Tag Archives: epistemic marginalization

People confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards.

People confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards. Right-wing “alt facts” insists reality is legitimately determined by the powerful, that if someone simply posits a fiction with enough conviction then it becomes true, or at least “alternatively true.” This is wrong.

Standpoint theory is very different. It says that knowledge is shaped by social position and therefore that we can’t just ignore the knowledge-positions of indigenous people, women, minorities, and the working class, who have historically been cast out of eligibility for scientific expertise (so that e.g. the knowledge of European noblemen is “science,” but indigenous knowledge is historically framed as “superstition”—we even have a special term for discrediting women’s knowledge: “old wives’ tales”). Sandra Harding calls this “science from below” (to parallel “history from below”). The “below” part is important.

Standpoint theory says (and really, how controversial is this?) that we must acknowledge positionality in order to correct for the limitations of what we know, and social positionality can have this limiting effect just as much as the position of your telescope. This doesn’t mean facts are arbitrary or that you can just make some up, Sean-Spicer-style. On the contrary, it means extending your rigor and considering context.

I know there’s a little complexity here and that is difficult for the “Fuck Yeah Science!!” (…”where by Science I mean Neil de Grasse Tyson memes and punching hippies!”) crowd to accept. It’s not very Facebookable. But we will get nowhere by insisting that facts (Lt. factus, made) are immutable things, or by yelping that we must simply trust the (authoritative white first-world male) scientists.

What is truly pernicious in the “alt-facts” ideology is the claim of epistemic marginalization embedded in the term “alternative,” as John Pat Leary has recently pointed out, and the suggestion that that marginalization (due to lack of correspondence to reality) is equivalent to, or even of a kind with, the epistemic marginalization experienced by (e.g.) the woman at your company whose good ideas always mysteriously go unheard until a man says them. You see the difference, right? She doesn’t have “alt ideas”—and she doesn’t have a press secretary, either.

To claim that pomo feminists somehow empowered “alt-facts” or made them possible is to accept the dangerously false reversal of power relations to which the Tr*mp administration has laid claim, in which well-off white Americans with disproportionate influence in policy and media (and, at this point, control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, despite not actually winning the popular vote) somehow become the “unheard.”

The kind of epistemic conservatism that retrenches in the authority of established experts is no answer to this problem, because it denies that thinking and evaluating knowledge is something for all of us, not just for a few. If the Tr*mp administration is backing its “alternative facts” with naked power, the answer is not to reply with more power, just from different institutions. Access to, and understanding of, the production of knowledge—how we get from “here’s a phenomenon I observed” to “here’s a generalization I can make about the world”—should be general and widespread.1)Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is precisely questions of positioning, literal positions in space in this case, that need to be better understood. See Animate Planet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

Standpoint theory doesn’t say we can just make shit up; it says we need a clear-eyed understanding of power relations in order to understand and evaluate knowledge-claims. In other words, pomo feminists didn’t create “alt facts”; it’s pomo feminists who have given us the tools to oppose them.

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1. Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is precisely questions of positioning, literal positions in space in this case, that need to be better understood. See Animate Planet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).