One of the key contributions of second-wave feminism to the academy is what is known as “standpoint theory,” which asserts that members of oppressed groups have special “ways of knowing” based on their group’s unique experiences. The problem standpoint theory attempted to address is how to respond to the apparent monopoly of knowledge and power held by men (usually called “white men” in these discussions). Since women were for centuries excluded from education and professional activities, how could they gain traction for their views and rapidly enhance their present status?
The easiest way to deal with this problem is to consider the source of an idea an adequate gauge of its validity and significance. This is known as the “genetic fallacy,” a form of ad hominem or ad feminam argument. Valorizing the viewpoints of hitherto marginalized groups is an obvious instance of this fallacy. It also discourages challenges to one’s point of view, since any challenge can be represented as an attempt to demean that group’s experience, out of which it presumably speaks.
In the more academic-sounding form of “standpoint epistemology,” by which one’s racial or sexual identity provides a person with experiences that define how he or she thinks, deference is routinely paid to the special perspectives of minorities. While not wanting to get embroiled in biological essentialism or in the view that acquired experiences are inherited (or transmitted through some sort of collective unconscious), proponents of standpoint theory have turned it into a staple of feminism over the last few decades, and it has been of great utility as well to other identity groups. Its objective, as feminist scholar Sandra Harding, one of the founders of feminist standpoint theory, puts it, is to unearth the special powers that women’s lived experience can offer, the special knowledge that they can thus claim.
While the “production of knowledge” can legitimately be analyzed in terms of its social contexts and political influences, feminists in the academy have too often gone beyond that to an attack on knowledge tout court. The quality of the thinking that standpoint theory gives rise to may be shoddy, but it resists easy challenge since that would require evaluation resting on something other than identity politics, and it is precisely such a more objective, less personal, approach to knowledge that standpoint epistemology negates. A challenge to conventional notions of truth and objectivity inevitably accompanies this political game, for how else could one protect one’s “special” knowledge from unraveling in the cold light of day? The corollary is the tendency to attribute to “white European males” a uniform set of attitudes and perspectives that are assumed to be determined by identities readily caricatured as “masculinist” and “patriarchal,” the very things standpoint theory seeks – lazily — to dismiss and displace by group pressure.
In combating the nexus of knowledge and power purportedly monopolized by the dominant groups, standpoint epistemology takes the experience of oppression itself as the grounds for elevating the perceptions of certain groups. Departing from the unobjectionable observation that people’s beliefs are shaped by their experiences, which are dependent upon the situations within which their lives are enmeshed, standpoint epistemology implies that the more oppressed the group, the greater the claims for group members’ special access to knowledge. Rooted in Marxism and passing through Foucault, standpoint epistemology turns on its head – but cannot do away with — old notions of a hierarchy of race and sex, to which it adds the crucial category of class.
But since identity group members do not have identical experiences – one can be black and female and grow up in a highly privileged setting, for example – standpoint theory runs into difficulties, for it is obvious that the individual experiences of members of identity groups differ and, furthermore, that individuals belong to more than one identity group. Not surprisingly, then, the purported unity of “women” as a group rapidly broke down along identity faultlines of one or another type.
The principles of standpoint theory, however, as articulated in numerous feminist writings starting in the early 1980s, did not require revision but only ever refined application. Identity politics, after all, is a game anyone can play. The result has been a kind of endless pass-it-down political skirmish, by which every newly-identified oppressed group can attack the one above it, using the principles of standpoint theory to do so. And, naturally, new vocabulary has arisen at each point to reflect the complaints of newly emerging groups: “Feminism” – a venerable old term — gave way to charges of Eurocentrism and “white privilege,” but “Afrocentrism” itself was also vulnerable to accusations of heterosexism, which morphed into the even more devastating charge of “heteronormativity.”
Like American society generally, higher education these days increasingly focuses on an ever-expanding list of identity groups. One’s knowledge is assumed to be not a matter of learning, reflection, and careful thought, but rather primarily of experience rooted in one’s race and sexual identity, combined with class, ethnicity, religion, and other emerging identity markers. In other words, our thinking is not merely influenced by our life histories but in fact is somehow determined by our particular history or genotype.
In the academic world, a familiar practical application of such claims is the notion that “you have to be one to teach it.” And, indeed, more and more faculty members are expected to “be what they teach,” as if this were in itself a qualification – which it soon comes to be. Hence we find primarily women in women’s studies programs, primarily blacks in black studies programs, primarily lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals (the categories keep growing), in LGBT programs, and so on. Because of the constant proliferation of identity groups, women’s studies programs these days routinely include in their mission statements a declaration of their commitment to an “integrated” or “intersectional” analysis of race, gender, class, sexuality, and the rest of the gang, as if neat little packages of identity markers strengthen one’s claims to superior knowledge.
The philosopher Susan Haack is one critic whose work should be indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand these contemporary academic habits. Her 1998 book Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays is filled with challenges to the notion that a perspective rooted in group identity strengthens intellectual work. Haack considers that “[t]he rubric ‘feminist epistemology’ is incongruous on its face, in somewhat the way of, say, ‘Republican epistemology.'” She explains:
The profusion of incompatible themes proposed as “feminist epistemology” itself speaks against the idea of a distinctively female cognitive style. But even if there were such a thing, the case for feminist epistemology would require further argument to show that women’s “ways of knowing” . . . represent better procedures of inquiry or subtler standards of justification than the male. And, sure enough, we are told that insights into the theory of knowledge are available to women which are not available, or not easily available to men.
Haack does not hesitate to dismiss “the egregious assumption that one thinks with one’s skin or one’s sex organs,” and points out that “this form of argument, when applied to the concepts of evidence, truth, etc., is not only fallacious; it is also pragmatically self-undermining. . . . For if there were no genuine inquiry, no objective evidence, we couldn’t know what theories are such that their being accepted would conduce to women’s interests, nor what women’s interests are.” But as Haack notes, “the politicization of inquiry, . . . whether in the interests of good political values or bad, is always epistemologically unsound.”
Furthermore, as I have argued in the past, without some general principles that rest outside of particular identity politics, no minority group could ever hope to win the support of the majority If the majority acted as the minority seeks to, and used merely the same standards, the minority would always lose out. For unless minority group politics stay fixated at the level of blackmail and coercion, they can succeed in the long-term only by appealing to non-identity-based arguments.
In the end, then, identity groups have no choice but to rest their case on universalist notions of evidence and logic, as well as values of justice, fairness, and accountability not defined according to the limits of identity politics. Without such overarching principles, what we can expect is precisely what one finds in the world of identity politics: an endless division of groups into smaller and smaller identity units, depending on a few shared characteristics that are always in danger of dissolving. No one, in short, has an unassailable identity.
And so we come to Judge Sonia Sotomayor. When President Obama focused on empathy and lived experience as crucial to his nominee for the Supreme Court, academic ideologues must have rejoiced. For an emphasis on “the authority of experience” tirelessly elaborated in identity politics, has been a staple of feminist pedagogy for decades now, along with the assumption that “caring” is somehow specific to women, especially to minority women. The only thing that’s new is the appearance of this mode of thinking at the level of the White House. And when the president’s nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is found to have repeatedly stated her own expectation that a wise woman, especially a wise Latina woman, would no doubt arrive at better legal decisions than a wise male judge, she, too, is merely voicing a view commonly held in the contemporary academy and embraced also in some law schools under the name of “critical legal theory” and its offshoot “critical race theory.”
Real time and energy are required to respond to the specifics of an argument or perspective in a rational and thoughtful manner. How much more economical it is to be able to dismiss positions held by one’s opponents simply by referring to their identity, while asserting the superiority of one’s own perspective, rooted in personal experience. But while seeming to depend on personal experience, standpoint theory further shields itself from serious scrutiny by magnifying that experience and drawing on the ancestral or “community” history lurking behind it. The individual who utilizes standpoint theory rests her claims for a superior perspective on her ability to speak “as a” member of a particular identity group, just as Sonia Sotomayor has done.
In an essay published in 1950, Bertrand Russell referred rather scathingly to the belief in what he called “the superior virtue of the oppressed” – never, in his view, a sound basis for a claim to equality. And yet that is indeed the underlying belief still prevalent today whenever identity politics is played. The appeal to group identity is useful as a shorthand way of affirming the claims of the oppressed – or formerly oppressed. It is what drives the unseemly competition for most-oppressed status.
In practice, however, standpoint theory is applied opportunistically, which reveals that, at heart, it is merely a political weapon, not a philosophically coherent position. Clarence Thomas, for example, was not afforded the protections of standpoint theory. His identity and personal experience as a member of an oppressed minority were readily discarded by his critics, who cared only whether or not he was on “their side” politically. Nor have standpoint theories done much for Condoleezza Rice.
Perhaps Judge Sotomayor’s legal decisions will be neither enhanced nor hampered by her status as a self-identified “wise Latina woman.” But these words of hers are by no means a personal quirk, coming out of nowhere. She is, in fact, merely piggy-backing on a notion commonly found in the academy today.