Speaking as a Secular Humanist, I Don’t Really Care Who You’re Speaking As

Starting a sentence with this new qualification to an opinion, during everything from a formal debate to a casual conversation, is one of the more annoying trends in modern dialogue. You hear it almost every day in one form or another, from the innocuous; “as a single mother” to the postmodern; “as a non-binary, genderfluid LGBT activist.” If your physical features, constructivist identity tropes and subjective experience are the only grounds on which you feel confident to give an opinion then you are at once both underselling your value as a rational thinker and overselling your value as a speaker for all who share some arbitrary feature. As Douglas Murray so pithily said upon admitting that this sentence starter was his personal bugbear: “If your point is good it will be valid whoever is saying it.”

So, no, I don’t care who you are speaking as but I do care about the full contents of what you’re saying. Insofar as it is on the spectrum of reasonable and supported in some regard by reason itself, it will have value. Insofar as it is self-referential, grounded in narcissism, funnelled through personal biases, hampered by subjectivity, built around your lived experience and intuitive only to those who share your specific piecemeal identity, well then the value is in entertainment only. Facts are facts precisely because they have been proven to be true free from biases, tested under the rigor of empiricism and embraced or questioned along humanist lines.  

A perfect example to illustrate this final point comes courtesy of the re-energized debate about general intelligence and racial group differences in IQ. After Charles Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve received newfound scrutiny – owing to the attention brought to it by student activists protesting and blockading at Middlebury college – Sam Harris hosted Murray on his podcast. After setting the record straight and highlighting Murray’s unfair treatment by ideologues, the debate received renewed attention as psychology professors writing for Vox posted a rebuttal with some strong points to ponder. However, cohering towards a consensus on the genetic basis for racialized IQ differences is made no easier if one approaches the argument “speaking as a black person.”

In this case, as with many other emotive arguments about gender, sexual orientation and race, speaking as someone with a specific identity puts you no closer, in of itself, to finding the truth. Even in the wider argument about the value of researching controversial subjects, the case can be made — as it was by Harris — that certain topics should be out of bounds because the only people who benefit from knowing only want to know for nefarious purposes. At the risk of laboring the point, both the empirical march forward can be advanced by anyone and the humanist basis for advancement questioned by anyone.

Nonetheless, we should remember that lived experience and anecdotal evidence have elucidatory value; in specific fields (cultural studies, psychology, philosophy) self-report in particular has a narrow but important role to play. However, whilst subjectivity can add a richness to the conversation that cannot be gleaned from prosaic statistics or the dullness of prevailing trends, those things are the bedrock on which our beliefs should be propped. As Sam Harris observes so cuttingly: “The nature of an argument is that its validity does not depend on who is making it.”

Identity is inherently fragile. Some say all of life is one long identity crisis. To place any weight in your current sense of self-reflection is to be amenable to a swift counterargument when one’s identity changes. The best arguments about race, sex and gender are those that can be said by anyone – with any permutation of melanin and gametes – and still be intuitively reasonable. This isn’t important merely on paper; it must be noted that the authority we grant to certain identities does real world damage.

For example, I have heard of white feminist groups at two different universities who were so obsessed – and evidently threatened – by intersectionality theory that they felt they could not debate Beyoncé’s feminist credentials as they did not feel comfortable giving a full account of the racial dimension of her activism, not being black themselves. Such a corrosive reduction of humanity to the unthinkably narrow-minded and the impossibly apathetic is worrying.

That we can empathise with other human beings beyond our facile identity markers is what gives rise to collaboration, conversation and to a universalism that forces us to think beyond tribal warring and embrace our neighbour’s plight as ours wholesale. But all that humanist thinking withers in the light of a new-egalitarianism. In some spheres, it is de rigueur to address historical power-asymmetries not by a process of giving everyone the same inalienable right to an opinion, but through rebalancing the scales by legitimising oppressed voices louder than others.

To hold a viewpoint that is valid on its own merits, not by recourse to someone’s – either irrelevant or ever changing – identity, is to hold the key to the most robust defence of one’s idea. For an idea to be accessible to everyone through reason is to be an idea worth spreading; an idea that is not only worth being understood by all, but that can be understood by all.

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  1. @Cicely Berglund

    That’s somewhat of a strawman.

    When Sam Harris talks about people, and more importantly, “truth”, he isn’t talking about the “complexity of people”, he is talking about truth as an objective, a goal, something that exists outside the human mind, and is true regardless of people or individuals.

    This is primarily the issue of postmodernism, it treats truth as trivial, but culture, groups and identity as issues of life and death. Even you yourself, you speak about rationality, like it’s a matter of convenience, and not something that an individual’s life is dependent on.

    This is the same error that the Sophists of Ancient Greece made, and how they concluded that reality and objectivity were irrelevant, and everything in life was about power and politics. They corrupted their entire society and made dialogue and argument impossible; but it was the great philosophers known as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle who came around and created the foundation of Western Philosophy and enabled us not to fall into the path of nihilism following such ideas.

    Yet the new age of people, who support these dumb and relatively old ideas are the ones embracing them, because they don’t know anything.

    1. I wish I agreed with you and I am, for the record, quite aware of the thrust of Sam Harris’ argument and the current societal preoccupations. And some of the ‘arguments’ currently being made in feminism and gender politics or whatever I find just bafflingly obtuse or misguided. Rationality works well when definitions are in place, the base is defined and people are in agreement about all that and have a base of knowledge or information in common. It used to be a fairly rational stance to claim the earth is flat or that landing on the moon was impossible. As we learn or understand more our standards for rationality become more exacting. But we also can be very rational and completely misapply our rational conclusions out of the hubris of limited knowledge and understanding-many examples of this in medecine and especially psychology and sociology. Sometimes understanding of another’s choice of argument goes beyond buying into the point of view but a broader take on it. Especially dealing with college students. Knowledge, understanding, rationality is a process, progressive(hopefully) not an all or nothing yes or no. It is good to have absolute statements à Sam Harris-maybe it challenges people. A lot in life depends upon power and politics and that seems to be a truth. Ideally, abstractly maybe one could say it should not be but maybe there is also a more profound truth wrapped up in that point of view.

  2. There’s a problem though.

    Rationality, Reason, Argumentation all serve a purpose and ultimately a goal: arriving at truth. If postmodernists do not believe in such “truth” as in an objective truth, and things truth can is subjective-to-the-group, then what productiveness can we get from discussions with them?

  3. Gleadell is apparently trying to make argument that certainly needs to be made. However, his writing style is jargony gibberish that only a postdoc could love. Speaking as someone with merely a bachelor’s degree…

    1. Well, I’m very far from being a postdoc and I loved Jonathan’s “jargony gibberish” style. Although I can see that the way he writes may annoy some readers.

  4. Nice job, Jonathan. Well written… and if it was written by someone else… it would still be a very good article.

    : ]

    And that Sam Harris talk was golden. Loved it. Took a page of notes.

    *clap clap clap*

    Keep writing… good stuff!

  5. In this case, as with many other emotive arguments about gender, sexual orientation and race, speaking as someone with a specific identity puts you no closer, in of itself, to finding the truth.

    Even if speaking as someone with a particular identity did once grant epistemic privilege, the fact that identity is so now so malleable that simply changing your pronouns can change not only what your gender is but what it has always been renders arguments from perspective nonsensical.

  6. To start with the Sam Harris quote-‘the validity of an argument does not depend upon who is making it.’ Is true within a narrow segment of all possible arguments-like mathematics -but it does not take into account the messiness/complexity of human interactions. Identity markers are not always facile-but sometimes are necessary to draw attention to a particular set of experiences/observations that are simply not in the world view of the audience. Audiences can bevery resistent to enlargingtheir world views or even being flexible. Sometimes from a single word a hearer will land a speaker in a preconceived category-and pretty inflexibly at that. So while I am all for rationality it is only one of many tools to be used in data presentation, idea presentation, political argument etc. So, In the current context of confusion over freedom of speech, the role of authorities, the changing values in society-rationality cannot work by itself. People and situations are far more complex and we need to cultivate broader skills not narrow down possible modes.

    1. “Audiences can bevery resistent to enlarging their world views or even being flexible. Sometimes from a single word a hearer will land a speaker in a preconceived category-and pretty inflexibly at that.” Agreed, especially in the sense that not all in an audience (or in many cases the speaker) have shared experiences or starting “data.” It is hard work, given the “messiness/complexity,” to try to get everyone on the same page so as to allow productive discussion of some of the trickier issues. But once there, I would push hard against the notion that there is some “mode” beyond rationality as the right tool for adjudicating the best possible solution.

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