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Who can speak for/with/about whom? Two metaphors, and why they matter

The question of who can speak about what, about whom, with whom and for whom is at the heart of many recent controversies: Who has the right to speak on behalf of disadvantaged groups, e.g. sexual or racial minorities? Who should be invited to speak, e.g. on college campuses, who should be refused a stage? Have speakers with more extreme political positions, e.g. climate change deniers, a right to be listened to?

These issues are so difficult that I can hardly do justice to even just one aspect in this blogpost.[1] And yet, we cannot ignore them – arguably, they go to the heart of what political philosophy is all about. What I want to do is to reflect on two concepts, or metaphors, which have floated around in the debates: “identity politics” and “standpoint epistemology.” They point to deeper assumptions about who can speak for/with/about whom. Making these explicit might help us to move the discussion forward.

A central question underlying various debates, it seems, is how one can get access to different kinds of knowledge. For if an individual or a group has privileged access to certain pieces of knowledge, then we have good reasons to listen to them, more so than to others. If I want to know about a certain disease, I have good reasons to listen to a medical expert, rather than to my aunt who thinks she knows about it because she has heard that her neighbour’s sister was diagnosed with it. Analogous arguments apply to many other areas as well.

Now, acquired expertise is one way of getting access to knowledge (and for that very reason it is highly controversial what it consists of, who defines it, etc.). Another is lived experience: for certain things, having lived through them is the most important mechanism of understanding them. It is here where the first metaphor, that of “standpoints,” comes in. The basic idea here is that because knowledge is “socially situated,” we can see some things better from certain perspectives than from others. As the IEP article on “Feminist Standpoint Theory” puts it: “Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.” The “begin with” here is noteworthy: it does not imply that the last word is identical to the first one. The formulation leaves open the possibility that other things might be added, that there might be processes of refinement and learning. As standpoint theorists have argued, however, a standpoint is more than a mere “perspective”: it is constructed, in historical struggles in which the shared experience of fighting for one’s rights, e.g. women’s rights, creates new insights. Thus, there are good reasons for listening to those who have already gone through such a process, rather than letting their voices be drowned out by others who have just recently discovered a topic!

Now, a second concept or metaphor (or whatever you want to call it) that has floated around in the debates is that of “identity politics.” This term is broader, and I won’t comment on its broader usages here,[2] other than noting (as this critic also does) that the phenomenon is by no means limited to (what opponents claims is) left-wing politics. Rather, I want to question one assumption that has, apparently, sometimes been connected to it: the assumption that it is because of certain identities that we have access to certain pieces of knowledge. Sometimes, this assumption is uncontroversial: when “identity” is just a placeholder for other things that really explain why one would have epistemic access to certain things, e.g. experience or training.

Things get complicated when identity is taken to be an irreducible argument for having access to certain forms of knowledge. “Identity,” as such, is not an epistemic category – and if it is used as such, it implies that one is only ever able to understand certain things if one belongs to the group that shares the relevant identity. Used in this way, this metaphor is misleading and harmful. It flies in the face of how fluid and multiple identities can be, locking us into boxes without acknowledging the porosity of their boundaries. And it implies that political debate consists in individuals or groups with different identities exchanging arguments based on their identities – and then, what? What, if anything, can come next?

The picture of “standpoints,” in contrast, suggests what might be the next step: we might take on, at least for a short while, for epistemic reasons, the other side’s perspective. We might try to put ourselves into their shoes, and maybe realize that some arguments can be shared. Maybe we can figure out why our positions differ, maybe we can somewhat move our positions, and maybe – another spatial metaphor – we can find middle ground.

Thus, the spatial imagery behind the metaphor of “standpoints” leaves open the possibility of understanding one another, and compromising with one another, in the shared space of claims and arguments that is “political discourse.” Realizing this possibility presupposes both the ability and the willingness to sympathize: to put oneself into other people’s shoes in order to understand where they come from. The willingness may sometimes be lacking – but we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to do so. It may take some time, it may require some learning (and some un-learning of what we took for granted), it is difficult, but not impossible. Talk about “identities,” however, disinvites us from even entering this path. Unless, that is, we emphasize an identity that we share, above and beyond all our varying identities: our shared humanity. And unless we assume that this is an identity we all share, how can we assume that we all belong to one conversation, in the end?

Why does this matter? It matters because philosophy is, at its core, built on the assumption that we can understand one another – that in addition to all that divides us, there are some things we have in common, and that can be the basis for understanding one other. The problem is that in the past, the notion of what we have in common – “reason,” “autonomy,” what have you – has been terribly abused, as a weapon of suppressing and excluding individuals, and as a tool for preserving unjustified privileges. But the answer to this problem shouldn’t be giving up the idea that we have something in common – it should be discussing what it is, who can define it, and how it needs to be redefined such that it can be used to empower, rather than to silence, oppressed groups.

This does not mean that all standpoints should be treated as equal, far from it! Against some claims, we need to firmly stand our ground (note the spatial metaphor again!). But that’s not because of our identity or theirs, but because some claims are wrong, insulting and dangerous. If so, we need to refute them, not because of anyone’s identity – but because they are wrong, insulting and dangerous, not matter who utters them. The practical challenge, in many cases, presents itself as the question of how many times this needs to be done: do we have to argue for certain racists claim, for example, being wrong, insulting and dangerous over and over again, or do we sometimes get at a point where we would stop listening, because all the work of refutation has been done? When do we get to the point where some utterances should be banned rather than proven wrong once more?

Now, switching metaphors cannot solve practical problems. Moving from talk about “identities” to talk about “standpoints” won’t tell us how to answer questions about free speech and campus invitation policies. But it can, arguably, shift our attention in ways that might be helpful for thinking about concrete cases. The point of public debate is to acknowledge, and benefit from, the existence of various standpoints and perspectives. The ability to engage with speakers from other standpoints or perspectives, and the willingness to learn from them, is an important communicative virtue. In practical terms, this implies that we should prioritize formats in which speakers talk to each other, rather than monologic formats. Participatory formats allow others to ask back, and they train us in listening to arguments that we might be uncomfortable with.

And maybe using them has another, indirect effect as well: it could lead to a self-selection of those who are willing to engage in dialogue rather than one-sidedly broadcast their preferred message, thereby acknowledging that others have a right to speak and to be listened to as well. It would force everyone to put their cards on the table, rather than hiding behind assumptions about the inability to understand each other: who is willing to enter into a dialogue, and who isn’t?


[1] After some of the recent implosions in the philosophical blogosphere, I’ve hesitated whether to write about this topic at all – can I speak about these things? But self-censorship would be lethal for philosophy, so I decided to do it nonetheless. Dear readers, please be reasonable and kind in your responses! If I’ve made mistakes or overlooked something, give me a chance to learn!

[2] See the SEP entry by Cressida Heyes for the broader discussion: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/.

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. Hi Lisa, I wondered whether you also think there are instances in which experiences can problematise the knowledge we bring to an issue? Perhaps there are instances in which the experience leads to one developing a partial or narrow view about it or where it makes an issue “to close to the bone” to reflect on it as well as one might. You make the point that views can be taken as a starting point, not an end point, but I wonder if there are any cases where you think that bringing such experience into the debate might actually be a problem?

    • Erin Nash

      Good question!

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Andrew, that’s an interesting question, not least because one can run into an infinite regress about who can tell whether someone else knows what a third party knows etc. – when do you hit the bottom of something that counts as genuine testimony about something? Nonetheless, when thinking through a few examples, it seemed to me that the problem is maybe not so much that someone who is “too” close to something provides us with a distorted insight, but rather that they (or we, or others) classify their insight in the wrong way, inferring too much from it, as it were. Thus, a victim of violence is, I assume, the best source of insights about what this experience is like. But they are not necessarily the best source of insights about, say, the character of the group that committed that violence, because on that question, their views would probably (and completely understandably) be biased. Putting it in this way points toward what seems to be a real challenge in many practical cases: to delineate the various fields for which different kinds of experiences are a good source of insight, and those for which a balance with other sources of insight need to be thought. This is likely to be controversial, and much will depend on concrete circumstances, but by putting it in this way, we can at least identify what the controversy is about…

  2. Erin Nash

    Hi Lisa – thanks for a well written post, that brings a lot of nuance back into this space.

    In moving to practical recommendations, you seem to put a lot of weight on your suggestion of moving to participatory formats. I like this suggestion, and i think this would be a good move for some issues, but for others I worry that it might lead to the perception that both ‘sides’ of debates are on a epistemic and/or moral par with the other, when this is sometimes not the case. For example, there has been much critique about ‘false balance’ in the news media’s presentation of the basic physical science of anthropogenic climate change (see Boykoff & Boykoff 2004 ‘Balance as Bias’). Do you think that the participatory format will be inappropriate for some issues, or do you think it all depends on how the participatory forum itself is structured, designed and moderated?



    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Erin, you’re right, that’s a challenge, and that’s something I didn’t address in the post simply for reasons of space. It comes up at the point where I talk about whether certain arguments have to be exchanged again and again and again, or whether we can sometimes consider an issue as settled. I’m not an expert on this, but from what I read, core elements of the science of climate change are basically settled among experts, so I don’t think that climate change deniers need to be given a stage – it is, after all, THEM, who fail to stick to the rules of conduct of a reasonable discussion, because they keep repeating certain points again and again and again even if these have been refuted carefully and in much detail. I’m reading “Merchants of Doubt” (by Conway and Oreskes) right now; it’s a historical account that describes how the fact that scientific questions are rarely settled with 100% security has been abused by strategic (usually corporate) interests to oppose regulation. It’s fascinating, and saddening….
      So while I think “balance” is important for issues that are questions of value, or that are really not at all settled yet, I find it a misapplication to use it for climate science.

  3. Beth

    Really beautifully written and well expressed post. Made a good end to my work day yesterday to read it and think about it. I like the way you drew a distinction between the two way of thinking things through. I reckon some folk use the language slightly differently and can be on the identity side of things without falling in to the trap you recognise. Perhaps by recognising the complexity of identity and not falling into the problems you recognise. But isn’t it always the case that you can use language in so many ways.

    I was wondering about the idea of a ‘standpoint’. Should we think of it as a perspective from some particular social position (meaning its about the situation of a group and their experiences) or whether it is about having a particular world-view and value system. The difference matters because we might think that we should treat the two things differently in discussion and that there might be different norms for our treatment of each. For example I might want to listen to the perspective of someone who has experienced a particular form of injustice first hand in a different way to the way I listen to someone who has a similar social position to my own but embraces a different world view and value system. In the first case I may wish to consider their first hand testimony of experiencing injustice in order to improve my understanding of injustice, its effects and how it needs to be addressed. In the second case I may instead be listening to the evidence in support of their world view and their reason for supporting their value system.

    On the other hand it might (in reality) be impossible to distinguish the two given that our experiences and understanding of things is always triangulated through some view of the way the world is. Everyone has to have some world view and value system. The system is informed by their experiences and knowledge but it also shapes these experience and knowledge. This can make two people in similar social positions have very different experiences and understandings. This could mean that practically it is difficult to disentangle the two understandings of standpoint. We might thus adopt the same way of relating to both. Alternatively, it could be that we should in our discussions be doing both things at once (taking on board the unique experiential evidence of the person and considering the validity and plausibility of their world view and value system.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Beth, the points you raise lead to a question that I left unexplored in the post, namely the way in which observations (and in analogy also personal experiences) are always “theory-laden”. So the alternatives you describe are certainly on a spectrum (as I understand you acknowledging). As I understand the literature on standpoints (which I’m still in the course of exploring), the authors take it to mean more than a perspective, but rather a worldview that got shaped through shared experiences of struggle.
      I guess one can nonetheless draw a (gradual, not absolute) distinction, in many practical contexts, between the two kinds of discourse you describe: is someone describing experiences (which are shaped by a certain world-view) or defending a position (by drawing on experiences).
      One small final point: in some discussions about theory-ladenness of experience it sounds as if we were always held captive by our previous theories, which would color all our experience in such a way that new insights are impossible. While examples of individuals for whom this seems to be true immediately spring to mind, this cannot be a correct picture, because it would make new insights – both in scientific research and in the communication between individuals from different backgrounds – impossible. Which is another reason for why I find it most plausible to think about these things as lying on a spectrum.

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