For Sake of Argument

Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are problems that need to be addressed. While most people agree that society should move to defeat these inequities, some disagreement has arisen about who is fit for this undertaking. Consider the following statements from a recent TSL article: “[I]f you’re discussing the prevalence of racism or any other power imbalance in society, privilege does diminish the importance of your opinion to the discussion. The fact of the matter is that your circumstances in life as a privileged person prevent you from even being aware of some of the problems that underprivileged minorities face. That means that when we’re discussing how hostile a culture is to minorities, your opinion isn’t just less important—it’s incidental at most. The uncomfortable truth is that the underprivileged are best poised to speak to the prevalence of privilege in our society...”

I do not mean to single out the author of this piece, but I think these statements exemplify a sentiment that is growing in the social justice community. I agree with the premise that people with the strongest understanding of discrimination and inequity are most equipped to appropriately raise those issues and guide ensuing conversations, but I cannot accept a conclusion that members of a disadvantaged class always have better understandings of those issues than non-members.

In economics, law, politics, and nearly every other realm of social discourse, opinions and claims of understanding are evaluated based on both experiential and theoretical factors, though neither set of factors is considered categorically superior to the other. There is general agreement that the strength of an argument depends on the strength of the evidence provided and the coherency of the relevant analysis.

This consensus on the proper way to approach argumentative evaluation often breaks down, however, when sensitive discussions of discrimination or inequity arise. Why, in these cases, do some people try to assign preferred status to experiential—often anecdotal—evidence over theoretical or philosophical frameworks?

Discourses in social justice should not be different from any other debate. Obviously, there is experiential knowledge that contributes to the understanding of discrimination and its manifestations, and much of this knowledge is available only to those marginalized persons who have been forced to endure the inequity. Conceding that non-marginalized persons cannot share in this knowledge or credibly offer their own experiences as evidence, however, does not necessitate the downgrading of their ideas and opinions to a lower plane.

Who is to say that any one person’s experience will always be closer to the truth than a solid theory backed up by secondary evidence? Of course, I am not suggesting that marginalized persons' experiences should always be dismissed as lacking theoretical backing; anecdotal evidence can provide powerful support to a broader claim. I am simply wondering why standard analytic procedures are overlooked in the face of controversy.

To effectively defend moral ideals of equality and dignity of the human condition, one does not need to have experienced inequality. Personal experience is undoubtedly the shortest path to understanding, but it is not a requirement.

Does the average woman have a better understanding of the struggle for women's equality than the average man? Yes. Does the average African-American have a better understanding of the nature of racial disparity and discrimination than the average Caucasian? Surely. Do these generalizations mean that the ideas of J.S. Mill do not present a stronger case for gender equity and better plan for its advancement than many women can offer, or that every victimized minority has a deeper understanding of fundamental equality than Abraham Lincoln had? No.

Personal experience is undeniably a big head start when it comes to wrestling with these issues, but it is not a supreme measure by which to evaluate notions of equity, morality, and justice. People who have never been discriminated against may only rarely be able to contribute compelling and insightful opinions to the discourse, but that is no excuse to categorically diminish or dismiss their views.

By only recognizing those with a threshold level of anecdotal experience as valid participants in the discourse, social justice advocates are doing a disservice to their cause. First, this approach risks overlooking powerful ideas and valuable acuity from alternative perspectives that could be instrumental in curing social prejudices. Second, it adds a level of unearned righteousness to the views of any member of the victimized class, whose experiences are often not representative of the class as a whole.

Why should openly gay celebrity Rupert Everett’s remarks against gay parenting be taken any more seriously than similarly unsubstantiated claims from heterosexuals? Or perhaps the Supreme Court should simply defer to Justice Clarence Thomas when deciding issues of affirmative action. Why not let him speak for the African-American experience? His reasoning for rejecting affirmative action is irrelevant because, since he's lived it, there is no need to evaluate the merit of his philosophies against those of the non-minority Justices. What more could a social justice advocate ask for?