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Greetings, Shoptalkers! In my last column, “Conspiracy cultivation”, I explored three rhetorical moves that our info silos share with the communities that create fringe theorists. In this week’s “Tooling Around”, let’s hash out ways that we can make the conversation less toxic. By reducing our fixation on authority “from the margins”, we can become better advocates without accidentally normalizing toxic rhetoric.

Let’s immediately tackle the danger in what I just said, though. Celebrating authority from the margins is a common misuse of something called standpoint epistemology. (Trust me, you’ve seen the idea in action even if you don’t know the fancy term for it. And if you want to go into more depth on this theme, I recommend Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s “Being-in-the-Room Privilege”.)

Standpoint epistemology rightly notes that if we want to understand something, we need to listen to the experts. And when it comes to demographic experiences, who better than people within or closest to the target demographic? Yes, our intentions are generally good. When we uplift people from marginalized demographics making sweeping declarations about the system, we’re doing our part, aren’t we? We’re making the world a better place?

Well…

Unfortunately, those “good intentions” are also often patronizing, fetishistic, and counterproductive. Why? Because this application of standpoint theory requires that we see individuals as standing in for whole groups. It creates a reductive hierarchy of “anyone from [X] demographic” automatically being more informed than anyone outside it. This is a misunderstanding of the original theory, which argues that someone who’s [X] is more likely to have key insights on related subjects. This doesn’t exclude the possibility, though, of equivalent or greater outside expertise. It’s our misapplication of this epistemology that causes problems.

Our simplistic approach to standpoint epistemology flattens vast differences in perspective and levels of informed expertise. It also makes the work of representing one’s demographic consume a given spokesperson: their research, their public service, their career. For many, centering their marginalization(s) becomes pretty much the only way one they’re allowed to gain power and voice in many disciplines. This is incredibly unhealthy for them, and to the discourse as a whole.

For example: Stephen Colbert once spoke with a Black elected representative who happened to know less about the history of slavery in her district than he did. When Colbert realized this, though, he did the correct thing: he nudged historical fact playfully into the conversation, without directly telling her that she had gotten her history wrong.

Now, the way many often think about situations like this is to criticize “PC” culture for not allowing Colbert to “win” in this conversation. Obviously, he knew more than her on this theme, even though he’s white and she’s Black. So why couldn’t he just say it? Why couldn’t he just roast her completely the way his show did many others? Oh, the reverse oppression!

Ah. Not exactly.

But his approach was absolutely correct in context, because the culture of discussion is bigger than any given exchange. Yvette Clarke has no choice but to be engaged in conversations about racialization. She’s expected to be an expert on everything related to these themes, by virtue of her lived experiences in Black skin, even if those experiences don’t fully graft onto the history of her district. And the stakes are high for her! If she gets anything wrong on one accord, the validity of her whole standpoint authority is thrown into question. How is that fair to anyone?

Meanwhile, Colbert can hop into and out of these discussions as he pleases. And so, for all his faults and failings in other moments, in this situation he acted appropriately. He used the Socratic method, comedy-style, to ease the truth in and give Clarke a way out.

So, no, this isn’t a “Clarke” problem. It’s not a “PC” problem, either. It’s a mainstream culture problem. And it’s how we get fringe theorists, people who thrive on the idea that they hold greater wisdom because they’re on the margins. When we simplistically equate “speaking from the margins” with “automatically right about everything”, we might think we’re doing radically progressive work. But we’re often not. Power-sharing is a huge problem in our deeply unequal societies, and it deserves systemically sustainable solutions.

So let’s hash those out, shall we?

What can we do to make discussion less combative, less about the “gotcha” and more about shared curiosity? How do we cultivate online conversations that are less focused on building personal authority and in-group identities? And how do we make space for different experiences without endorsing a communication style that helps fringe theorists thrive?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.