There is a rich irony brewing in our culture. On the one hand, people often feel uncomfortable weighing in on issues involving groups to which they do not belong. For example, a man might feel uncomfortable expressing his opinions about abortion, particularly while in groups populated by many women. On the other hand, people are often content to point out when members of groups to which they do not belong express treacherous opinions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a man to reprimand a pro-life woman for setting back the interests of women by defending her pro-life views. The cultural uptake of these two impulses is, I think, both contradictory and immoral.
Legal scholar Mari Matsuda wrote that “[t]hose who are oppressed in the present world can speak most eloquently of a better one” (346). I think it is because our culture has bought into this line of thought that we have succumbed to the first impulse. A man might think to himself that he should not voice his opinions about abortion, especially among women, because women possess authority to discuss the issue that men lack. The oppression women have faced as women places them in a better position than men to speak of a better world when it comes to abortion politics.
The second impulse, that of rebuking ideological dissidents in oppressed groups, is rationalized in different ways. Some think that a pro-life woman deserves censure when she expresses her views because she has a duty to be a good role model for other women; others think it is because she has a duty to show gratitude to feminists who have made her current way of life possible by continuing their activism; still others think it is because she must be in solidarity with other women by expressing views most other women subscribe to rather than the ones she does express.
Whatever the merits of the rationales for these impulses, they contradict one another. The first impulse cautions against participating in debates one is not qualified to participate in. The second impulse recommends that we participate in those debates. The man who tells a woman she harms other women by expressing her pro-life views has taken a stand on the issue of abortion, since he thinks the pro-life position is harmful to women. When asked moments later about his own views on abortion, he may insist that “it’s not his place to discuss issues that primarily concern women.” But he’s already taken a stand.
These impulses not only contradict one another, but are also each immoral. The strongest case for the immorality of the second impulse finds itself in the vulnerability of oppressed people. Women are already oppressed, so why should we go out of our way to make the lives of pro-life women harder than they already are by treating them as defectors? There is a line between criticizing the arguments advanced by a pro-life woman and criticizing the pro-life woman herself on the grounds that she does not live up to some ideal that women should live up to. While the former is always permissible, I think the latter rarely is. Isn’t feminism, at its core, about liberating women from the oppressive expectations of others after all?
The first impulse, by contrast, is immoral because by censoring your own views about certain matters, you make it harder for others to get to the truth of the matters in question. Making the world a better place is a collective effort, and we need to pool together the best intellectual resources at our disposal to enable us to make it better. Sometimes, the best intellectual resources when it comes to reasoning about the abortion issue will include the ideas of men.
But what of the thought that men are unqualified to reason about the abortion issue because they have not been subject to the oppressions women face? Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy once observed that the views of outsiders have historically been crucial to helping insiders make sense of their circumstances. Take, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As a Frenchman, Tocqueville produced valuable insights about American society and the relationship between industrialization and democracy––insights that are studied to this day in the academy. Why couldn’t it, therefore, be the case that men could produce valuable insights about the abortion controversy as outsiders of womanhood?
When our contributions to public discourse could move us closer to a better world, we should contribute. This requires that we overcome our impulse to bite our tongues when we have that nagging feeling that it is not our place to share our views about certain matters. Men who have thought carefully about abortion should feel free to express their views; whites who have thought carefully about affirmative action should feel free to express theirs; and so on. As I said before, making our world a better place is a collective effort. And the efforts of all those who have thought carefully about these issues are needed to make our world better––not just the efforts of those whom you would expect to have vested interests in these issues.
We need also to ignore the impulse to reprimand those in oppressed groups who deign to flout the ideological lines their groups seem committed to. This is in part because we need people to feel comfortable volunteering their perspectives so we may make our world better, and in part because it is wrong to place expectations on vulnerable people to behave a certain way when it is expectations of this very kind that lead to their vulnerability in the first place.
It is tempting to succumb to these impulses, especially when we live in a culture that ceaselessly seeks to rationalize them. But acting on both impulses pulls us in opposite directions. We pride ourselves on staying in our lanes when we remain silent as debates concerning people unlike us rage on yet take it upon ourselves to identify and reprimand treasonous behavior by those unlike us. And acting on both impulses impoverishes us with respect to our goal of collaborating with one another to make our world better than it is. It seems we have some unlearning to do. But until we have done it, we will remain suspended in the irony that is modern identity politics.
Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.