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.