Owning Subjectivity

Through various times in my education, I was taught to not use the first person and to use an “objective” voice in my writing. When I became an English teacher, I taught my students a similar principle, except I called it “the illusion of objectivity.”

Objectivity is an interesting concept, but I do believe it is usually an illusion. There is an approach popular in the social sciences (particularly with regard to discussions of gender, sexuality, race, and class) in which the writer or researcher owns up to subjectivity and doesn’t pretend to be objective. The writer recognizes that her or his own upbringing colors the research, both in the questions that are asked and in how the answers and findings are interpreted or made meaningful.

How do I see this played out? Well, I’ve seen it in several scenarios. One was a faculty meeting once, when I was still teaching, in which a rather heated debate about homework loads ensued with various teachers believing hefty amounts of homework were necessary to moving along the curriculum and preparing students for the rigors of college and other various teachers believing that hefty amounts of homework left students too stressed out and unable to balance their lives properly. At one point, a teacher noted that most teachers who belonged to the former group were non-parents and most belonging to the latter group were parents. I believe his observation was intended to defuse the tension in the room, but it served only to make things tenser by making the conversation personal. A non-parent teacher I spoke with later after the meeting was quite upset, because she said not all non-parents chose not to have children, and we all give all we have to these kids (the students). I was in full agreement with her. More importantly, that incident made me aware of how tenuous the idea of objectivity is, particularly in that kind of discussion. After all, are the teachers who are also parents more “objective” for being parents, as they see both sides of the homework issue (as parents and as teachers), or are the non-parents more “objective” for being non-parents and not being emotionally tied to the apparent sufferings and imbalance students and their families might feel when overwhelmed with homework?

Even though a lot of us who appreciate logic theory want to think we can avoid ad hominem mistakes, we nevertheless often judge what people say based on who they are and what their perspective is rather than solely on the soundness of what they say in a vacuum. Think about how many letters to the editor of newspapers start out with identification. For example, let’s say there were a letter announcing its author as a Jew before going on to argue that anti-Israel sentiment is not the same as anti-Semitism. Wouldn’t the argument, if it were sound, be just the same, whether it came from a Jew or from an Arab? Or a letter announcing its author as a woman that also talks about how feminism has ruined the traditional American family values and is responsible for a number of societal ills—would the argument, if it were sound, be just as strong coming from a man? Or would it retain its potency if the letter writer didn’t reveal her or his gender?

Recently, I read some letters to the editor about capital punishment. One letter was for capital punishment. One was against it. Both were from self-proclaimed family members of murder victims. Does that perspective offer credibility? I guess, strictly from a theoretical logical perspective, no. But, really? Yes. I take a hell of a lot more seriously someone who’s had a family member murdered who is still against the death penalty than I do someone who has the same stance but lacks that personal experience. Yes, it seems to go against logic. The one without a personal investment in the trial and sentencing would seem to be the one with her head about her. But is that really objectivity? Or is it just another kind of subjective experience (the lack of a murdered family member)?

One time, in an American Literature course, my colleague and I planned a unit talking about race theory. Because I was Asian-American, some of my students questioned my motives for teaching that unit (“Is Mr. W.’s class doing this, too?”), but Mr. W was not similarly questioned, because he was White. But why would a White person be more objective about race? White, after all, is a race, too. It isn’t the lack of race… or shouldn’t be, at least.

In the end, I own my subjectivity. I know if I were White, born in the South, poor, raised to be macho, and taught to appreciate guns, I’d be a different person with a totally different perspective on life. If I were a woman forced to have sex with my boyfriend, I’d be a different person with a different perspective on life. If I were an American soldier in Iraq or an Iraqi, I’d have a different perspective.

We aren’t just detached logicians. We are all human and come with our own experiences. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can come to at least some semblance of the truth.

4 thoughts on “Owning Subjectivity”

  1. But there are ways to become more logical. Too often these days I see subjectivity be used as an excuse, when a lot of the subjectivity and views we have are based on logical, hard facts.

    While upbringings might influence, they are not the be all and end all, and will not lead to exactly the same opinion, as different interpretations will take place.

    On this, we can assume that interpretation of an event rather than the statistics or event are in argument, as it is what they make of it.

    Logic is the removal of this interpretation, or at least attempt at it – looking at the base (statistic, event, whatever) and following a line of reasoning, until the point that it breaks down, and becomes illogical, then can therefore not be the “right” logic.

    To have logic and a line of reasoning you need to have something you can base it on, which personal experience cannot be used. Why? Because logic relies on facts, to provide the necessary line of reasoning and to back up said reasoning, of which most personal experience doesn’t provide enough of, because of how much personal interpretation plays a part and whatever experience that may be, it will not be wholly representative. Often I’ve noticed that when someone tries to present personal experience, whatever argument that may be goes quiet as if that personal experience trumps everything, even without considering whether that experience was representative.

    Logic, in many ways is basically science. You have to have a genuine basis, context, to follow it first. This is why there is so much difference on many issues as I see it, because there are many people who only have one part of the picture, not the whole. For logic to work you need that whole.

    For objectivity to work, it’s how good you are at being able to distance yourself from your own personal feelings on the subject, research the subject fully and follow a line of reasoning that doesn’t break down. Just because someone who has been through something might not automatically mean they’re more informed – for example, the issue of the death sentence depends on other factors, like whether it is a strong enough deterrent, the role of law enforcement being to punish and in modern times, rehabilitate (which could or should be extended to crimes that might normally get a death sentence), issues of human rights amongst others. To get proper logic and objectivity, these must be taken into account, with decent enough evidence and research to go off of, and then follow the logic that considers all these points to a point at which that line of reasoning can be complete, or becomes broken.

    That is objectivity and logic. I myself am an incredibly logical person, who consistently tries to follow lines of reason based on solid evidence, not personal experience. To do that, you need to look at the wider issues, look at facts and figures as a solid basis (of which appears to be the main reason why many people differ on subjects – a lack of facts or the whole facts) and follow a line of reason.

    Another example – your post on the homosexual and Christians documentary. I think after seeing that, people would, as long as they properly considered the facts that were presented, would agree with what was brought up in the documentary. I had a debate with someone on that video, I explained to them the facts that were presented and the logical line of reasoning – what happened? They seemingly gave up, simply replying “hot air”, which suggested to me the only thing that stopped them from accepting what I said (as they hadn’t provided any satisfactory argument that went against mine) was their own preconception and seeming lack of wanting to accept the facts presented, rather than any genuine personal interpretation that could’ve justified his view, and subsequently him calling my argument hot air, without decent reasoning or basis to do so. His logic broke down without sufficient basis.

  2. I’m not saying that logic does not exist or that arguments should all be based on personal experience. I’m saying that we have to acknowledge that none of us is totally objective.

    We can certainly try to be objective, try to be logical, minimize the direct influence of our personal experience, but even science itself can be tainted with subjectivity while being perfectly sound and logical. Subjectivity can affect what scientific inquiries you decide to favor over others, what kinds of questions you ask, what kinds of hypotheses you decide to explore.

  3. I completely agree with you. It’s the inherent fact that our brains and our eyes and our lives are all completley different from each other. Even twins with the same upbringing, basically the same childhood, can be completely different people – because it is all in our minds. We all analyse things differently and I agree that there are some things that we all agree on in a sense, as in some parts of logic – but we all process things internally differently because of our experiences and reactions to those experiences based on our life.

  4. Amen to your notion of what Gregory Bateson referred to as “epistemology” or the epistemological lens! From my vantage point, this post is right on!

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