Whose Pattern?

Ophelia Benson

Do people still talk about feminist epistemology? I haven’t kept up. I used to be interested in it, starting back in the late nineties, along with various other forms of what some wags call “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” There was the “strong programme” in the sociology of science, for instance, that scorned the moderation of sociological research on the priorities and funding and similar externalities of science in favor of much more radical claims about sociology’s power to explain the content of scientific findings themselves.

This move from reasonable, defensible claims to obviously absurd ones is often summed up with the umbrella term postmodernism (although less playful postmodernists say that’s a calumny). The central idea is that all knowledge is political and that therefore “truth” is just an honorific used for political advantage. If this were true (or “true”) then it would make sense to have various different flavors of epistemology, based on identity or politics or religion or who-knows-what. You might have Chinese epistemology and Brazilian epistemology, gay truth and straight truth, black knowledge and white knowledge.

You might, but then you would be in la-la land. You can’t modify those words and concepts without rendering them worthless or nonsensical. I’m a feminist and have been as far back as I can remember, but I want nothing to do with “feminist” epistemology. I want the same epistemology that everyone else gets. I want the universal, not the local.

You can’t have purely local knowledge (or truth or epistemology)—knowledge that ceases to be knowledge when you leave the locality. You can have local knowledge in the sense of knowledge about the local, but that kind of knowledge is universalizable: it can be shared with anyone who wants it, including people on the far side of the planet.

But knowledge isn’t all there is. There are looser, sloppier categories with more relaxed rules. There is understanding, which can make sense as purely local or personal. There’s experience, which is inherently personal. Understanding and experience overlap with knowledge and are important for certain kinds of knowledge: knowing what it’s like to live through a particular kind of experience, for instance, or to be a particular kind of person.

That gets you into the weeds in a hurry, though. Am I entitled to say I know what it’s like to be a woman? In one sense, sure, obviously—I am one, so I do know. But in another sense, no. I don’t know what it’s like to be a generic or universal woman (and neither does anyone else); I don’t know what it’s like to be all women; I don’t know how typical my experience of being a woman is—I could go on all day about what I don’t know.

Nevertheless, I know I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, and I assume men know the converse. We love stories about trying to find out what it’s like to be the other sex by cross-dressing … although Rosalinds and Violas passing as men are a good deal more common than Huck Finns or Priscillas of the Desert passing as women. Getting more and larger freedoms is more fun than getting fewer and smaller ones.

However thorny the whole question is, it’s not completely intractable. Different kinds of people do tend to have different kinds of experiences, and it can be useful to pay attention to their stories. In the wake of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, President Obama told us about some kinds of experience that black men and boys tend to have in common. In Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project, women have shared thousands of stories about casual, brief, “normal” insults, come-ons, and threats that women encounter.

This isn’t adjectival epistemology. The plural of anecdote is not evidence; stories are not exactly knowledge. On the other hand, stories can contribute to a kind of social knowledge, or at least social understanding. Stories and accounts of experience are one way we build up and expand our capacity for empathy, and if there’s any doubt that we need more and better empathy, a quick survey of human history should fix that.

All right, a skeptical observer might reply, stories about personal experience may increase empathy, but empathy about what? Personal empathy is one thing, and group empathy is another. It’s possible to hear stories and have fellow-feeling for the tellers without seeing a pattern in the stories.

That’s the stumbling block. Seeing a pattern is political, and what kind of pattern one sees is political. Humans are a pattern-seeing species, and we’re prone to seeing patterns that aren’t there. Religions can be explained as a matter of seeing patterns that aren’t there. A lot of everyday homegrown woo is also based on made-up patterns imposed on random incidents—I found a parking space, therefore I have a Parking Angel. The patterns detected by a political view that is not yours can seem just as irrational and fatuous and willful as the Parking Angel inference.

When Obama talked about being a black man and hearing car door locks clicking and being followed around department stores, conservative pundits poured scorn and rage on that pattern detection; to them it wasn’t detection but invention. They saw a different pattern: a pattern of black critics of racism seeing examples of racism everywhere and maliciously “tearing the nation apart” over them.

The same thing happens (I’m detecting a pattern here) with feminism. Anti-feminists don’t see the pattern that the women who send anecdotes to the Everyday Sexism project see. Some antifeminists see an opposite pattern of feminists making a fuss about trivia while ignoring the nontrivial problems men face. There are also feminists who may or may not see the pattern, but in any case think the right course for feminists is stoical endurance of obstacles combined with eyes-on-the-prize hard work. To them, talking about patterns of sexist discrimination is victim feminism, and a terrible trap.

So, how do we adjudicate between different patterns and different ideas about what to do about any patterns there may be? The usual, of course—keep talking, keep arguing, keep presenting evidence (and stories), keep listening. Rinse, repeat.


Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

Do people still talk about feminist epistemology? I haven’t kept up.

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