July 14, 2009

Knowing and the hypothetical white male

A (pilfered) guest post:

Judge Sotomayor may have been saying something like a juridical version of the concept of the epistemological privilege of the poor advanced by liberation theologians. The idea is that the oppressed have a special insight into the nature of and reasons for their oppression. John Yoder, for example, writes that if you see things from below, you will see them as God does.

This is just a form of standpoint epistemology, and in its modern versions it mostly originates with Marx.

You're right to say it is not racist. It's basically an empirical claim about social and cultural position, which at most tracks race contingently. To put it in illustrative Marxist terms: the servant who lives in the servants' quarters but works in the masters' house is likely to have a greater knowledge of the workings of both contexts than do the masters, whose privilege consists partly in their not having to bother with how the servants live.

People growing up in a subculture, but immersed in the dominant culture by media, may similarly have a greater total knowledge of both cultures/realities/ways of life than will someone who both lives in and is immersed in the dominant culture. To the extent that knowledge and understanding of the world are relevant to being a good judge, it is hardly outrageous, and absolutely not racist, to conjecture that one would thereby have an advantage in making all manner of judgments, including legal ones.

This rather benign duo of ideas, that knowing more tends to make one a better judge, and that (ceteris paribus) having a wider range of cultural experiences tends to lead to knowing more, is pretty clearly what Sotomayor is advancing.

She cites with approval the view that "there is a diversity of opinion because there is both a diversity of experiences and of thought"; and even the quote that has generated so much flapdoodle follows up this approach explicitly: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Of course the hacks trying to make hay with this quote see only the racial terms, and not the transparent emphasis on the role of knowledge in facilitating good judgment.

What's "that life" that her hypothetical white male hasn't lived? A Latina life? No; she's already gone on at length about how there is no such single thing. It's quite clear that she means a life of experiences that span more than just one aspect of the "salad bowl" of American cultures — the framework within which the entire speech occurs.

How big a difference the knowledge of culturally diverse experience makes is a factual matter; one may doubt that it makes much difference at all. But it's a reasonable conjecture on its face, and not racist in the least.

Shamelessly appropriated from here.


Clutch said...

Pfft. Written by someone who doesn't know the difference between standpoint theory and pragmatist empiricism, I'll wager.

Besides, noted epistemologist Dad29 has pointed out that Nuh-Uh!!11!, so your guest post collapses in ruins, I'm afraid.

illusory tenant said...

I saw that. Argumentum ad too many words-um.

Good thing you're not a liberal.