On understanding the ‘other’

One of the curious issues that cropped up, that unfortunately I did not have a chance to address at the time, at the recent Human Science Institute retreat, following a presentation by Milton Reynolds, was that a couple of white women apologized to Reynolds, a Black man, for imposing upon him to explain his worldview. Both of them are entirely worthy scholars so I mean absolutely no disrespect here.

Rather, I think I know where they were coming from. I was there once, too.

Once upon a time, I thought that if I was such a hot critical scholar, I should be able to understand other groups’ perspectives without them having to explain those perspectives to me. But I didn’t. And I was often fortunate to have people explain their perceptions to me. As they were doing so, it was a facepalm moment for me—of course, I thought, but I didn’t know. Let me repeat that: I did not know.

And this happened a few times. And I was starting to wonder if maybe I should be turning in my critical theorist card because I really wasn’t living up to my own expectations.

I was a fool.

Standpoint theory, which is probably insufficiently particular, explains that we all occupy social locations. These locations might be thought of as being in a matrix.[1] The coordinates of social location are defined as intersections—hence the term intersectionality—of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and all the other traits we use to divide ourselves from each other. We really see the world only from our own social locations. We might learn of how other people see it, but we do not occupy their niches and we do not possess their experience within those niches. We can not truly see the world from their perspective. We do not know.

In itself, standpoint theory undermines the notion of objectivity. It reminds us of what we should already realize: We do not have a “god’s eye” view of the world. Our view is inherently subjective.

Edgar Morin elevates that a few orders of magnitude by pointing out that as individuals we all each occupy our own niches. We each, as individuals, have our our own distinct perspectives.[2] Indeed, the project of interpersonal communication is largely about setting aside our preconceptions about the person we are interacting with and actually listening to what they say.

And if that applies at the individual level, it is surely at least as true at the group level.[3]

That Friday night in Burlingame, Reynolds was telling us his truth. It’s a powerful truth. But our failing arises not when we let him tell us that truth, but rather when we fail to let him tell us that truth.

Our responsibility here is to be proactive. We cannot presume to understand another perspective. We must inquire. We must listen—in the fullest possible sense of that word. And we must be prepared to shift our own views in response.

  1. [1]When we speak of power relations between social locations, this matrix is a matrix of kyriarchy.
  2. [2]Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  3. [3]I should acknowledge here the ecological fallacy which occurs when one generalizes across units of analysis, that is, from groups to individuals or vice versa. I here plead guilty. But I think I am right.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.