Identitarian Deference and Testimonial Reasoning

A while ago, when our intellectual betters decided that trigger warnings were the death knell of the Republic, I described the underlying problem–testimonial reasoning:

It’s not emotional reasoning, but what I’ll call testimonial reasoning. As a rule of thumb, whenever you hear someone begin an argument with “As an [X]”, that’s testimonial reasoning. Anti-vaxxers do this all the time with the “As a mom…” (as if managing to survive pregnancy–as billions of hominids have before you–somehow confers some awesome wisdom). It essentially shuts down the possibility of any counterargument, especially if you don’t have your own heart-rending testimony with which to counter. Worse, it turns every argument into an existential conflict: when a statement is couched in terms of personal identity, any disagreement becomes a fundamental assault on that identity. When you critique someone who is ‘speaking his truth’*–or even simply ask a question–any critique, reasonable or not, becomes a criticism of that person. This is a particularly bad habit to inculcate.

In fairness, testimonial reasoning does have a place as a political theory of organizing. As the risk of going Full Metal Lawrence Goodwyn, with many problems, important first steps include recognizing that an injustice actually has taken place, alerting other people to the existence of the problem, as well as creating solidarity with others who have suffered that injustice. Too often, unfortunately, that’s all that happens, or worse, there’s a degeneration into calling out people who disagree or criticize–and with the Internet, there is never of shortage of people to call out (a fair number of whom are idiots)–rather than leading to the next organizational steps of reaching out to people outside of the “As an X” group (which, like it or not, is an essential step in changing policy and, sometimes, even hearts and minds).

Turns out Matt Bruening beat me to the punch with the concept of “identitarian deference” (boldface mine):

As I explained a couple of years ago: “identitarian deference [‘ID’] is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression.” ID is both a theory of political knowledge and a theory of prescriptive politics.

ID’s theory of political knowledge is that people who belong to identities that are most proximate to a particular issue have the most knowledge about that issue. It is thus a theory of expertise. It differs from other theories of expertise in the way that it determines what makes someone an expert, but it is similar to those other theories in that it ultimately concludes that those with lesser expertise should defer to those with greater expertise.

ID’s theory of prescriptive politics basically maintains that those with lesser expertise (so defined) should generally adopt the political and policy ideas of those with greater expertise. This means those belonging to privileged identities should adopt the ideas of those in oppressed identities, at least where the oppressed identity is more proximate to the issue in question.

This leads to a problem–identities must be validated and verified:

One of the problems of ID is that it makes identity policing necessary. As with any other theory of expertise, ID needs a way to separate the experts from the non-experts. Because ID bases expertise on identity, that necessarily means separating those in the identity from those outside the identity. On the prescriptive political level, identity policing is necessary in order to determine precisely whose ideas should be deferred to and adopted by others.

In concrete terms, it matters for the politics of ID whether Shaun King is white or black. If he is white, then he has no particular claim to wisdom on racial issues. That doesn’t mean his views are automatically wrong, of course. It just means they don’t receive any particular deference from others. If he is black, then the opposite is true: his identity gives him a special insight into what is necessary for racial justice. What side of the line he ultimately falls on has huge implications for whether he is himself a source of racial justice truth or simply a dedicated ally to those who are.

The identity policing issue expands to all identities, not just race.

That last sentence is critical, and it applies just as well to much of the right. The martyrology of Kim Davis makes that clear. If she were an atheist bigot–they do exist–then she would have no support, but make this an issue of her Christian identity, and now she has a ‘legitimate’ argument, at least in some quarters (to use the current phrase of art, she is speaking her truth, as repugnant and foolish as it is).

There is one more problem with testimony as argument–it is a potential source of corruption (boldface mine):

I’ve been thinking a lot about confession, lately, and the ways in which the world I occupy—a putatively radical one, where there’s a great deal of confessing and revealing to do, where people are constantly standing up and trying to outdo each other in what they can reveal about themselves—exerts a constant pressure to always be the Confessional Subject. I feel like I’m constantly dancing on the precipice of Confession.

Ah, to confess, always to confess, to reveal, always to reveal, to always, always be She Who Will Bare Her Literal and Metaphorical Breasts and Speak Grand Truths. This is the Neoliberal demand, especially of women of colour: “Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”

Testimonial activism and politics does not seem like a good–or viable–long-term strategy for the left.

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2 Responses to Identitarian Deference and Testimonial Reasoning

  1. Min says:

    Confession a neo-liberal demand? How about a Communist demand? How about a Christian demand? There is no shortage of movements that require confession.

  2. anthrosciguy says:

    It’s a standard method, and not always wrong to use, to try to gain credibility with an audience. “I used to _____, but then I read more/heard about/had something revealed to me, and now I realize that _____ is wrong.”

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