#199: Why Positionality Matters

I.

When we speak (or write), does our positionality in this world matter?

I recently stumbled upon a video in which someone expressed their ire against people starting a variation of a sentence like “I am speaking as an x person.” The position here – if I may simplify it as follows – is instructive: we should convince through the power of argument, not through the power of identity. What we say should make sense no matter who or what we are, and we should engage others based on what they say and not who they are. This, of course, is not completely wrong. We should always engage with the argument rather than insult the person. We can criticize the person for what they are doing, even what they are saying, but not deprive them of their right to be who they are, or diminish them in their humanity. No issue with this so far.

Certainly, I have heard this expressed frequently, and I would like to agree. My opinion should matter not because of who I am, how I look like, as what I identify, as what I am seen, but because of my opinion. It should be taken seriously, and I – as the speaker – should be taken seriously. This, of course, includes that I would also welcome critique, as long as it is offered constructively, meaning, directed at the argument (ad argumentum), not at the person (ad hominem).

However, this is only part of the story, albeit an important and true part.

II.

The other part is that we are too often invisible to ourselves. We see the world in a certain way because of where and how and in what social role we grew up, what our history is, what influenced us, etc. Not everything, though, needs to be contingent on circumstances (or what Hegel and Marx would call “being”/”Sein”), and our awareness of our being (“consciousness”/”Bewusstsein”) should be able to lift itself up from its material, social and cultural circumstances when needed. Obviously, I am certainly not a stereotypically dogmatic Marxist believing that “being determines consciousness,” nor am I a strict stereotypical Hegelian believing that “consciousness determines being.” Or put another way, just because I am hungry, I can think about other things than food – although food would be high on my list of priorities.

But let us take this caveat a bit more seriously: does not our being – our reality – influence our thinking more than we would like to admit? If I grow up in a specific society, I am used to specific things. Even if I rebel against them, I will still in my discourse relate to them. I may resent that we live in a world where Twitter matters, but I cannot stop thinking about Twitter mattering, and thus it sadly matters to me. I may not agree with everything that religious authorities say or do, but yet I am bound to live in a world shaped by them. Even disagreement binds us into a relationship with what we reject. I can detest being blinded by the sun, but I cannot live without it. I can detest having to fly to visit parts of my family, but without flying would be impossible to see them. Circumstances matter.

Now, if we narrowed down circumstances to ourselves, and include everything – biology, history, geography, society, culture, politics, religion, and similar variables – we arrive at identity. We exist at specific moments in time and in specific locations in space, and we exist – whether we like it or not (and I mostly dislike it!) – as biological beings. We are determined from within and without. Whatever remains, whatever consciousness we have, whatever it is that calls itself an “I” (or the Freudian compound of “Es / Ich / Über-Ich” (or in the bad translation of “Id / Ego / Super-Ego”), whatever this “I” is, it accompanies us throughout our lives. “I am” is a statement of belief – which is why in Exodus, God (as the voice of our super-ego maybe?) defines themselves as “I am who I am”, but contrary to God, we are not always that sure of ourselves (which is why we are not God).

III.

That, however, means that this “I” is contingent on so many things that it will bias us against seeing the world in ways other than what we are used to. “Bias,” of course, need not be a conscious act – mostly it is not. It simply means that some things come natural to us in our perceptions, others do not.

Now, finally, saying that “I am speaking as x” – i.e. “I am speaking as a person from a specific ethnic, gender, class, age, belief etc. background,” means nothing else than saying “I realize that my identity and background may have influenced my perception or thinking in a way that is not necessarily immediately clear to me at this moment, but I am willing to signal this in order to let you know I am aware that I am not speaking the absolute truth, and that what I say may well be tentative.”

Translation? We all have bias, we all need to recognize what it is, we all need to recognize this of each other, and if you are trying to understand the world, you first need to understand your position within it. Every scientist should know this, and so should every thinking person.

IV.

Yet somehow, there is resistance to this recognition of positionality. Why is that? My guess is that it comes either from one of three sources. First, unreflected privilege – which means that you are used to perceive yourself in a position of normality – or, second, some kind of insecurity – which means that you do not want to be challenged in what you are saying. Both are deeply human reactions. But our humanity is no excuse: We may be human, all too human, but we have to grow up from being too much tied down to that if we want to live in a society based in reality, a reality that is bigger than what our human brains and feelings may be able to comprehend intuitively.

But there is a third source of resisting the notion that positionality matters: If you already think scientifically, you already have recognized your possible bias, done your research etc., you probably may tend to believe that you have enough reasonable authority to speak without too many caveats. This would be a position of reflected privilege – you know you have the privilege of having thought about this long and hard, you have put your work in and think of you, probably even rightly so, as an expert. And yet, even then it is good practice to question yourself even further and probe your positionality still on this higher level. Bias can be unconscious, it can be overcome, but it can also be gained. We even have words for this: system blindness, filter bubble, confirmation bias. Questioning your assumptions, questioning the nature of your convictions, even of your reality never stops.

V.

Much of reality is counter-intuitive, paradoxical, or even just immensely complex. In order to understand it, in order to manage it and live in it successfully, we need to sometimes abstract from our positionality and gain a better vantage point. Science is such a tool to achieve it – whether natural or social science. Recognizing our positionality, our limitations, is the first step to learn. Only then can we successfully engage with the world and the fellow beings around us with the respect they deserve.

Part of showing respect can be to offer a critique of somebody’s arguments and positions. I certainly believe that criticism should always be welcome, and is always needed. This is why within an education setting, it is important to set up a safe space, yet sometimes, we simplify its meaning. The notion of a “safe space” is not to not challenge anyone’s beliefs or arguments, but to do it in a way that makes sure that we do so with respect to the person. If I offer a critique of somebody else’s point of view, I need to first be open to critique myself.

Too frequently, and it seems, in today’s society even more so than ever before, do we seem to engage in “destroying” somebody else because we disagree with somebody. We may then move from disagreement to disapproval, and from disapproval to even more destructive behaviors that are sometimes called “cancel culture.” None of that is helpful. We need to stay in communication with each other, we need to think, to grow, to live together. It’s not that big a planet after all. But if I offer of myself first, if I demonstrate that I am aware that I am not perfect, that I may hold bias, that I am not speaking with the voice of authority, the voice of God (as so, so, so many intellectuals and political leaders sadly keep doing!), that I am just as human as my interlocutor, only then can I hope to have such a spirit be reflected back to me. A safe space is not safe because we can’t get hurt in it, but because we can share our pain of realization that the world is not as simple as we hoped it would be, and that eventually, from the pain of recognition of our imperfections can come the joy of discovery, of learning, of connecting, of expanding your consciousness, together.

In the end then, establishing positionality is about establishing true dialog. I give, so you may give – or in the fancy Latin phrase, do ut des. You could call this transactional humility – taking up a position of humility in order to be more effective and invite the other person to also be humble. But sometimes – and here I am a believer in behavioral therapy – sometimes even acting as if can turn into the real thing. Let’s call it what it probably should be: Dialog is an exercise in humility, and part of being humble is to meditate and reflect on your biases so that they will guide you and your dialog partner in your search for knowledge and wisdom.