Privilege, Deference, and Moral Certainty

GG has been discussing in other threads the concept of epistemic deference, focused on epistemic deference of members of empowered majorities with respect to members of disempowered minorities. As it happens, I’ve lectured on just this topic at Portland State University, the University of Vermont, and a couple other places. (University of Minnesota I think… but I’m not entirely sure, and it would have been my visit to the Minneapolis campus, if you’re wondering PZ: I’ve never been to Morris). I even spoke to it when speaking to a North American conference of human rights officials and boards. So I’ve been thinking about this problem for a LONG time. More than 20 years, certainly. As a result, I have at hand things I’ve written right here on FtB available to quote.

The most on point is from a Pharyngula discussion of jackasses on PZ’s campus: University of Minnesota at Morris. Some extreme right wing racists on campus published a paper they named the Northstar, supposedly as an homage to Fredrick Douglas’ abolitionist (and sometimes feminist) newspaper, also published from Minnesota. In the OP, after an analysis of the contents PZ suggested treating these newspapers “like trash”. This conversation then ensued:

Usernames are smart, quoting PZ from the OP (comment #30):

And with that, they have crossed a line. Free speech is one thing, making light of murder and claiming that our chancellor of student affairs excuses it is another. Using dead black boys to “satirize” equality is contemptible.

Sorry, but no. PZ, you can never know what it is like to be black and be the target of racism (note the word “and” is not the word “or”). You don’t know what it’s like to have a girlfriend dump you because her parents ‘might find out you’re black’, or overhear a coworker tell a joke about lazy black robots.

Maybe you might ask some actual black students what they think before deciding that a newspaper of racist douches, by racist douches and for racist douchnozzles should be banned because they print reprehensible trash.

…unless you want to have it both ways.

Myself, in response (comment #37):

No. Just no.

Usernames are Smart, you have this one very, very wrong. Your first segment about “you can never know what it’s like…” is presumably to set up the next part, since PZ says nothing telling others “what it’s like” to be Black in Morris, Minnesota.

There are two reasons this is wrong.

First, PZ is rightly taking this as a rhetorical attack on PZ’s own community. The addition of more racism to the Morris/UMM communities make them worse, to PZ’s mind, for him and for other white people. Although some whites clearly get big gains from racism, and all whites get some small advantages, frequently unnoticed, PZ believes that he loses from racism. He values an anti-racist community, these people are ruining one of the things that makes PZ’s communities valuable to him. He is rightly hitting back.

This is a good thing. This is a victory for anti-racism in the USA. Since before Frederick Douglas people have been making the point that holding slaves degrades the slave owner. These aren’t new arguments. But the taking of them to heart by as many people as do nowadays is a good thing. It may not even be a greater percentage, but it’s of 300 million, which with mobility and the internet makes possible a level of coordinated, anti-racist, white action not possible since “the little woman who started this big war” stopped writing.

So, yay, PZ is paying attention to the damage racism does to PZ and PZ’s community. And then he acts on it, taking responsibility for his community and keeping it good or even making it better.

But then,
Second seeing something racist and turning to any nearby person of color (why only black folk? First Nations folk and Indians were an explicit target of this from the description; other people of color were as well) isn’t a model of anti-racist leadership. It’s putting people of color on the spot. How is any person of color supposed to speak for all the people targeted?

That’s tokenizing and wrong.

If white people simply say nothing and then step in to follow along if and when leadership of color appear, this is also wrong. People of color have no idea whether you will be with the anti-racist leaders or not until [you] take the risk. They can’t count allies and they must instead decide on their own, assuming that there will be no help, whether they will be able to take on such groups as individuals. Ugh. The responsibility for ending racism rests not on people of color.

No, what a white person can do is take action on behalf of that person’s own self, or on behalf of the people the person does/can represent. You’re a white university chancellor? Speak for the faculty, that’s your job. You’re a white student body president? Speak for the student government, that’s your job. You never speak for people of color as a white person. Ever.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t speak out against racism.

Now, if a reasonably cohesive message is put out by the groups of persons/peoples of color most affected, then make sure your action doesn’t cross the boundaries of acceptable response, if any, specified in that message.

When people of color choose to lead an anti-racism response/movement, of course the white folk in the community should follow. But a white ally doesn’t put people of color (leaders or not, activists or not) on the spot, doesn’t put the burden of ending racism on people of color.

And when the groups most affected don’t have a reasonably cohesive message – when there is disagreement – white folk have to use our critical thinking to make a decision about how to proceed. Disagreement among folk of color over best response tactics doesn’t relieve white folk of the responsibility to act to end racism.

Finally, for both when there is and when there isn’t a reasonably cohesive message, critical thinking must be engaged to make sure that you don’t do something unethical just because the idea arose from communities of color. Sometimes this is as easy as refusing to stand with those who would launch a war, but other times it requires asking difficult questions about whether the people of color most able to get attention to their analysis/perspective are in fact people who really represent the folk targeted by a particular racist action. Horizontal hostility, sexism, classism, ableism, all these can affect what responses get recommended.

We don’t get a free pass to enact sexism because we are fighting racism.

We get, if we have good and honest friends, the gift of accountability on all the moral dimensions of our choices all at once.

So, no. If Morris residents actually read this post and agree in sufficient numbers to start a real campaign of trashing the North Star, and if a large number of people of color call this out as a bad or counter-productive tactic, then PZ will have to be accountable for his choice to listen or not, follow or not.

But neither putting people of color on the spot by asking for the proper white action in response to this is to relieve himself of the responsibility of thinking about racism.

Remaining silent leaves people of color thinking that they are alone in taking offense at racism – the silence sends a signal. This is also not acceptable.

Your solution, Usernames are Smart, is not workable, and has unethical impacts on people of color.

I say no: White people can and should choose to act, taking the risk of acting badly and being accountable for those missteps when we do.

In addition to this, there is also another OP on Pervert Justice that discusses the uncomfortable problem of empowered majority deference to disempowered minorities’ views. The context of this one is the Portland Black Lives Matter protests in July and August of 2020, which were routinely disrupted by police violence. You should read the whole thing, but permit me to quote a part of it, hopefully to whet your appetite for more, not to make you think the rest is unnecessary:

the BLM organizers have called for deemphasizing the federal courthouse protests after the BLM rallies next door at the Justice Center. At least one asked for people to simply go home, and skip any post-rally protest focussed specifically on the Mark O. Hatfield courthouse. …

Despite the clear request to leave, there’s at least an implication there that confronting Feds’ violence and other authoritarian tactics isn’t contrary to the BLM organizers’ hopes or desires. Instead it speaks to a recognition that no matter how many times they’ve asked – and they’ve asked many times just in the past week and a bit that I’ve been attending – there are still going to be stupid fuckers who throw fireworks and set those small fires. And while I think that exposing authoritarianism and violence does help the BLM cause, anything that allows the right to justify authoritarianism and violence – like setting fires, however small, and however impossible to spread due to concrete, and however pitifully unable to damage the building itself – certainly does hurt the BLM cause.

…So what now? Do I go home every night after the rallies? Do I assume that I know better than BLM what they want, and that they’d really be okay with peaceful observation and vigil? That sure as hell is fucked up. I’m not going to do that. But what if I wanted to respect Black leadership during events for Black lives and yet treated the courthouse protests as something separate – something spun off from the BLM protests but not a BLM protest itself?

There’s a lot of merit to that idea, but it still requires dismissing Black leadership, as if Black voices didn’t matter after 10:30 pm.

And, truthfully, part of what makes me want to stay is this: I don’t want to get tear gassed. … Am I just willing to listen to the Black voices telling us to go home because they’re telling me what I want to hear? That I’ve done my job when I take no risks?

And that … dovetailed with the message of Black people I spoke with that weren’t part of the BLM organizing group or the sanctioned speakers. These were people who were simply engaging in conversation with me, and two of them in separate conversations (each while the other wasn’t present) expressed a wish that we would have huge crowds downtown 24 hours a day. More than 2 spoke about the frustration of seeing the crowds crash from 6,000 or so on Saturday to 1,000ish on Monday.

And, again, these aren’t necessarily conflicting desires. Whether or not we would find it to be true if we got the chance to ask in private, it’s at least likely that the BLM organizers would love a 24-hour crowd of 6,000 so long as our actions weren’t giving the right excuses to paint their efforts to save Black lives as violent and radical and dangerous, and therefore best ignored.

And so this puts me right where it should put me as a white person: on uncomfortable ground. You’re never going to get 43,000,000 Black USians to agree on tactics. You can’t even get them to agree on goals, though here I feel more comfortable saying fuck Diamond & Silk.

With different people telling me different things, my job is to listen like fuck and then to use my own best critical thinking to determine what I can best do to support the goals and desires of Black people leading the struggle …. Some might want a 24-hour protest, but I have to recognize that I have disabilities and will need to take time away. Others might wish to deemphasize or end the late-night courthouse protests, and I have to decide whether I will go home right away or not….

In the face of inevitably conflicting opinions from Black people, the correct response can neither be to revert to mindless acceptance of whatever any Black person said last nor can it be to throw my hands up and decide to do nothing at all until 43 million people unanimously agree on the best next course of action.

In this moment, I am called upon to use my brain, to live my ethics, and to act.

And then? Well, then I have the opportunity to be accountable for my choices. If I act badly, I will consider myself lucky if people give me the gift of criticism from which I can learn.

And then I will be called upon to choose again, to act again, as uncomfortable as it may be to take that risk. I will be called upon to be a little bit better than I was before the criticism. It is only in this way, through each of us gradually becoming better as persons, that we will all become better as a people.

Emphasis added.

The conflicts above are different from the conflict GG identifies in a number of ways, and I plan to come back and address some of those later, but I’m still dealing with my kidney stone, so the best I can offer at the moment is this quote from the good old days combined with reemphasizing this passage:

Finally, for both when there is and when there isn’t a reasonably cohesive message, critical thinking must be engaged to make sure that you don’t do something unethical just because the idea arose from communities of color.

GG identifies someone who may be advocating that people are morally mandated to submit to rape (I’ll read that full thread as soon as I can, GG). For a moment, assume that’s the correct interpretation. Does this really create a dilemma of moral epistemology? I would say no. I would say that even before one identifies that trans people exist in the world and are legally, politically, religiously, and socially marginalized, that is to say, even before it is remotely possible to establish a duty of epistemic deference, we can already be confident that rape of anyone by anyone is wrong. Entering conversation with trans people about the impacts of cissexism and what a just response to a cissexist society requires, we already know rape is wrong. Nothing within the discussion about cissexism, then, should challenge our moral judgement of rape. If your previous judgement was, as I believe it should be, that the rape of anyone by anyone at any time is always wrong, then epistemic certainty for which GG is searching already exists.

There is obviously much more to discuss here, including that waiting for unity from a marginalized community before acting preserves the oppressive status quo and also including what happens when entirely separate ethical values or questions are implicated (for instance by an anti-semitic person of color, or a racist jew, or a trans person who advocates submission to rape). But of course what I’ve already presented here shades my future answer to GG: obviously the quest for moral certainty isn’t one I embrace. I don’t think it’s within human power to reach moral consensus on many questions, despite the insistence from certain people that they have unambiguous, certain, and objective answers. Epistemic deference, then, while morally recommended is not a requirement for moral decision making. The proper role for epistemic deference of empowered majorities with respect to disempowered minorities is thus complicated and… the subject of yet another post, when I have more time and energy to write.






  1. Jazzlet says

    I’m amazed and impressed you are able to write anything this lucid while still recovering from the kidney stone. Take care of yourself first, we can wait.

  2. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Thank you so much for this.

    The arguments of people like Usernames Are Smart have a good reason to exist. We need to bear in mind the volume problem where those with power get to frame the way a topic is discussed, determine its importance, etc. Obviously it is a fairly omnipresent problem that people who are being affected by a problem are not given a central stage in the conversation ab out the problem when it comes to marginalized people!

    But anti-racism is not a black person problem. Anti-homophobia is not a gay person problem. Imagining it is reduces people in dominant groups to moral non-entities, less than children, while forcing the marginalized to take on a superhuman burden. Dominant communities have a duty, *right now*, to take personal responsibility and stop anything they are doing that is coercive, exploitative, cruel and unnecessary. The fact that that moral responsibility is so very often eschewed is irrelevant.

    This is why King emphasized that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The concern is simultaneously pragmatic and moral: communities that have hateful poison in them suck to live in, for everyone. We are all better off, in the sense of pareto optimality, when we don’t exploit or abuse each other. Not only are we all better off in terms of dollars and cents (in total), but we are better off in intangible assets that aren’t a zero sum.

    And this is why the beloved community is such an important idea. The hope is that we all get to live in a better community. I want and need that just as much as anyone else, despite being male, cis, American, straight and white. Emphasizing ways for people to cooperate and unify is critical, not only in the broader sense but also in the narrow sense, as those in dominant communities are likely to think in terms of a zero-sum game when it comes to prejudice and exploitation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *