Freddie’s going after the identitarians again. At the root of his complaint here is the slipperiness of identitarian deference. Roughly, identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression. It sounds straightforward, but can become exceedingly complicated in practice. Here are some of the issues.
Necessity of an Antecedent Oppression Theory
To defer to the views of oppressed people, you must first know who the oppressed people are. The method of identitarian deference (ID) cannot provide any guidance to this question. On its face, ID would demand that you look to oppressed people to tell you who oppressed people are. But to do this, you still have to first know who the oppressed people are to know who to look to.
To escape this impossible circularity, one is forced to have an antecedent oppression theory. That is, you must have your own independent theory of who is oppressed in order to even practice ID. But where do you get this antecedent theory? You’d have to somehow arrive at it on your own, through reflection, treatises on justice, morality, and so on. Wherever you get it, you necessarily get it in some way that does not involve ID. As such, the only way to get ID off the ground is to have some other understanding of oppression that is totally separate from it.
That then raises the question of what ID adds to the picture. To practice ID, you already must have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed. But if you already have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed, then what do you need ID for?
Choosing Between Oppressed Voices
Once you are able to identify which people are the oppressed ones, you then have to figure out which oppressed voices to defer to. Individuals in a particular oppressed group are not a monolith, and therefore necessarily disagree with one another. Take affirmative action for instance. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is vehemently opposed to affirmative action, while Al Sharpton is not. To which voice should one defer?
There are a variety of ways to handle disagreement, but none are terribly satisfactory. You can require that ID only attach to the majority view, but there are problems with such an approach. First, it may not always be knowable what the majority view is. In fact, if the issue has more than two perspectives, it is very possible that there is no majority view, in which case you do what? Go with the plurality view?
Second, it seems odd to think that the majority view will tell you what is correct. When the majority view enjoys 90% support, then maybe. But what if it’s a 51% to 49% thing? Take abortion for instance. A recent Gallup poll found that among women, 44% identify as pro-life while 50% identify as pro-choice. Are we really prepared to say that ID indicates you should be pro-choice? Is that 6 percent difference among women’s perspectives enough to animate that move? What if 4% of women changed their minds? Would the dictates of ID flip, demanding that allies of women be pro-life? Furthermore, this is a national number. I can’t find regional data, but I’d be very surprised if there were not at least some conservative-leaning states where pro-life women outnumber pro-choice women. Should residents of those states defer to the majority voice of women in those states and believe as pro-lifers believe?
Third, the majority voice vacillates over time. For instance, since 1994 Pew has been asking Black Americans what they think is most responsible for Blacks not getting ahead: Blacks themselves or discrimination? This is the breakdown over time.
As you can see, in 1995, 60% of Blacks thought discrimination was most responsible for Blacks not getting ahead. That number is now down to 40%, and the majority of Blacks now say Blacks themselves are mostly responsible for not getting ahead. In the meantime, this answer shot up and down, with Blacks some years citing discrimination as the biggest factor and other years citing Blacks themselves as the biggest factor. What should ID have demanded of us during those swings? Is it really the case that in the late 1990s, we should have reformed our opinion and thought that Blacks themselves were mostly responsible for not getting ahead, and then switched that opinion again just a couple of years later, and then switched that opinion yet again in a few more years?
Another way to settle disagreements is to use facts and research. So for instance, we could do studies and collect evidence about how much discrimination is harming Blacks in the United States. This sounds fine to me, but it also makes ID unnecessary. You can just look straight to the research.
Finally, you can solve disputes by just cherry-picking voices you like. This, I suspect, is what most people actually do. For instance, you wont find any liberal deferring to a voice saying what the graph above says the majority of Blacks believe. So what you can do is just figure out what you want to believe, and then find someone within the appropriate oppressed group who believes as you do. Then say that you are deferring to their voice in this matter. This works as a way of resolving disputes but only by gutting the whole point of ID.
Resolving Disputes Among Oppressed Peoples
The final problem I will raise here is how to handle disagreements among two different sets of oppressed people that are not reconcilable. The Israel-Palestine conflict provides a helpful example. Jewish people and Palestinian people are oppressed people. So both voices ought to be deferred to. There are some Jewish Israelis — how many I don’t know — that have claimed that owing to their oppressed status, they should have total control over the disputed territories and have a Jewish-controlled state on that land. On the flip side, there are Palestinians who say that their oppression can only be remedied by handing the same disputed land to Palestinians for their state.
So what do we do? ID would presumably have us defer simultaneously to the voices of both people, but we literally cannot. So we would be forced to pick between the voices. This will require that we, once again, have some other external notion of what is right and wrong. Otherwise, we’d have no idea whose voice was the right one to listen to. If we have some external notion of what is right and wrong, it is once again very unclear what ID is bringing to the party.