Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wise Latina

Sotomayor backs off ‘wise Latina’ quote - The Boston Globe

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, deflecting tough questioning by Republicans on the second day of her confirmation hearings, said yesterday that in 17 years as a judge she has never let her own life experiences or opinions influence her decisions. Sotomayor said her now-famous remark that she would hope a “wise Latina’’ would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male was a regrettable “rhetorical flourish that fell flat,’’ and does not reflect her views.

I once remarked that I didn't think that being a woman gave me any special perspective on teaching logic and that the philosophy department at my university would do just as good a job if it consisted entirely of white males.

I got slammed. This was something one wasn't supposed to say because, it was held, people of good will should promote the noble lie that members of disadvantaged groups, women and ethnic minorties, had something special to offer. As far as I understand there are two reasons for telling this lie: (1) it is supposed to be encouraging to members of disadvantaged groups and, more importantly, (2) it is supposed to persuade employers and others in positions of power to stop discriminating against women and minorities.

Since around 1970 women and minorities have been expected to make identity politics noises. So, Obama as a rising black politician was expected to do ethnic, join a black church and talk about black liberation. And Sotomayor was supposed to make noises about the special wisdom of Latinas. Neither of them, of course, believed it, and I doubt that their critics believe that they believed it: these are just the noises you're supposed to make to be a good mainstream liberal who happens to be a member of a minority group.

What a pity Sotomayor couldn't just tell the unvarnished truth. These are just the noises we minorities are supposed to make. We're supposed to take pride in our ethnic heritage--we certainly don't dare say that we feel no connection to it or consider it irrelevant. We're supposed to utter platitudes about the importance of diversity, about the special contributions (whatever they are) that members of different ethnic groups make.

Of course it's walking a tightrope because while making these noises we have to signal that we don't really mean it--that ethnicity is just a little hobby for us, as it is for the descendants of European immigrants. But everyone has always known what the game is so it's hardly dishonest--certainly not as dishonest as the behavior of Republican interrogators feigning shock at one conventional little feel-good remark about wise Latinas, pretending that they believe that I or anyone else ever took this bullshit seriously.


Ophelia Benson said...

Well, yes and no, don't you think?

On the one hand yeah, I don't want to do azza talk - azza woman, azza [fill in the blank]. I sure as hell don't want to be imprisoned in some ghetto of 'women's subjects' and I don't want other people to be imprisoned in such ghettoes either.

But on the other hand - I kept thinking of Dredd Scott and Plessy - which make it pretty hard to think race (for instance) is completely irrelevant.

It's a bind.

That NR cover is so irritating...

Unknown said...

Of course race, and gender, are not irrelevant: there is robust empirical evidence for the persistence of implicit bias and discrimination is still a fact of life for us.

But why promote the noble lie in response rather than the hard truth that we operate according to these biases, evaluate people unfairly even when we have the best of intentions and, innocently, blamelessly discriminated against women and minorities? And the "we" here are women and minorities as well as men.

Arguably the only way to promote fairness and level the playing field is through affirmative action. Only race- and gender-conscious policies can, for all practical purposes, bring about something approaching a race- and gender-blind result.

BLS Nelson said...

I don't know. Both kinds of communities are systematically distorted along arbitrary lines. But by creating an affirmative action system that's distorted in favor of inclusiveness, and consistent with the demands of merit, you have a kind of diversity of starting points, a diversity of intuitions, that may lead to a more competitive environment by providing more grist for the mill of rational discussion.

Sure, there's nothing distinctively "male" or "female" about our intuitions about, say, formalisms in logic. However, there is something about the distinction between intuitively backed diffidence and dissidence that will be more or less helpful in calibrating our ability to gauge the effectiveness of this or that logical system, i.e., by appeal to ordinary language intuitions. Putting aside explicit bigotry and that sort of thing: insofar as your gender (or race, or whatever) is controversial in a political environment, it will be because gender is perceived to track intuitive dissidence relative to the operating consensus. There's no reason to think that this is a justified perception, but assuming that it really is a perception that is active in the dominant class, there is reason to think that the exclusion of an arbitrary grouping of persons along gender lines is the result of intellectual sterility. Sterility presupposes arbitrary exclusivity, but not vice-versa.

Stifling diffidence is the first thing that comes to mind with the "department of old white men" comment. Of course this is not by any necessity, since there might not be any active exclusion, they might all be interesting people who are accidentally stuck in the department together by lottery. But the question is whether or not it counts as prime facie evidence of exclusivity.

Ophelia Benson said...

I suppose the thinking is that the noble lie is easier to get across in a public address. But then sound bites can come back to bite, qite apart from any other consideration. So the hard truth would have been better both ways.

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