Who Gets To Be Objective?

Melissa has written a post that has shaken the heart of the feminist blogosphere. Or at least mine. It is so spot-on, it hurts. Literally. And you can count me amongst the many who had their inner voices screaming “yes” at each word we read. I agree with it wholeheartedly, 100%.
I only take issue with one minor detail.

(…) intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that’s so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation (…). And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn’t make one more objective; it merely provides a different perspective.

Men don’t just have a different perspective. When it comes to women, men are not “objective”.
First, the obvious reason why men cannot possibly be objective is because they have every vested interest in the continued oppression of women. They are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression and the ones who carry it out. They are, in short, the oppressors. If the oppressed don’t get to be “objective” when it comes to their own oppression, then neither do the oppressors. You are raised as an oppressor or as an oppressed. Either way, your views are going to be subjective. Either you take issue with patriarchy because it screws you up, or you don’t take issue with patriarchy because it makes your life cozy.

I pick on the idea of objectivity because I am too tired of having everyone and their dog thinking that they can be “objective” when it comes to feminism, whereas I, a feminist, cannot be because, of course, I am a feminist. Would they say the same thing to a physicist? “You are a physicist, you are biased towards physics, so you cannot possibly be objective”. What about doctors? “You are a doctor, you are biased towards medicine, so you cannot possibly be objective”. Not that long ago I read/heard somewhere that a considerable number of “important medicine people” got together to ask the government to stop dumping so much money on alternative therapies that have been scienterrifically proven to not work and instead dump said money on important medicine. Oh, I couldn’t possibly imagine why you, important medicine people, would want more money to be invested on important medicine. I’m sure it’s inspired by your deep concern for all the sick people of the world. (Note: people are looking for alternatives because the traditional important medicine doesn’t bloody work.)
This is how it works: if you are oppressed, your views towards your own oppression will be subjective and consist, mostly, of “hey, I don’t want to be oppressed!”. Which means your views cannot be trusted, they are subjective. But whose views can we trust then?

The truth is that objectivity is the prerogative of those in power. It either preserves the status quo or actively serves their interests.

Here’s an example I read yesterday from Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older Than Words”, in reference to the massacre decline in numbers of Australian Aborigines:

“We would read in scientific journals the reason for this decline: “the races who rest content in … placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence with the noblest division of the human species … The survival of the fittest means that might-wisely used-is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian.””

I bet these scientists thought they were being objective. They are quoting “natural selection”, how could they not be! Members of the dominating race don’t have a race, and so they can be objective when it comes to race.
Another example: the president of the US talks about how the Free Market is the best thing ever in creating wealth. Can anyone think of anybody less capable of objectivity? The classes who benefit from the current economic system are the only ones who can be objective when it comes to the current economic system. The rest of us are “jealous” that we are not rich like them and think that if we cannot be rich then nobody should. Damn right!

Objectivity lies at the core of scientific thought which in turn lies at the core of modern civilization. And it’s plain wrong. No one can abstract hirself enough to be “objective”. It’s predicated on the idea that the person looking in, the scientist, can put hirself in God’s place, high above the rest of us, look down and pass judgement. It’s a poisonous concept that has done a great job at allowing for the continued destruction of the planet and all who live in.

But if we don’t have objectivity, then what are we left with? Why, subjectivity, of course. On the matter of women’s oppression we should ask those who spend their lives experiencing women’s oppression, ie: women. On the matter of race we should ask those members of the oppressed races. On the matter of economy, we should ask those who live with the inevitable reality of the creation of wealth through the free market: the poor.
Once you get used to it, subjectivity feels natural and right. Let’s go back to Melissa’s post. By the time I finished writing this, she had gotten 221 comments. Most express gratitude for putting into words what we all feel but can’t articulate. A few say her post brought tears to their eyes. All of them are positive. This kind of reaction can only mean one thing: Melissa is right. Call me naïve, but I believe that tears are a good indicator that we are in the presence of truth. I cannot think of one occasion in which someone cried over a scienterrific research paper in a scienterrific magazine.
And if you are suspecting that there is a link between subjectivity and emotions and their subsequent dismissal from the dominant ideology in favour of objectivity, cold logic and reason, then you’d probably be right. But this post is too long already.


5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    ubuntucat said,

    We saw this sadly play out in the Sotomayor hearings, too. Clearly a white male judge can be objective, but a Latina judge must be an “activist” judge.

    Uh, all judges are activist judges! Really? No judge is conservative- or liberal-leaning? No judge comes with her or his own biases?

    As soon as we are able to recognize our own biases and own up to subjectivity, we’re in a far better position to approximate objectivity (or at least the illusion of it).

    For the record, though, even though patriarchy privileges men, it also damages them. Patriarchy is bad for everyone, not just women.

  2. 2

    bonobobabe said,

    Great post! I’ve had someone (a male) argue back and forth with me about whether or not my stalker was allowed to read my blog and I should just get over it. Well, if he lives across the country and can’t physically harm me, then no harm done, eh? My feelings don’t matter in the least, because they’re just “subjective” not “objective” truth like everyone has a right to do whatever they want.

    And you’re right. The ruling class is no more objective than the peasants. It’s a bunch of bullshit to claim that they are.

  3. 3

    marytracy9 said,

    Hi ubuntucat, and welcome.

    “As soon as we are able to recognize our own biases and own up to subjectivity, we’re in a far better position to approximate objectivity”

    I have been questioning lately whether objectivity is even desirable. I haven’t gotten very far yet, though, but I wouldn’t mind trying subjectivity for a while and see how that works out.

    “For the record, though, even though patriarchy privileges men, it also damages them.”

    Yes, I agree. But I don’t think we have come up with a “language” to express “privilege that makes also harms”.

  4. 4

    marytracy9 said,

    I would argue, bbb, that the “male” in question has swallowed a good amount of pomo cool aid.

    (Oh, and thanks)

  5. 5

    barcodesnow said,

    That’s so annoying, when people argue with you about something that they don’t care about, and haven’t thought about – and it is something that you are passionate about, have personal experience with, and have thought a lot about it.

    My brothers think their opinion on anything to do with feminism or gender is at least as important as my opinion = never mind that as men they are not affected by sexism as much as women, able to ignore most sexist things that are obvious to women.

    One of my brothers doesn’t respect my feminism at all – he thinks he is right, won’t listen to me (because he has decided that if I disagree with him about anything, I must be wrong), and teases me about being feminist. Because he EXPECTS me to comment on anything sexist I usually don’t, when I am around him (because I know he will joke about it even if it is something that means a lot to me).

    From now on, I am not going to argue with anyone who doesn’t care and is just arguing-for-the-sake-of-arguing. It will rile me up, and it is not worth it – because the person is being deliberately blind and is not respecting me enough to listen to what I am saying and take it seriously.

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