Saturday, May 30, 2009

Latina wisdom: a blog post on epistemology and politics

Let me start with something that I think should be fairly uncontroversial, given its pride of place in the Western canon on philosophical axioms:

Know thyself.

When Judge Sonia Sotomayor talks about the role of experience and her identity as a wise Latina woman, she is not sounding some crazy radical pomo activist socialist whateverist scary siren song of identity politics and--as the more ridiculous critics have termed it--racism. (Honestly?) She is stating something obvious and unavoidable, and something absolutely necessary to the process of making decent judgments about, well, anything. Know thyself. Plato said it first, and I guess we'd put him in the category of hallowed white males, wouldn't we.

In the lecture that the supposedly damning quote is pulled out of, Sotomayor makes two points, both of which hang on the necessity of knowing yourself as a part of the process of making judgments. The first is that being who you are, whether that's a "wise Latina woman" or a "white male," is a specific identity, the cumulative result of a lifetime of experience and circumstances that are unique to each person. This is the part where the quote comes from. The controversy about it comes not from her acknowledging that she is a Latina--which everyone is busy pointing out as well. It's fine that she's willing to acknowledge the specificity of her identity. The controversy comes from the presumption that a Latina's specific experiences are a valid perspective from which to judge. That presumption means not just that Sotomayor is rejecting the idea of some universally objective non-personal standpoint but that she regards Latina experience as on par with any other American experience, equally valid and representative. And this is only controversial because in his country, apparently, we still retain the idea that there is some kind of universal American experience and identity from which all judgments should be made--and that this universal American experience and identity is the epistemological possession of white men. (If Sotomayor were willing to say it doesn't make a difference that her body is Latina because her mind is the same as a white male's, then we would call her "fair" and "objective" and "dispassionate." She would also, of course, be a liar, but that lie is one that we cherish and like to hear.)

Of course, not all Americans are white or male, a point that Sotomayor also makes. Most of the defenses of her that I've heard focus on this point, arguing that she is talking about her Latina experiences as particularly relevant in the context of discrimination cases. As true as this may be, it is the wrong defense to make, because it emphasizes the experiential gap between the "wise Latina woman" and the white male--precisely the thing that scares the pants off of all the white males calling her racist at the moment.

It would be smarter--and more relevant--to point out that Sotomayor goes on to make the second point, also connected to 'knowing thyself,' that acknowledging one's specific experiences and identity does not mean one is unable to understand that other experiences are real, valid, and require understanding. Rather, it means the opposite. Being a wise Latina woman does not mean that she can only properly understand the experiences of other Latina women, or that she makes Latina experience universal for everyone in an epistemological oppression mirroring the supposed universalism of the particular experience of white maleness. Understanding that her experiences are particular, not universal, she can therefore perceive the need to actively seek to understand experiences not her own. Only if you understand the particularity of your own experiences can you get the fact that other people's experiences may differ from your own. The larger question Sotomayor addresses in her lecture is how one goes beyond the particularity of personal experiences in the process of making judgments: does one do by aspiring to some sort of universal standpoint outside onself, "objectivity," or does one do it precisely through acknowledging the preferences and presumptions one's own experience has provided, seek to evaluate their relevance and impact on one's decision making, and possibly revise or even counter them in light of the experiences of others? Sotomayor advocates the latter. As any honest thinker should--and must. This is what makes her, not simply a Latina woman, but a wise Latina woman.


mundiejc said...

I agree with this, and struggle with it at the same time.

I was introduced to thinking this way through, well, to be honest, Brian McLaren (*hangs head in shame) and it makes perfect sense to me in how we read and understand the biblical text.

What I struggle with is how we should understand our law. Obviously, objectivity is impossible, as our experiences color how we perceive the world around us. But, at the same time, the Constitution is a legal document written by people (white men) who were steeped in the modernism of the enlightenment. I guess I wonder what should weigh more, the historical context in reading the document through the eyes of those who wrote it, and ruling from some sort of, maybe not objective standard, but at least attempting to rule most in line with those who created the document in the first place; or trying using our experiences to guide us to "better" judgements, while using the Constitution as a sort of guide.

It seems that the wisdom of the founders to allow for amendments to the constitution made it difficult while still possible to change things as times change, and as the people want times to change. Now, that will never offer a perfect sort of justice (though in the framework of the world, all justice seems to be somewhat relative compared to the justice of God) but it does allow for our constitutional republic to use its democratic function to mold the law as our understanding changes.

The problem I have with leaning too much our own experiences in interpreting the law (or just ignoring the constitution, both of which are attributes of judges on both sides of the metaphorical eisle) is that we are bringing our post modern understanding into a framework that is whole heartedly modern, and was also set up to be able to adjust in situations such as these.

I don't really know what I'm saying here besides I don't know. I've always been a Lockian thinker, and the more theology I read, the more I realize that my brain is completely fried with competing worldviews and nothing really ever seems to make any sense. But you are much, much smarter than I am Jen, and maybe you could respond to my questions in such a way as to make it less confusing for me.

(in the interest of full disclosure, I am neither for or against her appointment. I'm reserving judgement til at least the hearings, and even then, I'm more worried about the justice of my neighbors on my street than petty national politics, so I may still not care either way when it is decided)

Anonymous said...

I'm not all that concerned about this quote.

I'm more concerned about her idiotic ruling in the New Haven firefighters' case. That was nothing but judicial activism.

She will be easily confirmed, so my hope is that she will pull a Souter and change her ideology once she gets to the Court. A 6-3 conservative majority on the Court would be Sweeeeet!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read much about the Ricci case other than a NYT article (from which it is clear to me that New Haven screwed up royally in one way or another: either by administering a bad test or (if the test was good) by being too embarrassed to follow through when few minorities happened to score well on the test).

But, here are excerpts from what someone told me about it in discussion:

"To find for Ricci would have meant finding that a person's interest in being hired or promoted vests at the point of application or the point where the job is advertised. The court found Ricci had no "right" to a fair promotion until such point when SOMEONE WAS ACTUALLY PROMOTED...Wal-Mart, Citi Bank, and Exxon/Mobile don't want you to have a legally defensible interest in a job or promotion until they actually hire or promote someone...I don't think anyone wants to see the risk and exposure for hiring bias cases to explode because a person now has a protected interest in a job that isn't filled. That's just a huge expansion of anti-discrimination rights."

JTB said...

Haven't commented because I've been busy actually dissertating lately...a good thing, right.

I don't feel like I can comment on the New Hampshire case other than saying, as a teacher, if I administered a test that only white students did well on and all other students did poorly on--that would be a powerful signal that something is wrong with my test, or my teaching methods and expectations, or the demographics of my class. I don't know which applies here.

Justin, thanks for a great comment and I hope you don't think that I think that I am smarter than you, or anybody around here...

With regard to wondering "what should weigh more, the historical context in reading the document through the eyes of those who wrote it, and ruling from some sort of, maybe not objective standard, but at least attempting to rule most in line with those who created the document in the first place; or trying using our experiences to guide us to "better" judgements, while using the Constitution as a sort of guide," I don't actually see a huge epistemological gap between the two. Just the idea of taking historical context into account means recognizing that a particular historical context is just that, particular and not timelessly universal. At the same time, the work of interpretation implies that there is a source other than idiosyncratic personal experience, a text which embodies the collective wisdom of other human beings, out of which we make judgments. Ideally, right, trying to rule in line with those who created the Constitution is something which our experiences, as they impact our interpretation of the document, help us to do. Was giving women the vote ruling in line with those who created the Constitution? I think we would all say yes, despite the fact that obviously this was not included and not a consideration in the historical context. What made the interpretive difference was that the experience of women was voiced publicly in such a way as to make it obvious that the Constitution should be interpreted--and formally changed--to include women as full citizens with the right to vote. There seems to me to be a suspicion of "experience" as an interpretive resource that's unfounded--as if experience is always an obstacle and never a help in the work of interpretation. It can be either, but the plain fact is, it's always there. Until one can admit that, you are shackled into that one perspective because you insist that you don't have one, and therefore there is no other, and to take on another is to create an obstacle. This is what I see in these complaints against Sotomayor.

Unknown said...

So glad I heard about this blog! Jen, we were at Harding together, but I doubt you remember me. Anyway, I just want to add that the criticism of Sotomayor on her "wise Latina" comment was really just politics as usual. They gave her grief about other aspects of her judicial philosophy. The Dems leveled equal criticism at Thomas as a racially motivated pick. Did anyone watch the ribbing Alito received? It's just a show for the folks back home to say, "See guys, I tried." Graham will vote for her, and he's really the one that could hold up her nomination for a full vote (thanks to Specter's defection).

Other legitimate criticism of her has been largely overlooked by the media, but it really doesn't matter, since she's just replacing Souter. She's a liberal who believes "the courts are where policy is made." She a qualified candidate. The entire thing is a tempest in a teapot to me. The real battle will come when a conservative judge steps down.

Ultimately, SCOTUS will consider and decide on a case based not only on their interpretation of the Constitution, their own knowledge and personal experiences, but the political and social implications of that decision. SCOTUS is as political as the other two branches. What I think they were trying to achieve in their criticism of her wise Latina comment was that she wouldn't give preference for one group over another. "Empathy" was batted around a lot, but the fear people had was that judgments would not be made on the merits of the case itself, but the background of the plaintiffs and defendants. For instance, would she give a lesser sentence to a Latino male born into poverty than a wealthy white male who have been convicted of identical crimes? Based on her ruling on the Ricci case, some saw that as a legitimate question. What gets me is a call for tolerance and empathy from the same people who claim that old white guys are just scared of her. I guess it only shows why the DC spin doctors make so much money.

JTB said...

With a history of 17 years on the bench, I think focusing on a single case is a bit myopic. But yes, politics as usual. (When do politics proceed unusually? ...and wouldn't that be fun?)

But my personal interest in the whole thing is the way in which epistemology shows up unexpectedly in this political process--and it's the one thing that's not getting talked about, at least, not competently, IMO. Questioning whether or not a self-proclaimed wise Latina woman is able to come to a reasonable judgment--when reasonable is synonymous with "neutral," "impartial," and "objective," all of which are great words, except that they have been historically defined by the one single group of people in this country who've ignored their own particularity by presuming its universality--is a question of epistemology as much as it is politics. But as epistemology's not often the topic of general public discussion in our country, the role that it plays in this whole political episode remains obscured...and that's what I was trying to highlight. Because when you break it down, what's being claimed is that a white male can represent and empathize with everyone, but a Latina woman can only represent or empathize with Latina/os. That's been our de facto political reality for the entire history of this country, and therefore easy to take for granted--as the status quo always is. But if you frame that claim as a question of epistemology, it becomes a little more obviously absurd.

Well, maybe.

Unknown said...

Well, the Ricci case has particular relevance, since it was recently overturned by SCOTUS and received the most attention. But, whatever. That's an interesting point you're making, but I do not see how one can extrapolate from the hearings/media attention that what is being claimed is that white guys can represent and empathize with everyone, but minorities, in this case Latinos, only represent and empathize with their race. Yes, our history has been dominated by the rule of white males. I won't dispute the conflicts inherent in a patriarchal society, nor will I defend the oppression of minorities in our country. However, I would say that it is equally prejudicial to presume that even questioning her statement is beyond the bounds fairness and seeks to marginalize and belittle her. It is as if the pendulum has swung the opposite direction and any white guy is immediately demonized for opening his mouth. It doesn't move the ball forward in my mind. I'm not naive that some were trying to do this, but some always do this. Look at the exchange between Sen. Boxer and Harry Alford a few days ago. It would be prejudicial to say all white women feel all black men should share the same political and economic ideologies, but Mr. Alford certainly believed she was trying to put him "in his place". It is absurd and will continue as long as we define ourselves primarily along racial and gender lines, and not beliefs and actions. I'm truly looking forward to political exchanges where competency will largely hinge on the job experience and judgment of that individual to meet goals and less about all the warm-fuzzy, hard-knock life stories.

JTB said...

I probably should have said "assumed" and not "claimed," since I think you're right, no one is actually claiming it. Actually claiming it would be obviously racist.

But to call Sotomayor racist for daring to assert that she too can achieve the standards of "impartiality" and "objectivity" as a "wise Latina woman", like people have publicly done...I don't see how that's NOT presuming that certain people are congenitally prevented, and some people congenitally privileged, to achieve the epistemological standard of objectivity.

Or hell, you know, I actually think that's true, given that "objectivity" and "rationality" and the like have been defined by one homogeneous group. The rest get left out by definition, except for the exceptions who manage to approximate white maleness.

This is precisely why we need to rethink what these notions of rationality and objectivity and impartiality even mean. Because if they mean something that a Latina woman can't hope to achieve, unless she somehow gives up being who she is, then they mean something far less universal than supposed.

That's all I'll say--I suspect I'm just not being all that convincing, so let's call this the last round, and you get the last word if you like. :)

JTB said...

oh, but a postscript (sorry, I know, I can't help it):

I think you're right on the "identity politics" thing; that's part of what appeals to me about the cyborg. As long as our identity boundaries remain fixed and impermeable and non-negotiable then we've set ourselves up for the foregone conclusion that we can't relate, can't bridge the gap, can't see from another perspective.

That's all. I hope it makes sense, you may not have been around the blog long enough to be able to place the cyborg comment in context...

but I wanted--after all this fun discussion--to say, yes, I agree with you about something!

and, I forgot to say earlier, you're right, I don't remember you from Harding, but that's because I was anti-social, and for about half the time, probably diagnosably depressed...