1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?
Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.
I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them. Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.
This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.
Progressive Concept #1: Objectivity is a fallacy, but the personal is political.
We are taught that it is impossible to hold a belief that is uncoloured by attributes historically deemed to be personal, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Following from this, absolute impartiality and apositionality is impossible. This critique has been leveled the most often at ideas received from straight, Euro-American men of middle and upper classes who have assumed that their ideas are universally applicable and objective. For example, Enlightenment Humanism in Europe established that autonomy and rationality should be recognized as universal human attributes that justified freedom from religious and feudal tyranny, instigating the development of the middle class and the early modern society; however, the rise of a core middle class that came about due to denigrating Black Africans as non-human and profiting from their slave labour (ie in Sylvia Wynter’s scholarship). In the 3/5th Compromise of the US, the Northern, predominantly anti-slavery states did not want to count slaves as human for taxation and representation, because this would give Southern states more power; actual costs and benefits overrode principle. Thus, supposedly universal and objective concepts like humanism cannot be assumed to really be truly universal, because they are contradictory and have been applied selectively to benefit certain groups.
If nothing is absolutely objective or universal, then nothing is absolutely personal either; personal background are informed by forces outside of oneself and have effects outside of oneself. If middle-class White men have failed to generate and apply truly objective or universal principles, then we must ensure that all backgrounds are represented so a diversity of subjective perspectives have the opportunity to reflect upon public matters together. These theories have influenced and are influenced by postmodernism in general, which insists on relativity rather than absolutes.
Finally, because nothing is absolutely private and personal, there is also no such thing as absolutely personal achievements, nor absolutely personal failure. Failures get pinned on people who have been the most directly involved, however there tends to be a lack of awareness of how they have been constrained. One example is attributing healthy dietary habits and weight management to personal effort, and a backlash against obesity being counted as a disability that people could claim benefits for. I have lived in South Central LA for 5 years and seen 2 supermarkets shut down in my neighbourhood, while there are multiple fast food restaurants and liquor stores on every block. Juvenile diabetes is also rampant in my area, as evidenced by multiple PSA posters at bus stops. Even I have difficulty maintaining a healthy diet when busy and stressed, so it would be unreasonable to expect a single mother working multiple part-time and low-paying jobs to provide and teach her children about healthy diets all on her own personal effort. This is a fundamental issue in the disagreement between proponents of more public spending and proponents of less public spending – the former criticizes the latter of mistaking structural benefits for personal attributes and effort when it conveniences them to do so.
Response #1: The personal is not always political, and the personal does not have desired political effects without contextualization and connections to political aspirations.
I should make clear that, as per the first half of this post, I take no issue with explaining personal achievements and failures through structural factors. What concerns me is that valuing subjectivity has been reduced to personal expression, which has been emphasized through consumer culture and mass media. The constant valorization of personal expression leads to:
a) individuals of historically disenfranchised or under-represented groups presenting a personal opinion as representative of their whole group without contextualization
b) disenfranchised groups emphasizing evidence that support their ideological commitments while ignoring evidence that does not, or use the impossibility of being perfectly objective as an excuse to not try to be.
I am also not saying that groups in power have avoided these pitfalls (from the first half of this post, I definitely don’t think they have) but I don’t think that progressives can change things by fighting fire with fire.
That we attribute so much power to personal expression has to do with a system of adversarial democracy and an adversarial justice system (more in Part III). These civic systems lead to a cultural practice of representing one’s own argument, such as in the argumentative essay. However, to me these are not the most significant factors; it is consumer culture and social media that has made the last couple of generations predisposed to broadcasting personal expression with the assumption that the act in of itself is political.
Consumer culture is a significant force in the West: with industrial standardization, most of our jobs are specialized roles that does not allow us to express ourselves, so the only means of expressing ourselves through our personal lives. However, most of what we need in life comes in commodities that someone outside of our society as made. Thus, we create our own sense of self through buying things and paying for services. Marketers take advantage of this through market segmentation, where consumers are divided into smaller subgroups based on different needs; thus, when we buy something, we feel like it is tailored to us, and that we can express ourselves through it, and even become better through it. Car commercials, for example, tell us that the specific car would make us into an urbane professional or a rugged outdoorsman. L’oreal’s famous tagline is “Because you’re worth it.”
More recently, social media can also be seen as a way of marketing ourselves (and also as an extremely specialized way of marketing to us). Self-expression on social media garners positive feedback often not on the content being shared, but the act of sharing. For example, selfies will almost always garner positive feedback about how confident the person is in showing their face / body and sharing it with everyone. This cycles into people posting things online for the positive feedback they get on the act of expressing themselves, rather than deliberating on whether the content of what they are posting actually moves discussion on a topic forwards or achieves any material effects.
Feminist popularized the statement “the personal is political,” however it has been corrupted in recent generations of both men and women. However, I am more critical towards contemporary liberal feminism, partly because I think the burden of doing better should be on the actors who claim they can do better than the status quo, and partly because of negative personal experiences with individuals claiming to be feminists. Two articles about gender representation in videogames each illustrate the 2 pitfalls of emphasizing subjectivity.*
The first is an article about the update to Lara Croft’s representation in the Tomb Raider franchise. Peacock, the author, expresses disappointment that the realism of recent games reminds her too much that Lara is a frightened and vulnerable young woman as opposed to a badass tomb raider on par with men, citing examples such as Lara saying she’s cold, or Lara being assaulted, a scene which evokes rape. It is not that Peacock’s points are invalid, and I appreciate that she describes these conclusions as her own opinion. However, for the Women’s section of a mainstream and prominent outlet such as the Telegraph, I believe that Peacock could have better contextualized her opinion among other divergent feminist perspectives, even if this was an editorial. The new Lara Croft facing realistic obstacles that women face and giving realistic responses for a young woman most likely comes out of ideas that to be equal to men does not mean to be the same as men, and that the capacity for women to show vulnerability means that they have not been brainwashed by patriarchal society to believe that masculine toughness is the only valid state of mind. Giving Lara these traits makes her more of a complex and evolving character rather than the sex symbol of before, and more relatable for female players. Feminists writing articles based on personal experiences is not invalid in of itself; however, I do think that this partly explains why men (and non-conforming women, such as in the above link) have a hard time approaching feminism, when individual women give divergent arguments, yet each woman insists or implies that their own personal belief is the political reality for all women.
Another article illustrates the problem when ideologically driven research ignores counter-arguments and evidence that does not support their claims. This article is about Rimworld, where the player is in charge of a colony of initially 3 people on another planet and assigning them tasks so they survive and prosper. The gender of the colonists determines different programming for thoughts and behaviour. Lo, the author, takes issue with how, among other things, female colonists are programmed to rarely initiate romance and to be not affected when rejecting romance, and male colonists are never programmed to be bisexual. The effect of this article on me was different than the piece on Tomb Raider, since I know less about programming than about representations and was impressed that Lo managed to dig into the code at all. The tone of the article also seemed fairly objective and her conclusions were not opinions, but rather fairly objective descriptions about the game mechanics. However, I cannot write off the developers’ objections in the comments as he explained that there was a updated version of the game where many of the issues Lo points out had been fixed, but she did not examine that version, and in addition he had asked that his full explanations be reproduced in the article but was refused. The Editor’s Note from Rock Paper Shotgun is that agreeing to reproduce the developer’s interview in full would be ceding editorial control. To me, this says that Lo and the editors already have an angle in mind based on preliminary research, and would exert editorial control to convey this angle even in the face of contradicting evidence. Similarly to representing individual opinions as representative ones, this lack of objective methodological rigour allied with strong ideological commitments can also drive away potential supporters who do not yet share those ideological commitments.
To me, the latter is a more serious issue for society, even though the former bothers me more personally. The reason for my personal discomfort at the former is that I have often run up against 3rd wave Euro-American feminists who assume that their perspectives, aspirations, and standards of femininity apply to me. At the same time, they reinforce one another’s personal expressions while denouncing critique as being anti-feminist, which prevents them from hearing about alternate feminisms. One particularly troubling incident occurred in a senior undergrad art class where the class votes on a semester theme, and the White female majority of the class chose sex; they then voted to replace the usual year-end gallery exhibit with public art installations around campus. Muslim student groups objected when they saw sexually explicit material being displayed in public space, however the art students wrote them off as being repressed and oppressed by their religion. I did not have the language to convince my class and thus my arguments weren’t particularly effective. To this day I am not sure how the professor could have not stepped in to at least clearly lay out what was at stake for my fellow students (There was also an incident where a fellow Women’s Studies TA told her classes that she hated men, which I will discuss more in Part III).
I do think that implying that personal opinions are representative of one’s identity group can be mitigated by having multiple individual opinions in the public sphere, and giving more critical and integrative tools to everyone so they know how to evaluate personal claims together to arrive at a bigger picture. Ideological-driven research that ignores evidence would be more devastating on a larger scale, since it is exactly what the far right does when they ignore how free market capitalism coupled with a limited government would produce mass inequality, and insist it would be better for everyone. At the very least, ideologically-driven policy-making it would lead to ineffectual leadership because certain groups and their interests would be not consulted based on ideological differences, leading to factors that the governing group cannot foresee or harness. Just because everything is at some degree ideological does not mean that we have an excuse to not examine our ideologies and positionalities.
* I chose articles that have to do with video games because gender and gaming has been a very hot topic after Gamergate, and it is the area where men have explicitly and unilaterally defended their identity as men. In addition, as a woman who has recently discovered gaming, I read more about games than any other medium (maybe other than comics, and my own academic reading). Regarding the issue of gender in video games, I think the above post undergirds my opinion. I agree with women who believe that video games and the culture around them exclude women and perpetuate harmful gender standards and should change to keep pace with a changing society. However, I also think that women have been asking for change in an antagonistic, unilateral, and internally contradictory way that doesn’t actually give much constructive plans to work from (such as the article on Lara Croft).
I say “unilateral” because while gender is the most salient factor, it should not be the only factor being considered. Most of my male friends who love games are nerdy Asian immigrants, who would have to combat an equally detrimental system of negative racial imagery to be fit in with mainstream men, and even more so to be desired by mainstream women. I would hazard a guess to say that many people (including men) who are die-hard fans of anything (including games) got into it because they were not welcomed into many other things society has to offer. Men who are excluded on factors other than gender can find community in video games, and thus I do think that gaming culture, if not the maleness thereoff, can be defended to a certain extent against mainstream feminism and its exclusive focus on gender. However, this defense should not be couched in purely gendered terms, and cannot take the form of personal attacks on women and their private lives. Ideally, neither side needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater; both sides should come up with ways to reject gender stereotypes and exclusion in games while maintaining games as a unique culture that many men have deeply identified with.