Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Writing

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.