The story begins in France, post-1968 and post-decline-and-fall-of-the-French-Communist-Party. The legitimacy of power in France, the country of the Grandes Écoles, historically depended on claims to expertise, and the Communists had offered a pole of opposition based on “scientific” Marxism. When Communism collapsed, how could the French left oppose power? The response was to refound the movement on a posture of radical subjectivism: the experts’ claims to truth, derived from their so-called master narrative, would be refuted by a deeper truth derived from the subjective experience of the oppressed. Their subjectivity would no longer be reduced to a chunk of data to be processed by the ruling experts; no, being the very substance of truth, it would be available only to those who had actually lived this experience and would have precedence over all external claims. Take that, technocrat!
This radical subjectivism was smuggled into the United States, wrapped in innocent-looking volumes of cultural criticism, where the context was different. Elite claims to power in the US are not generally based on expertise in the French manner, and in any case there had been a deep debate between Left and Right over the question of democracy versus technocracy in the 1920s, Dewey against Lippmann. The US Left, in the decades following this debate largely adopted the optimistic view that radical democracy could embrace expertise, and the belief that science and political radicalism are compatible can still be seen in current activism over climate change, among other topics. (True, a minority current on the left appeared in the 1970s which challenged scientific claims to knowledge, and it still exists, but it has little political influence.)
Initially the subjective theory of knowledge presented itself in the American context as a more radical assertion of freedom and personal difference. It fed a pre-existing expressive conception of what it means to engage in political action, which has always had an appeal in the US, but before long it attached itself to identity politics. According to the new subjectivism, racism came to be understood as the result of a discourse grounded in white non-experience of racial oppression, and so also sexism, a product of male discourse. Such oppression, it was believed, could be challenged only by counterposing to these discourses of exclusion the truth inhering in the experience of people of color, women and other marginalized groups. In this process the critique of expertise became a critique of rationalism applied to issues involving identity. Rationalism was regarded as a rigged contest, a fig leaf for the dominant discourse, against which resistance could be grounded only in direct personal experience. If you didn’t have the experience of oppression, no matter how cleverly you argued, you couldn’t know, and if you had it no one could tell you otherwise. Voice was not a means for putting forward evidence; voice removed the need for evidence.
To be very clear, I am not arguing against subjective experience as a basis for knowledge. Experience is real, and so is the meaning we attach to it. An examination of racism or any other social problem would be seriously incomplete and probably misguided if it didn’t take account of how this condition is experienced subjectively. I am not making a case for a supposed “objective” approach to understanding (a false ideal), nor for categorically putting externally observable data above subjective self-report. That would be extreme.
Nevertheless, two types of problems have arisen from adhering to the opposite extreme that privileges subjective experience beyond all other forms of knowing, one at the individual level and the other collective.
The individual problem is that our experience, and the inferences we draw from it, is often a poor guide not only to the external world but also ourselves—who we are, what motivates us, and how we interact with others. Cognitive psychology is nothing if not a litany of human foibles. Autobiography is valuable, but not necessarily more truthful than biography written by others. Your friends can tell you things about yourself you scarcely imagined. A foreigner can often observe aspects of a culture that are invisible to those immersed in it. Knowledge from within is valuable, but so is knowledge from without, which means radical subjectivism is lousy epistemology.
This problem has practical consequences. In the 1980s America went through a period in which the subjective reports of children concerning possible child abuse were privileged over virtually any external evidence, and the result was the persecution of many innocent daycare workers and a wave of dubious “repressed memory” denunciations of parents. Of course, many children were and are abused, and many adults are culpable, but the categorical privileging of child testimony or memory over all other forms of evidence clearly resulted in gross injustices. The same critique can be applied to recent formal and informal determinations of violation and oppression on the basis of gender and race that privilege the self-reports of the (presumably) violated and oppressed. When Rolling Stone messed up in its false exposé of “A Rape on Campus” two years ago, for instance, it had clearly been led off the rails by its assumption that the rape testimony of a woman possesses an existential truth that normal journalistic evidence-gathering cannot evaluate—but testimony can be wrong, even if it is offered in all sincerity. Again, this is not to devalue what people say they have experienced; personal testimony is always crucial evidence. But it can’t be the only evidence, or even the evidence that overrules all other. Us humans are simply too fallible.
The collective problem exists because individual experiences vary. It’s one thing to hear the testimony of a single voice describing what it means to be oppressed, but when issues like racism and sexism are discussed at a social level, how can the subjective experiences of thousands or even millions of individuals be combined into a composite voice to settle issues in dispute? After all, if each experience is its own truth, without some further processing you would have a very large number of different truths, many of them contradictory. There’s no escaping the need for an organization that offers its own voice on behalf of the many, so the rest of us can learn this composite truth. But who gets to do this, and what experiences do they incorporate or set aside?
The politics of this representation is always fraught. Sometimes open competition breaks out between different groups that each wish to express the general subjectivity but selected and combined according to different criteria. Even when groups giving voice to identity are united there is often tension between individuals whose subjectivity is downplayed or ignored and the groups that claim to speak for them. Given the underlying philosophy of radical subjectivism, there is no basis for individuals to contest the selection process that may have excluded them, since there are no criteria for selecting subjectivities, which in any case is not supposed to happen. (No group openly states it performs this role; their rhetoric is always universal.) Thus identity dissidents are effectively expelled from the entire framework. Conservatives actively seek to locate these individuals, offering them support so they can draw them into their network. The biographies of many black conservatives, for instance, fit this pattern.
As much as I respect the role that subjective knowledge needs to play in everyday life and social science, I think the extreme version, which holds that subjective experience is immune from challenge by any other mode of knowing, is causing great damage to the left. The first step in freeing ourselves from it is to recognize it for what it is.