Why We Need More Standpoint Theory
by Sonia Zawitkowski
Women accept limited knowledge as their natural condition, a great human truth that a man may take a lifetime to reach.
– Camille Paglia (1)
Camille Paglia wrote that women were psychologically prepared to tolerate the limitations of objectivity by the complexity and invisibility of their reproductive systems. Men, on the other hand, able to see their genitals and more straightforwardly grasp how they work, were cursed to live without this understanding. Whatever you think about the connection between your reproductive anatomy and your faith in objectivity, there is truth and irony in the fact that the most rational thing one can do is accept the limitations of pure rationality.
A body of literature has been developed to address these limitations through Standpoint theory, which argues not only that all knowledge is socially situated, but also that marginalized social locations should be privileged. This analysis can be traced back to Marxist thinkers, who argued for the superior epistemological position of the working class over wealthy capitalists in understanding class relations. (2) Indeed, it is perfectly rational to argue that a working class, toiling for fourteen-hour days in deplorable working conditions, and poorly compensated, would be more likely to see the injustice of their economic arrangement, than an elite class growing rich from it. Under this framework, one’s class position determined one’s access to knowledge about capitalism.
Going the way of many other social justice concepts, standpoint theory has come to be mischaracterized and abused, inspiring papers about feminist glaciology, (3) articles about living fat in a thin-centric world, (4) and overblown outrage over the “transracialism” Hypatia article. (5) This has led to some well-deserved criticisms of standpoint theory’s excesses, but also merciless mocking of its original, more legitimate tenets. This is unfortunate because the complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever. I direct this not just towards standpoint theory’s most fervent critics, but also to those who use it eagerly but cynically.
To begin with, the central claim of standpoint theory — that all knowledge is socially situated — is to be distinguished from accusations that it is “essentializing.” Recognizing social identity as but one factor impacting our access to knowledge is really a call to fully examine how our experiences guide our values, what we are willing to scrutinize, and therefore what we find convincing. In advocating for solutions to complex social problems, standpoint theory provides a framework for us to check our biases, for the same reason researchers are encouraged to double-blind their studies and politicians are asked to report conflicts of interest. The scientific community recognizes that unconscious interests can influence our interpretation of even dispassionate facts (and there is evidence to suggest that “smarter” people are even worse for this). (6)
Of course, standpoint theory is controversial because it asks more from us than just simple perspective-taking, by promoting special consideration for how marginalization may provide more clarity on issues that concern us. This leads to the other common mischaracterization of standpoint theory, which is that it implies that every individual marginalized person is inherently correct about their views of the world or about what is good for their group. To the detractors’ point, often made by followers of Jordan Peterson and other outspoken critics like the Sokal-squared pranksters, it is true that standpoint theory is vulnerable to weaponization. (7) Even those who outright deny it will often heavily imply it (see the rationale for the unprecedented retraction of the Littman rapid-onset gender dysphoria paper or the dismissal of Bernie Sanders by a female journalist for inarticulable reasons except a reference to her womanhood). (8) Just the same, critics of standpoint theory can often be found disputing principles of say, socialism, by pointing to people who lived under authoritarian communism as a counterpoint. To them, the “lived experience” of these people trumps any logical arguments about the contradictions of modern capitalism or statistics about income inequality. Critics of standpoint theory will also eagerly lean on social identities when convenient to justify their views, as if an individual woman who likes being cat-called automatically trounces the rationality of fearing sexual assault, and an immigrant Trump-supporter ends the debate on US Republican immigration policies.
Ultimately however, the culture war between standpoint theorists and their critics (I’m thinking in particular of “Intellectual Dark Web” types) is over a philosophy with core tenets that both sides would agree on: for example, that “ideas matter in systems of power.” (9) The mistake that critics make is that it is possible to divorce these ideas from their historical context and the society-wide power relations involved.
Just like some of the more outrageous grievance studies claims, Pluckrose’s tweet has a certain internal logic, but falls apart quickly when interrogated. Perhaps in a parallel universe it was “liberal ethics” anthropomorphized that fought for women’s suffrage and financial independence, rescinding their status as property. In our world, however, progressive feminist principles became well-accepted not through rational arguments presented plainly, but by women actively fighting for these principles, many of whom were socially ostracized, imprisoned, beaten, and tortured for doing so. Universal suffrage and granting full political status to women seems obviously rational now, but only because of persistent fighting by women who challenged their contemporary social order at great personal cost. There is also a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of such arguments which render pure objectivity insufficient. There exist rational argument for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.
Stripped of its strawmen, I would expect detractors of standpoint theory to be its biggest cheerleaders. That outsiders might be in a better position to identify patterns of behavior worthy of critique that seem normal to the people who benefit from them could be the Intellectual Dark Web’s motto. Yet such a claim is heavily scrutinized by critics, until of course the social dispossession is happening to them. While critics of standpoint theory accuse its champions of living in a bubble, with their privileged epistemic position blinding them to the flaws in their arguments, their legitimate skepticism of the powerful takes an abrupt 180 degree turn once issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia come into play, as if the only social location that colors one’s worldview would be a conservative political position in a left-leaning academic department. Debates over the progression of #MeToo are a perfect example of this hypocrisy in action which unexpectedly drove me to readings on standpoint theory. After some questionable applications of the feminist campaign, my readiness to take concerns about due process seriously was interrupted by the realization that the same people who dismiss rape and sexual harassment as rare and overblown will demonstrate profound paranoia about rare and overblown false rape accusations. It becomes difficult to extend one’s sympathy to people encompassing a standpoint devoted to dismissing your own. As such, I expect the intellectual gridlock between women’s rights and due process to continue.
If the problem on the Right is a superficial disavowal combined with an underlying desire for the privileging of marginalized viewpoints (i.e. their own), the problem on the Left is a superficial understanding of standpoint theory resulting in cynical applications. While standpoint theory’s extensions to feminist, indigenous, and developing-world perspectives are all justifiable, there is now a growing de-emphasis on the material factors that impact social locations over superficial ones that are solely identity-based. For example, in the realm of sex, it has become unfashionable to discuss how belonging to the group that is capable of getting pregnant might impact women’s experiences and concerns or how the fact that women tend to be smaller, physically weaker, and more likely to be on the receiving end of predatory sexual attention than men, may shape their perception of threats, risk, and sexual politics. Rather, women are encouraged to focus on their gender identities and an ambiguous, ill-defined “femininity.” It is now common for social justice advocates to make strange arguments rather disconnected from the very same people they claim to represent — that the biggest problem with a possible corporate surveillance state, for example, is that robots might accidentally misgender people sometimes. (10) Or that women who were born female don’t have a unique understanding of womanhood and don’t deserve to be consulted on policies that entrench a sexist definition of womanhood legally. (11) The recent Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada included recommendations for white people to read the report, police officers to educate themselves, and several references to “gender-inclusive” options on policy forms. These seem somewhat toothless and disconnected from the realities of women trapped in dangerous prostitution work, living in areas with poor infrastructure, rampant addiction, and high rates of domestic violence after a legacy of colonialism.
Standpoint theory was initially a call to privilege claims from the marginalized, but it has come to justify privileging arguments by those in power claiming to speak for them. While belonging to certain social identities will be associated with your access to power in many circumstances, defining power by these social identities alone is insufficient, and class is curiously absent from most of these discussions (perhaps there is a fear that this would occasionally give white, straight men a seat at the discussion table). There is much hand-wringing over the possibility of another Trump victory in the face of Democratic impotence in the US. It is a mystery to the economically secure and politically powerful that the day-to-day realities and concerns of ordinary people are shaped by economic policies more than the intersectionality-espousals of their leaders. My argument is not for or against the merit of these concerns, but that analyses taking into account those at the periphery of power, no matter their social identity, will offer better political strategies and more productive solutions.
In a group therapy session many years ago, I watched a patient struggle with articulating how she believed her mental illness was making her magnify her (in her words) petty, personal problems. The counselor held her fist to her chest in sympathy, and gently replied, “Whose pain is the most real to me? My pain.” It was a ridiculously simply but profoundly true statement that stuck with me. No one has access to pure knowledge about someone else’s pain, and nothing confers such knowledge like directly experiencing it. The slights against us are always the greatest, because they’re the only ones that can be truly felt. I think about this when I see those dismissing pain caused by racist or sexist remarks as trivial, wishing for the pain they experience as political outsiders to be elevated. At the same time, mainstream applications of standpoint theory in the culture wars tend to be missing the crucial analysis of who has power and who benefits.
Technological, economic, and social changes increasingly alienate us from those with different perspectives. All the while, modern applications of standpoint theory mean that troublemakers on the right pretend not to believe its core assertions, while troublemakers on the left only pretend that they do, resulting in superficial and inconsistent applications of the concept that are almost always self-serving. This is what leads me to rely ever-increasingly on standpoint theory when considering other views. Appeals to objectivity can land you to any side of most social issues. But by coupling perspective-taking with correctly identifying those in power, and reflecting on who benefits and why, we might better understand the standpoints which inform the development of a society that is not only rational, but also just.
Sonia Zawitkowski has her BA in Economics and is currently a graduate student in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Guelph. Her interests include armchair philosophy, economics, psychology, and making mainstream feminism less shitty.
(1) Paglia, Camille. Sexual personae: Art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Vol. 1. Yale University Press, 1990.
(2) Cameron, W. Scott. “The genesis and justification of feminist standpoint theory in Hegel and Lukács.” Dialogue and Universalism 15, no. 3/4 (2005): 19-41.
(4) Owen, Lesleigh. “Living fat in a thin-centric world: Effects of spatial discrimination on fat bodies and selves.” Feminism & Psychology 22, no. 3 (2012): 290-306.