Respect Mah Authoritah—Noted
Edge of the American West: Respect Mah Authoritah https://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/respect-mah-authoritah/: ‘Serious question: are there good reasons why an individual’s background or cultural positioning should provide that person more authority in a political argument? I ask, because as I read the incredibly predictable debates about the nightmare unfolding in Gaza, I keep seeing people say things like, “Well, I’m a Jew, and I think what Israel is doing is wrong/immoral.” The implicit points apparently are: 1) “My Jewishness should insulate me from charges of anti-Semitism. So don’t go there.” And 2) “My Jewishness provides me with a window, through which the goyim can’t possibly see, into this intractable problem.” I’m slightly sympathetic to the former point. Maybe.... The latter argument, though, leaves me shaking my head. I’m not entirely sure it’s wrong. But I don’t like its implications at all. And if it’s valid, I’d like someone to explain why.... I don’t feel like linking to Marty Peretz, professional asshat, or the incensed commenters weighing in on the Gaza incursion in various corners of the blogosphere. Sorry. I’m both a bit flummoxed by the whole thing and also, as this post notes, more focused here on the broader question of argumentation...
Ahistoricality: There’s a huge gray area between a kind of essentialist exclusion — which I don’t buy as valid — and the sense of understanding that comes with experience. Experience can be wrong (misleading, etc.), but it’s still real, and people generally weigh direct knowledge over general knowledge, long engagement over recent interest. I think for good reason, too, but that doesn’t automatically make it an epistemological trump card.
kid bitzer: there’s just going to be no illuminating general thing to say about this question. certainly experience counts in arguments. it’s good to know stuff, and some stuff you can only know in some ways, sometimes by being some place or living through something. at the same time, the appeal to privileged knowledge is often abused. it’s just all going to get down to cases: what’s the question, what’s the knowledge, what’s the experience, etc. that’s not a helpful answer. but there is not going to be a helpful answer.
ekogan: "are there good reasons why an individual’s background or cultural positioning should provide that person more authority in a political argument?" Yes. There is a difference between “more authority” and “absolute authority”. If someone is better informed about a subject, their statements about the subject are more likely to be correct, but not with 100% probability. If you heard the statement “I’m from Israel, and the traffic in Tel Aviv is terrible”, you, who probably have no prior opinion on the subject, would assign a high certainty to “Traffic in Tel Aviv is terrible”, and a higher certainty than if you heard “I’m from Cleveland, and the traffic in Tel Aviv is terrible”. When you hear the statement “I’m from Israel, and the attacks on Gaza were necessary”, since you already have a strong opinion on the subject, this doesn’t change your opinion that much, but still more than if you’ve heard “I’m from Cleveland and the attacks on Gaza were necessary”. Bayesian reasoning applies
JPool: There was a version of this with fairly wide currency in the late 1980s/early 1990s, exemplified in bell hooks’s application of Engels’s parable of the slave knowing more about the master than the master does about the slave. The bowdlerized version of this took a key insight about generalized power and knowledge and turned it into a universalized epistemological principle, in which oppression became a special truth revealing machine (rather than something with varied epistemological costs and benefits). I find this manuever much less common these days. The problem I saw them was not just the rhetorical cudgel that this could be turned into, but the way it let both sides of whatever identity divide off the hook from the hard work of critical self-awareness.
Marc Bloch: … methodical study of testimony reveals an extremely serious consequence, one that has been little remarked — it delivers a cruel blow to picturesque history. Guillaume de Saiunt-Thierry, in his Life of Saint Bernard, reports that when Bernard was a monk of Cîteaux he did not know for a long time how the chapel was lit; he was surprised one day to learn that three windows shed light on his altar, and not only one, as he had hitherto believed. On this point and others like it, the hagiographer expresses surprise and admiration: what a holy man to have such indifference to the vanities of this earth! But we know today that to be mistaken concerning things that should — it seems — be familiar, one does not need to be a Doctor of the Church and a prince of mysticism. The students of professor Claparède proved, during famous experiments, that they knew as little about the architecture of the hall of their University as Bernard the vault or the refectory of his convent. In a normal statement — i.e., mixed truth and falsehood — nothing is more inaccurate than all the small material details; everything happens as if most men walked around with eyes half-closed in a world they scorn to look at. How can we now take seriously the descriptive pieces of history — the colored costumes, the gestures, the ceremonies, the incidents of war, all these odds and ends the romantics love so much — when all around us not a single witness is able to retain correctly the scenes we devour so greedily when we find them in the medieval chronicles?… M. Graux gathered the reports of the various newspapers on the answers M. Malvy gave to the final question of the president of the High Court on the death of Bolo-Pasha, the last hearing of the Toqué lawsuit; the contradictions are striking and amusing; we shall probably never know if Bolo’s hat were maroon or black, of round or soft shape, if M. Malvy pronounced his testimony in a sharp or weak voice; le Matin and la Petite République give widely differing texts.
Bitchphd: Sure. The validity of such claims depends on the ideas that identty is an important part of experience in the real world and that experience is an important part of understanding. Both of such are, I think, true. That said, such claims aren’t automatic trump cards and when they’re played that way they suggest that identity is ALL the player has–even without experience. And in order for an argment to be taken seriously, it has to be actually presented. “I’m a woman, and I think that’s sexist” isn’t an argument without any attempt to explain why.
Carl: Just wanted to second the referral to Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience,” (1991, i.e. at the height of the debate recalled by JPool, on which she went all meta) in which she concludes (in pertinent part, as the lawyers say): “Experience is not a word we can do without, although, given its usage to essentialize identity and reify the subject, it is tempting to abandon it altogether. But experience is so much a part of everyday language, so imbricated in our narratives that it seems futile to argue for its expulsion. It serves as a way of talking about what happened, of establishing difference and similarity, of claiming knowledge that is “unassailable.” Given the ubiquity of the term, it seems to me more useful to work with it, to analyze its operations and to redefine its meaning. This entails focusing on processes of identity production, insisting on the discursive nature of “experience” and on the politics of its construction. Experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political. The study of experience, therefore, must call into question its originary status in historical explanation. This will happen when historians take as their project not the reproduction and transmission of knowledge said to be arrived at through experience, but the analysis of the production of that knowledge itself. Such an analysis would constitute a genuinely nonfoundational history, one which retains its explanatory power and its interest in change but does not stand on or reproduce naturalized categories. It also cannot guarantee the historian’s neutrality, for deciding which categories to historicize is inevitably political, necessarily tied to the historian’s recognition of his or her stake in the production of knowledge. Experience is, in this approach, not the origin of our explanation, but that which we want to explain.” Scott here shifts the politics from knowledge to knowledge formation, citing Foucault among others. Laura Stoker as also cited above does the same thing, recalling Bourdieu’s hermeneutic suspicion of the sneaky power play contained in scholarly “interest in disinterest.” How’s that for some hasty name droppin’. Anyway, I’m teaching sophomore historiography right now and one of the things newbies gotta get clear on right away is that when we study, say, 18th century Italy, personal experience is not available as an immediate foundation of knowledge. So if that’s the only way we can know stuff with any authoritah, then, y’know, so much for our whole profession. Even in the present, however, there’s a self-defeat in the claim that only experience produces adequate knowledge. I sometimes hear, for example, that as an X it is impossible for me to understand what it’s like to be a Y. To which my reply is, ok, if that’s true, shut up about it. You’re wasting your breath. Strict identity epistemology is a conversation killer.
Charlieford: I had a great encounter with experiential authority a few years back. I was talking about slave religion, and describing the limitations slave preachers might have worked under: no Bibles, no commentaries, no encyclopedias, charts, histories, maps–indeed, often illiterate. Most of the things any of us couldn’t do without if we wanted to give a talk on something–texts–they didn’t have. So I went on, you can imagine they might have been a bit confused about what Biblical personages did what, about chronology, or about who a certain Abraham might be. I was going to go one and talk about the other side–orality, memory, etc. But I didn’t get there. An older–quite older–balck woman was taking the class, and her hand shot up. “Well, professor, you may have all your degrees and books, but my grandparents were born into slavery down in Mississippi, and you don’t know nuthin’ about those sermons!” She had misinterpreted what I was trying to get across, and I’m not sure if I was doing all that good a job anyway, but I was happy to have her exert her authority. The class, all of the rest of whom were of typical college age, were just stunned at this unexpected intrusion of the real past into their supposedly safe class-room.
andrew: Someone who spent an entire battle face down in their fox hole is likely to have less of an understanding than someone who watched from a distance. Another Bloch quote: 'Let us suppose that a military commander has just won a victory. That, immediately, he sets to work writing an account with his own hand. That it was he who conceived the plan of the battle, and that it was he who directed it. And finally that, thanks to the moderate size of the field (for in order to sharpen the argument, we are imagining a battle of former times, drawn up in a confined space), he has been able to see almost the entire conflict develop before his eyes. Nevertheless, we cannot doubt that, in more than one essential episode, he will be forced to refer to the reports of his lieutenants. In acting thus as narrator, he would only be behaving as he had a few hours before in the action. Then as commander, regulating the movements of his troops to the swaying tide of battle, what sort of information shall we think to have served him best? Was it the rather confused scenes viewed through his binoculars, or the reports brought in hot haste by the couriers and aides-de-camp? Seldom can a leader of troops be his own observer. Meanwhile, even in so favorable a hypothesis as this, what has become of that marvel of “direct” observation which is claimed as the prerogative of the studies of the present?'
grackle: Those who are telling you that their view is privileged by the circumstance of their experience, such that you “can’t understand,” or that, by virtue of their gender, ethnicity, skin color, etc. they have a perspective that trumps yours, are merely telling you in no uncertain terms that discussion with them is futile (see KB , above, his first comment.) This seems to me, to be a kind of short-hand advising me that I shouldn’t waste my energy with any attempts at engagement. A graceful response is, “You are probably right,” and I am freed from yet another doomed enterprise. I am better off without any policy arguments with them.
.#cognition #noted #publicsphere #2020-06-26