply takes the emotions at face value. It also presents another problem: the other side often feels maligned as well. Each one of the examples Ferguson listed has a flip-side with a negative emotion attached them. Will Ferguson consider the men who feel less valuable because of changing social positions on masculinity and maleness? What about people who are told their identities are not biological and innate but chosen by a doctor? Or those who are shamed for being heterosexual? Are those feelings equally important?
After all “social justice is about human experiences. It’s absurd – violent, even – to discuss human experiences while leaving out such an important part of our humanity”, right?
Except that is not really what people like Ferguson thinks. Those like Ferguson are not interested in everyone’s lived experiences, only the ones that coincide with the progressive perspective. If you are a white man who feels ashamed because of all the negativity heaped upon white men, your feelings do not matter. If you are a straight person who is tired of being accused of hating GLBT people because you are not sexually attracted to them, your feelings do not matter. If you are a man who no longer wants people to accuse you of being a rapist or woman beater because of your sex, your feelings do not matter. If you are a male victim rape or domestic violence who feels ignored by a society that mocks your pain and a political movement that deliberately marginalizes you, your feelings do not matter.
The only the “right” marginalized people matter. T
hat is not true, of course. From an objective perspective all people’s experiences are important because they help us understand how the world works. Yet that can interfere with the position that one group’s experiences matter more because they are “oppressed”. On that one thing Ferguson is corrected: the privileged certainly do favor subjectivity because it allows them to obscure anyone else’s experiences.