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. 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, 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?
 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!
 See the SEP entry by Cressida Heyes for the broader discussion: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/.