Shut Up and Listen: Intersectional Identity and the Value of Multi-Perspectival Diversity

That identity is complex is obviously true. And it’s obviously true that individuals with different “intersectional” identities are treated differently in certain respects, have different advantages, and face different challenges. It’s true, too, that these differences in treatment, advantage, and disadvantage create different experiences of the social world.

These differences in perspective are valuable, because each perspective tends to be blind to some things and have special insight about other things (especially about what it is like to inhabit that perspective), and by combining and reconciling perspectives we can achieve a more objective, impartial picture of the world.

We ought to be able to acknowledge that individuals, and groups of people who share particular overlap identities, have a certain authority on the character of their own experience. To enjoy the fruits of perspectival diversity, it’s necessary to let others speak about how things look from where they stand, to listen carefully, and seriously consider whether conflicts between their perspectives and ours are at least in part due to our own biases and the partiality and limitations of our identities.

This is at worst a very weak form of epistemic relativism—our evidence depends on what we experience and our identities put us in a position to experience, or not experience, certain things. So differences in identity can lead to conflicting rational beliefs. But it doesn’t begin to imply the relativity of truth. There is a one world and we’re all in it looking at it from slightly different angles. And the more angles we’ve got covered, the more complete our picture of world will be—but only as long as we’re open to reports from other vantages, and reconcile conflicting reports with truth-conducive methods.

The whole point of taking diversity seriously is to broaden one’s own perspective, to make it less constrained by the restricted vision of our own contingent identities. We should be curious about other perspectives, and encourage others to be curious. We should accept invitations to listen, invite others into our point of view, and not be assholes about it when they try and fail. We should thank them for trying, explain what they missed, and encourage them to try again.

That’s what really bothers me about “You don’t have this identity, so you don’t get to talk about it” power moves. I think most people are decent and sincere and usually mean this as, “Please, we haven’t had the right or the power or the status to offer a full report from our angle of vision, but you always have, and tend to dominate these discussions, leaving so little time and space for anyone else, so please, just listen for once.”

And that’s how I personally choose to take it when I’m told to “shut up, you’re not Latina,” or whatever. And I think I’ve come to have a less biased and partial view of the world because of that policy. And this has helped me better understand the frustration and hostility behind those kinds of comments.

For example, shutting up and listening has helped me better understand why white guys don’t have a legitimate “gotcha!” mirror-image complaint about others talking about us. Ours really is the dominant perspective, and everybody else has to basically grasp how things look to us if they want to survive and get ahead. There is so much white guy art and white guy commentary and white guy news that if you’re alive and can read or have a television, you’ve probably got the basic picture. What you don’t get, and don’t understand, is what’s it’s like from the inside to be so thoroughly oblivious to such an abundance of advantage, because we can’t see it well enough to usefully talk about it. That’s the inscrutable mystery of us.

Still, hostile “Shut up, you can’t possibly know” comments are hostile, and it’s hard not to react defensively to hostility. And those comments communicate that other perspectives are inaccessible and can’t be imagined into, because they assume that people with other identities can’t have already tried to see things from the point of view in question and so can’t have already achieved some valid insight by having done so. It’s bad and wrong to simply assume that. The point of asking somebody to stop talking and listen is to invite them inside. That’s obviously undermined by suggesting that, really, they can’t.

The much more radical relativistic view that says rational methods for reconciling disagreement and approaching objectivity and truth are merely a figment of one identity-bound perspective is worse. It deprives perspectival diversity of all it’s epistemic value, and leaves you with little reason to care about other perspectives at all. It turns disagreement into war. And the worst possible strategy for rectifying unjust inequalities of power is to go to war against groups experienced in unjustly applying unequal power.

Thankfully, this view is actually really, really rare. If I encounter it, I just try to explain why it is counterproductive and dangerous. But if somebody seriously won’t listen to you because you’re a white guy, what can you do? Well, here’s something to try: give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that the error they are making is a distortion of a valid insight, driven by valid worries, invite them to say more, and listen.