Jun 28, 2022

deference politics vs. constructive politics

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, from his chapter called “Being in the Room,” in Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), bringing the most careful and deliberative Marxist critique of symbolic + representational identity politics I’ve seen. Emphasis in bold is mine:

This particular politics of deference emerged out of a theoretical orientation called standpoint epistemology, which became popular in feminist circles in the 1970s and has continued to contribute to the thinking of many activists and academics since. Standpoint epistemology comprises three seemingly innocuous ideas:

1) knowledge is socially situated 2) marginalized people have some advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge, and 3) research programs (and other areas of human activity) ought to reflect these facts.

These ideas should go down easy. As Liam Kofi Bright argues, any serious empiricist philosophy would entail all three of these points. Moreover, they are politically important: they point to the value of lived experience and the knowledge that comes from it. At face value, a commitment to these ideas should help us resist and contain elite capture. They should provide a basis for respecting knowledge that the institutions of the world otherwise want to discredit.

But the devil is in the details. The common approaches to putting these abstract ideas into practice emphasize deference to others in conversational contexts, in an effort to fix the distribution of attention: they ask that we pass the mic, believe marginalized people, and give offerings.

The motivation is admirable, and these actions themselves are often good ideas, as far as they go. But aside from involving attitudes and interpersonal dynamics, oppression — racism, ableism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and so forth — also have serious material consequences. These structures of injustice decide who has reliable access to basic interpersonal security, housing, health care, water, and energy. All of these consequences of bigotry, from the attitudinal to the material, have to be dealt with if we are to address oppression.

The politics of deference focuses on the consequences that are likeliest to show up in the rooms where elites do most of their interacting: classrooms, boardrooms, political parties. As a result, we seem to end up with far more, and more specific, practical advice about how to, say, allocate tasks at a committee meeting than how to keep people alive.

Deference as a default political orientation can work counter to marginalized groups’ interests. We are surrounded by a discourse that locates attentional injustice in the selection of spokespeople and book lists taken to represent the marginalized, rather than focusing on the actions of corporations and algorithms that much more powerfully distribute attention. This discourse ultimately participates in the weaponization of attention in the service of marginalization. It directs what little attentional power we can control at symbolic sites of power rather than at the root political issues that explain why everything is so fucked up.

This “Being in the Room” chapter breaks down the weakness of “deference politics” and is followed by a longer case for “constructive politics,” where I am now in the book. More to come here, I think.

Táíwò has two books out this year and seems like he’s just getting started — I sense he’s to be one of our important contemporary thinkers. Strong recommendation for this conversation with Chris Hayes on the Why Is This Happening? podcast for more.

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