Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Schadenfreude, Forbidden Waffling Edition

I've been watching the Ophelia Benson Shitshow with some interest because this level of... vigorous disagreement... is unusual for the FtB crowd. And now it looks like PZ haz a sad too which, given the timing, is almost certainly a reaction to it as well.

Before I get to the substantive bit of this post I'd like to point out that they made their bed and now they have to sleep in it. It's fairly rich for Ophelia to be arguing "nuance" given her history with #upfordebate. And PZ... well, someone should tweak this cartoon to cover the current kerfuffle.

Spleen vented, moving on. Two observations regarding this contratemps:

  • Universal principles are universal.
  • Replacing one form of epistemic privilege with another doesn't actually fix anything.

Regarding the first point: The FtB crowd seems to forget from time to time that when you make sweeping declarations of principle they apply to everyone, "good guys" and "bad guys" alike (see, for example, my exchange with Deacon Duncan). If we say that the relatively-privileged need to listen to, and seek to understand, the lived experience of marginalized others instead of offering uninformed opinions then, absent qualification, this principle holds true regardless of the identifies of the parties in question. White, cis-and-heterosexual men are privileged relative to women of all stripes; the former need to be willing to be educated by the latter. Similarly, since white, cis women are privileged relative to trans* people (under any reasonable definition of "privilege", at least), they too would do well to recognize the limits of their perspective rather than making flip comparisons to Rachel Dolezal.

Needless to say, I have serious reservations about the reasoning outlined above, which brings me to the second point: There's a difference between listening to marginalized others and reflexively deferring to their opinions. Letting relative privilege become an epistemic trump simply recreates the original pathology ("truth" defined by social hierarchy) with a slightly different dramatis personae. It's rarely as straightforward as "sit down and shut up, white man" (though that does appear to be the essence of some of the recent critiques of Jonathan Chait), but epistemic deference of the type I've described seems to underlie the phenomena of "closed questions"/"JAQing off".

Here, for example, Ophelia maintains that certain questions have already been answered and that they should be treated "as closed for practical purposes". So what to do when someone responds to Ophelia's call for nuance by asserting that the question "Are trans women, women?" is closed and the answer is "yes"? Not to pick on Ophelia in particular, but she ducked into the punch on that one. Similar things can be be said with respect to JAQing off; read the comment threads associated with this whole ordeal and you'll find a number of people accusing Ophelia of "JAQing off" and "philosophical wankery".

Ultimately what I'm trying to highlight is that there is a collection of epistemic practices which has the effect of removing topics from the realm of rational discourse altogether. Which would be fine if everyone agreed on what those topics are, but the evidence outlined above strongly suggests to me that reasonable people can disagree about the effects of priviledge or when a question should be considered "closed".

Honestly, this makes me want to grab certain parties who complain about fragmentation of the atheist community and ask them what the fuck they expected? They are certainly smart enough to foresee exactly what has come to pass, that legitimating modes of discourse anchored in the subjective interpretations of individual listeners will necessarily create irreconcilable differences.

In short, I told you so.


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