Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Who speaks?

I'm interested in the reframing ideas from social justice as skeptical ideas.  It's a fresh spin on fallacies and biases!

One of the things we talk about in social justice is who speaks, and who gets spoken for. Within any group, the loudest voices tend to belong to the most powerful subsets of that group.  U.S. presidents tend to be old, white, male, and Protestant.  Prominent atheists tend to be old, white, and male.  Prominent LGBT activists tend to be gay rather than bisexual or trans.

We explain these imbalances by calling it "privilege", but it's really not an explanation at all.  "Privilege" is just short-hand for a bunch of different processes--better access to resources, greater encouragement to develop as a leader, greater sympathy from the public, etc.--and we don't really know which processes are more or less important.  But no matter the cause, we have to deal with the result: the loudest voices are systematically non-representative.

On some level, it doesn't matter who expresses an idea.  In California voter guides, they always attack propositions by saying some wealthy guy supports it, but as critical thinkers, we know that's just ad hominem.  If a wealthy person makes an argument, their wealth has no bearing on whether their argument is correct or not.  Some of my best friends are wealthy people who have correct arguments.

And yet, it is a very naive sort of critical thinking that ignores who is speaking.  When it comes to the minutiae of an argument, it doesn't matter who says what.  But in most arguments, we don't support every assertion with hard evidence.  A lot of things we say are opinions based on personal experiences and impressions.  In particular, we all have a bunch of personal impressions about what arguments other people make, what things other people believe, what sort of problems are most important to talk about.

And then there's the fallacy of omission.  If, for instance, a news article tells me of a study linking vaccinations and autism, there's just no way for me to know by looking at the article whether they omitted some important information, like the failure to replicate the study.  There has to be some degree of trust that the journalists have the investigative ability to dig up such details.  When someone is speaking, I have to trust that they are honest, and that their personal experience is broad enough to uncover any important details.

But if the loudest voices tend to come from people with privileged backgrounds, then their personal experiences are less broad for it.  Even if they make technically correct arguments, but they could be systematically missing multiple elephants in the room.

And there's a moral dimension to this.  What kind of elephants in the room are privileged people likely to miss?  (Answer: the kind of elephants that most hurt disadvantaged people.)