Monday, September 25, 2006

Lorraine Code: Taking Subjectivity Into Account

Two thoughts occurred to me after today’s discussion of Code’s article “Taking Subjectivity Into Account.”

The first is that her point can be boiled down to a very plausible set of claims, something like the following: It’s a mistake to define objectivity in terms of value neutrality. Why? Because perfect value neutrality is impossible. This means that attempts to be value neutral are doomed to failure. What’s worse, we’ll think we’re being value neutral when really we aren’t. And there’s no way to discover our remaining biases when we think we’ve already achieved value neutrality. Finally, the situation is exacerbated when we surround ourselves with people who think like us. So what’s the solution? It’s to listen to people who don’t think like us: that’s an effective way of weeding out persistent bias.

That seems so plausible it almost doesn’t bear comment. Of course, in class, Code received a lot of flak. In particular, lots of people were upset with her use of the word “feminist.” And it finally dawned on my why.

So, second, I’d forgotten that her essay is directed primarily at other professional philosophers. And we don’t have any problem with feminism, since it just refers to gender equality: who could be against that? Of course, in class, “feminism” has a lot of other connotations for the students reading her essay. And they objected to it not so much because they themselves are opposed to feminism but rather because they find it an inflammatory word and are worried, somehow, by how others will react to it. An analogy would be the word “liberal” which has a particular meaning for academics, referring to the liberal political tradition that pretty much encompasses both the left and right in US politics. But if you’re not thinking in these academic terms, then “liberal” has a more popular meaning that has successfully been turned into a pejorative.

2 Comments:

Blogger Scot MacLean said...

Very nice! But John, I don't think you should go to the site mentioned by askinstoo. Is there someway to block garbage like this?

I was interested in your posting and wished I could have heard the talk. I know this is probably an oversimplification but it seems to me the safe thing is to try to keep in mind at all times that we are biased, or not value neutral.

Regarding trying to listen to those who do not agree with us - it seems to me that there would be an infinite number of possible people to listen to all with varying shades and classes of disagreement. Do we then try to pick one who seems to be in most discord with our beliefs? And in making such a selection could we be sure we were choosing the "right" person with the most oppositional beliefs, vs unconsciously choosing someone who might be in more agreement with our viewpoint in very subtle ways?

2:55 AM  
Blogger John Capps said...

Scot,

I don't know what's best - my first thought is that it probably won't be an infinite range of divergent opinions - hopefully a more manageable number than that. But you're right: where do you draw the line between the dissent that is allowable and that which is beyond the pale? I'm really not sure about that one.

10:07 PM  

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