There is a lot of hot debate between the political left and right about social justice issues, and a particularly concentrated debate in higher education institutions. A lot of college students have become particularly concerned about issues related to gender, race, identity etc. and have adopted a paradigm of political correctness and sensitivity about them. "Safe spaces" across the United States are the most well-known example of this.
A lot of the consensus on college campuses is that identity politics should listen to the experiences of the oppressed. This is irrefutable; lived experience is an important part of how we construct our theories of social phenomena. People’s experiences give important guiding intuition. An analogy with physics is that it is like checking if your final solution to a problem makes physical sense.
The issue I have is with people who say that men have nothing to contribute to anti-sexism, or white people have nothing to contribute to anti-racism, or wealthy people have nothing to contribute to anti-classism. If you do not identify in any way with oppressed populations, your opinion is irrelevant and incorrect. These people take lived experience to be holy gospel; the opinions of the oppressed are the ONLY thing that matters.
It might be true that as a matter of probability, you are more likely to believe something incorrect when you are discussing the implications of a policy on poor people as someone wealthy, for example. But this is a probability, not an essential reality. In fact, in physics, physical intuition developed from personal experience is often completely incorrect. The same is true in economics; as children — and even as adults — we might believe that taxes are terrible because they take away from our ability to buy the things we like but upon re-examination, we might realize that taxes serve an essential role in our economic system.
Our models for social reality need to be founded on data checked by intuition. We take the same approach in science; there is no reason why we shouldn’t do the same with social facts. Lived experience is important, but much more important is a systematic and objective study of social models that is guided — but not necessitated — by lived experience.
I don’t want to suggest that it is permissible for white people to overthrow black people as the leaders of anti-racist movements, and men against women for feminist movements — but what it means is that the movements should not be closed barriers, and that data can often be inconsistent with intuition.
For example, lower-class white people after Bacon’s Rebellion believed that their lives were fundamentally better than lower-class black people, but this was not materially the case. A U.S. history class will tell you that the government engaged in a divisive strategy that was designed to fracture political unity by giving white people a feeling of psychological superiority.
The data seems to suggest that a part of this has validity even today. People of the same economic class tend to have much more similar lives than people of the same economic class but different racial class. Materially, the lives of poor people across races are not very different — especially in comparison to people of the same racial class, but different economic class. The modern social justice movement however, would have you believe that there are very fundamental differences between those people; it misconceptualizes class as just another dimension of identity, rather than as a more fundamental structure of a social system.
The white person’s perspective on anti-racism might give unique insight about how to eliminate it. The same applies with gender. But the whole point is that the "identity" of the speaker is only relevant when it is clear what they say is completely inconsistent with lived experience with no reasonable explanation.
If we keep appealing to lived experience and not data, we are not only epistemologically bankrupt, but also open up too many possibilities for destruction. What stops the white supremacists from appealing to their “lived experience” when they say they are demeaned by other races? Or when they argue that climate change doesn’t exist? Or when they say they exhibit superior qualities? This is a non-falsifiable standard that can be exploited too easily.
The other, related problem with the modern social justice movement — besides a lack of focus on data — is the lack of emphasis on materiality. Political correctness and emotional sensitivity have trumped material change. Racism and sexism are not just bloopers of people saying offensive things. They are material issues that require material solutions.
We don’t say homelessness would stop from people being nicer to homeless people. Sentiments are not enough. The data proves this, AND people’s lived experience proves this. But for some reason, social justice politics on college campuses — and seemingly politics writ large — has become oddly apolitical. An aversion to government policy as a solution is acceptable, but not an aversion to material solutions of any kind — unless you are a hardcore pessimist.
It is convenient because believing that sentiments are all that matter makes our lives much easier. It lets us feel like we’re making a difference. Hell, it’s my lived experience; who are you to say that it’s wrong?
VINAYAK KUMAR is a Wharton freshman from Parsippany, N.J., studying finance, physics and philosophy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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