The Antinomies of Privilege

Jeremy Stangroom reflects on some of the problems of thinking that absence of privilege necessarily confers certain epistemological advantages. 

There’s a tired old argument that seems to have gained a new lease of life in these less exacting times, which holds that privilege functions as an epistemological barrier when it comes to understanding sexism, racism, inequality, etc; and, conversely, that being part of a group that is in various ways marginalized, oppressed or subordinated confers a sort of epistemological privilege when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of that situation.

Obviously, there is a kernel of truth to this argument, but it is also highly problematic (especially for people committed to the importance of reason, evidence, etc., as mechanisms for assessing truth-claims). Here are some of the things you need to get straight about if you’re tempted to deploy this argument.

1. If you think that one’s lived experience has systematic and predictable epistemic consequences, then you have to accept that this might flow in the opposite direction to the one suggested by the argument above. In other words, it is entirely possible that structural privilege confers epistemological privilege even when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of the situations of the subordinated, marginalized, etc. This is not a particularly counterintuitive thought (indeed, one could argue that it underpins most of our ideas about education). It’s easy enough to find examples of precisely this sort of argument from amongst even those who champion the cause of the underprivileged. So, for example, you’ll find that Marxists bang on about false class consciousness, ideological state apparatuses, hegemonic projects, etc., to explain how the marginalization and powerlessness of the proletariat messes with its head so it can’t see the reality of its true situation.

2. Yes, yes, I know, it’s one thing to know something in principle, but that’s not the same as experiencing it - there’s a sort of knowledge that comes with experience (some might claim). Well, there’s certainly a sort of something that comes with experience, but whether it is knowledge, and what sort of knowledge, is a difficult issue to sort out. Consider, for example: (a) that people disagree about the nature of their experience as members of purportedly marginalized groups (and some get called “gender traitors” for their trouble); (b) that there’s a wealth of data that suggests we’re actually pretty bad at correctly understanding the situations we inhabit (and indeed, even our thoughts about these situations); and (c) that people do not necessarily experience what most us would take to be marginalized situations as being problematic (check out, for example, some of the literature on FGM; or ask yourself whether slaves in the ancient world would have accepted the legitimacy of the institution of slavery).

3. The annoying tendency of (some of) the marginalized and subordinated not to see or experience their own marginalization and subordination in quite the same terms as those of us who are less marginalized and subordinated would have it is a problem of individual differences (i.e., the fact that individuals cannot be reduced to group characteristics). This comes up in a different guise in a row that played out between socialist and radical feminists in the 1970s, and which is still relevant today. In essence, the problem is that it is… implausible to suppose that there is enough that unites all women, or the working class, for example, so that it makes sense to think mere “membership” of these groups means a common identity or interests. So, for example, the idea that the Queen of England has more in common with a working-class woman than does a working-class man, and is consequently better qualified to talk about their shared lived experience as women is… well, problematic, to say the least. (Similarly, one might consider how working-class politics in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by endless rows over pay differentials).

4. There’s an epistemological problem with the argument to epistemological privilege. Specifically, it’s not easy to see that it is possible to substantiate the claim that epistemological privilege necessarily flows from certain kinds of marginalized experience without falling into contradiction. This is because the moment you appeal to evidence, argument, etc., you are operating precisely on the terrain of epistemic equality. The trouble is if you deny that this evidence is generally accessible – if you really are committed to the view that there are certain privileged ways of knowing (and that you can’t know this to be the case unless you’re in a position of privilege) – then your position is simply an article of faith (in fact, it’s disconcertingly similar to the proof of god from religious experience).

5. Finally, there’s a rather subtle point about how you can know that some particular belief you have about your experience as a marginalized person is genuinely flowing from your epistemological privilege, rather than just being a possibly flawed everyday sort of belief. Or, to put this crudely, if you’re committed to the idea of epistemological privilege, it’s hard to see that you can ever be sure you’ve got it. Basically, the problem here is that if epistemological privilege (about certain sorts of things) belongs uniquely to the marginalized, then it seems to be required that the beliefs that are acquired via this privilege are valid even if they do not stand up to scrutiny in the court of universal reason (because if they do have to pass this test, then it seems there’s nothing in principle privileged about the epistemological situation of being marginalized – albeit de facto it might still be true that it’ll be easier to come by particular beliefs that turn out to be true if one is marginalized). However, if the court of universal reason has no jurisdiction here, it’s not clear you can subject your own beliefs to any sort of test. This is because it seems to be the case that even the most minimal of tests – for example, determining whether your beliefs are in accord with your experiences – requires that one makes use of the normal rules of rationality, evidential warrant, etc., all of which would also be available to the court of universal reason.

Okay, that’ll do for now. If you can sort that lot out, then good luck to you, you should carry on using the privilege argument. But the really cool thing here is that if you can’t sort any of it out, no problem, you can just tell yourself that these arguments are themselves a function of privilege. How lovely it must be to have recourse to a hermetically sealed argument that means you get to be right even if you have no idea why you’re right.

JEREMY STANGROOM IS AN EDITOR OF THE PHILOSOPHERS' MAGAZINE.