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Emily C.R. Tilton (University of British Columbia), "'That's Above My Paygrade': Woke Excuses for Ignorance"
Forthcoming in Philosophers' Imprint
The Changing Face of Ignorance
One of the tricky things about doing feminist philosophy is that if you get things wrong, your work might bolster oppressive ideologies, even as you try to reveal and undermine those ideologies. The track record here is not exactly inspiring. Some blunders have involved the acceptance of straightforwardly patriarchal frameworks, as with the feminists who defended “women’s ways of knowing”. More commonly, though, feminists have been tripped up by their failure to grasp how patriarchy interacts with other oppressive forces: for years, much of feminist thought operated on the assumption that white, privileged women’s experience of oppression could stand in for women’s experience broadly (Spelman and Lugones 1983); groundbreaking work on rape in the 70s and 80s frequently invoked the racist myth of the black rapist (Davis 1981); and early work in analytic social ontology fell prey to similar problems of exclusion. Sally Haslanger, for example, offered a definition of ‘woman’ (Haslanger 2000) that has since been rejected as trans-exclusionary (Jenkins 2016; Haslanger 2016).
Today’s feminists are well aware of these risks and are striving to make feminism more inclusive; they are rightly fearful of repeating past mistakes. However, a popular strategy adopted in light of this fear is frustrating feminist goals, rather than facilitating them. This strategy involves invoking what I call the strong epistemic disadvantage thesis (SEDT) to justify opting out of discussing intersectional forms of oppression (Tilton forthcoming). The SEDT holds that dominant social positions place strong, substantive limits on what the socially dominant can know about oppression that they do not personally experience—first-personal experience of oppression is to be taken to be necessary for understanding it. With the SEDT in hand, privileged feminists are equipped with an excuse for silence: if they tried to discuss forms of oppression that they don’t experience, they would inevitably mess it up. Since they don’t want to repeat past mistakes, it seems best that they leave that work to someone else.
The consequences of this strategy are helpfully illustrated by Kate Manne’s 2017 book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Manne 2017). While Manne’s stated aim was to analyze how misogyny functions to keep all women in their place, she ultimately focuses on the oppression faced by cis straight white women. Her justification for this focus makes it clear that the danger of misstepping weighs heavily on her mind. She explains that she is limited by her “own (highly privileged) social position and the associated standpoint or vantage point” (13) and claims that if she extended her analysis any further, she would overreach and make a mess of it (14). She thereby excuses herself from such discussion, leaving it to others to “fill in” these details (13).
Manne’s anxiety is understandable. But the result of the adoption of this strategy is that one of the most recent, widely-read works of feminist philosophy, by one of the most prominent analytic feminist philosophers, has almost nothing to say about either transmisogyny or misogynoir. To make matters worse, the people who Manne invites to fill in the details are largely excluded from philosophy departments (Schwitzgebel et al., 2021). So, the importance of intersectional work is acknowledged, but then shunted off to overburdened and underrepresented members of multiply-marginalized groups. This offers the illusion that contemporary feminists are taking intersectionality seriously, while in fact feminist philosophy proceeds as usual. The majority of feminist work makes only passing reference to intersectionality and the diversity of women’s experience of oppression, and reflects the interests of the most privileged women.
I explore the consequences of the SEDT in more detail in my forthcoming paper, “‘That’s Above my Paygrade’: Woke Excuses for Ignorance” (Tilton forthcoming). I also connect the SEDT to the literature on standpoint epistemology—I think many (but not all) standpoint epistemologists have implicitly committed themselves to the SEDT. Ultimately, I argue that if standpoint theorists are to avoid lending support to the implausible and pernicious SEDT, they must hold that non-marginalized people can achieve marginalized standpoints. You can read the paper here.
I think that the invocation of the SEDT is part of a broader progression of ignorance. Mariana Ortega recognized a version of this phenomenon almost 20 years ago (Ortega 2006). Ortega lamented the state of feminist philosophy, observing that the promises of Third-Wave feminism seemed empty. While non-white women were included at conferences, they often felt like token participants; white women engaged with the work of non-white women, but the quotation of the same famous lines, from the same famous non-white women, was often taken to be sufficient (69). In short, inclusion was treated as a box-ticking exercise and transformed into a hollow credentialing practice—it was done because it had to be done, if you wanted to earn your Third-Wave feminist credentials.
Consequently, while feminists claimed to be more enlightened about non-white women, these claims masked what was in fact just a new way of being ignorant. Previously, feminists had been “arrogantly” ignorant—they overlooked the relevance of race and the exclusion of non-white women, and their arrogance prevented them from taking this to be a problem (59). But the Third-Wave ushered in what Ortega calls “loving, knowing ignorance”. This kind of ignorance is accompanied by professed love for and knowledge about non-white women. Feminists who are lovingly, knowingly ignorant often genuinely want to understand and include non-white women, and may pride themselves in taking inclusion seriously (61). As Ortega puts the point, “the desire, the great wanting of this feminist is to be respected in a field that claims to care about women of color and their thought” (62). Despite this desire, the lovingly, knowingly ignorant feminist’s knowledge falls short of what she thinks it is. She takes herself to understand when she does not, and so she remains ignorant.
Ortega’s work demonstrates how easily ignorance can pass for progress. But where Ortega observed a shift from arrogant ignorance to loving, knowing ignorance, I think we are now seeing a shift from loving, knowing ignorance to helpless ignorance. The problem with both arrogant ignorance and loving, knowing ignorance was a systematic failure to recognize the importance of difference. Now, though, there is a growing inability to see past difference. Different social locations are taken to enable different possibilities for understanding, and the socially dominant are taken to have drawn the short end of the stick. This is a “helpless” way of being ignorant because it suggests that there is nothing the socially dominant could do to overcome the obstacles to understanding; the best they can do is to step aside.
The helplessly ignorant feminist is responsive to difficulties that the arrogantly ignorant and the lovingly, knowingly ignorant feminists are not—it is hard to understand oppression that you don’t personally experience, and past generations of feminists were led astray precisely because they did not realize this. Despite this, helpless ignorance is not a true step forward. Helpless ignorance effectively combines the investigative method of the arrogantly ignorant with the hollow credentialing practices of the lovingly, knowingly ignorant. Methodologically, considerations like race, class, and disability are bracketed off or pushed to the side. And, ironically, it is the justification for these exclusions that counts as participation in the credentialing ritual. These things aren’t set aside because they’re irrelevant, but because they’re so important that it would be disastrous to get them wrong. So, you can signal that you take intersectionality seriously, even as you set yourself up to do work that explicitly excludes those considerations.
The progression of ignorance I’ve described follows a predictable pattern. With each step in the progression, what started as a solution to ignorance is transformed into a tool for fortifying it. Calls for inclusivity and intersectionality were meant to alleviate the arrogant ignorance of many Second-Wave feminists. These calls were only superficially answered, which resulted in the rise of loving, knowing ignorance. Loving, knowing ignorance prompted calls for more humility—feminists had an inflated sense of their own understanding, and needed to take the limitations of their perspective more seriously. Now, these calls for humility have been warped into the foundation of helpless ignorance, because perspectival limitations are taken to be insurmountable obstacles to understanding.
Clearly, the solution to this problem cannot be an overconfident return to loving, knowing ignorance. But neither can we allow the fear of getting things wrong to impede the production of genuinely intersectional work. My hope is that recognizing the patterned progression of ignorance can make it easier to break out of this vicious cycle. What we need is real, active engagement with intersectional forms of oppression and the work done by women who experience those forms of oppression (Ortega 2006, 66-68). It’s surprisingly easy to mistake new ways of avoiding this engagement with progress. If we recognize this, we can be on the lookout for strategies that thwart the kind of engagement that is needed, and develop strategies that enable it instead.
Davis, A.Y. (1981). ‘Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist.’ Women, Race, & Class. New York, NY: Random House, 172-201.
Haslanger, Sally. (2000). Gender and race: (What) are they? (What) do we want them to be? Noûs. 34 (1), 31–55.
Haslanger, Sally. (2016). “Katharine Jenkins: ‘Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman’. Précis by Talia Bettcher.” PEA Soup. https://peasoup.deptcpanel.princeton.edu/2016/01/ethics-discussions-at-pea-soup-katharine-jenkins-amelioration-and-inclusion-gender-identity-and-the/. Accessed 12 Jan. 2023.
Jenkins, Katharine. (2016)."Amelioration and inclusion: Gender identity and the concept of woman." Ethics 126(2), 394-421.
Manne, Kate. (2017). Down girl: The logic of misogyny. Oxford University Press.
Lugones, María C., and Elizabeth V. Spelman. (1983). "Have we got a theory for you! Feminist theory, cultural imperialism and the demand for ‘the woman's voice’." Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 6. No. 6. Pergamon.
Ortega, Mariana. (2006). "Being lovingly, knowingly ignorant: White feminism and women of color." Hypatia 21(3), 56-74.
Schwitzgebel, Eric, et al. (2021). "The Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty." The Philosophers' Magazine, 71-90.
Tilton, Emily C. R. "That's Above My Paygrade": Woke Excuses for Ignorance. Philosophers' Imprint. Forthcoming.
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