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The Perfect World argument

Lately, as I've gotten more into feminism and related forms of social justice, I've come up with what I've found to be a way of addressing a lot of the criticisms people have to certain techniques used in SJ theory. I'm sure someone else has thought of this in some form or other, but I've never seen it quantified, and I find it really effective when pointing out the flaws in many of these critiques. I call it the Perfect World argument.

I'm sure if you're at all interested in or on the side of social progress you've heard someone resent what they usually call "reverse whatever-ism," such as when some compensatory preference is given to a member of a disadvantaged group, or when a member of a majority/privileged group is not welcome in a space or conversation. For example, when white people are told that it is not for them to weigh in on certain racial issues because they are white, or when men are excluded from certain feminist spaces because they are men. This offends a lot of people, often because they are so accustomed to their privileged status that it is difficult for them to be forced to take a subordinate position in anything, but also because they think to themselves that if discrimination based on sex or color is a bad thing, it is a bad thing in any case, so men or white people should be no more excluded than people of other genders or races.

This is flawed because it is an example of what I call the Perfect World argument. It is a theory that, in pure raw theory-land, is technically correct. That "technical correctness" is what a lot of critics hinge on to justify their objection. It is even something that social justice agrees on (in its purely theoretical state.) But it is not a valid argument because it assumes social conditions other than situation at hand being perfect-- that no larger inequalities exist already that require mending or compensating for. The equivalent of trying to find the actual speed of a racehorse when you're assuming the horse is spherical and the track without friction. The "Perfect World" in this case would be one that was not systemically racist and sexist, where all examples of racism and sexism occurred on a micro-scale between individuals as opposed to being an undercurrent that affects us all unconsciously to some level or another. In that world, any behavior that contributes to less of the injustice at hand in any sense, in any case, is a net positive. In that most generous interpretation, I understand people without a huge amount of study into the state of social justice who are otherwise well-meaning defaulting to that seemingly logical perspective. They may even think that by speaking out against ALL prejudiced behavior, they are modeling correct behavior for others.

But we DO live in a world that is systemically full of bias. And not all kinds of bias, either, there is obviously a substantially greater amount of prejudice against people of color than white, and women and gender-variant than men. The scales are already so unbalanced that you are not actually aiding in the cause of bringing more justice into the world by advocating for somebody who already has significantly fewer disadvantages. So when you, for example, stand up for the right of a white person to contribute to a conversation about and for people of color, you are actually just making yet another example of privileging white voices-- you've added another drop in bucket of white presence and representation while taking a scoop out of the much small bucket of the presence of people of color. It's assuming your racetrack is so frictionless and your horses are so spherical that your calculus for the speed they're moving at is a million miles off.

So, "Perfect World Argument"-- a point of view that isn't exactly wrong in a pure theory sense, but assumes outside conditions being equal when they are not, and so is not applicable to the situation under the conditions in which it actually exists. I have found this a really helpful concept for explaining to people why a lot of pure theories are not appropriate to real world justice issues. People tend to respond better to hearing, "Well, you're not wrong in theory, but it doesn't account for all the uncontrolled variables."


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 23rd, 2013 07:26 am (UTC)
It's not exactly not applicable, at least not in any objective sense. It *is* still racism/sexism, it's just got a positive goal. As long as that's denied, for whatever reason, it's hard to consider the speaker an honest broker.

And really anyone that argues that someone shouldn't be able to speak on a subject is never going to be an honest broker.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 11:26 am (UTC)
I am not sure why you felt it was necessary to post this comment, since you must be aware by now that people who are taking the line I do only use "racism" and "sexism" to describes attitudes that are systemic and institution. I all but said as much in the post.

When you already have an entire world that's behind you and a thousand places to express yourself and you INSIST that it's discrimination to not let you have THIS ONE PLACE IN PARTICULAR because you're white/a man, well, congrats. You are not doing one iota of positive work for justice. And to say others are discriminating against you in keeping you from that one place is laughable. Robin Hood isn't a hero because he steals from the poor and gives to the rich.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 08:23 pm (UTC)
Are you here to discuss social justice theory and methods of swaying opponents in a debate, or are you here to be angry that society is not just?

I'm sorry, but this is a complex problem and not one that's going to be turned around by a simple analogy. You're getting into territory concerning what *is* justice, what are the sources of inequality, and what corrections can be effective in removing them. You need to address those base issues before you can have a hope of swaying others, because otherwise you're both just going to be yelling "I'm right" and no one's ever won over an opponent by just yelling louder.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 08:41 pm (UTC)
I think you are exemplifying my point here.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 08:57 pm (UTC)
I suppose I have my answer.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 10:42 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, which I realize isn't much, I agree. And I think it takes gut to say that in certain circles where it's currently an unpopular opinion.
Oct. 24th, 2013 01:22 am (UTC)
I think it's an unpopular opinion because it doesn't necessarily do much to help anyone except the people who already have more than enough help.
Oct. 24th, 2013 01:20 am (UTC)
Look, I apologize for being short, but your objection is the very one that this entire post is refuting. I do not see it as being applicable to any real, non-"Perfect World" situation. I've made that clear in the text of this post, so I'm not sure what you further expect me to engage with.

Feel free to disagree. But I doubt you're going to make anyone's life better with that attitude, except maybe more white guys.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 11:28 am (UTC)
It depends on how you define any given "-ism." There's the simple "any sort of discrimination based on X trait" vs. "discrimination based on X trait that travels down a power gradient." Is a safe space for women and trans* folks sexist? Depends on which definition you use.

I would argue that safe spaces for people of color/women + trans* folks/disabled folks/whichever axis of the kyriarchy we're analyzing today shouldn't completely shut down the voices of generally-privileged allies (as a side note, I would argue shutting down oppressive voices in a safe space is totally okay seeing as it is a safe space and all), but instead privileges those voices that don't get to be heard as much in the general world.

Hence, why "what about the menz??" gets such scorn in feminist-oriented places. Men's concerns ARE the top concerns of the general populace (there are exceptions, but for the vast majority of the time it holds true), and it's nice to have a women + trans*folk space where our concerns take top priority.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 08:49 pm (UTC)
I define it as the former and view the latter as a judgment of its value. Not all discrimination is bad and when someone starts to make tortured definitions such that loaded words can only apply to one group it's hard not to question how much of their argument is based in passion rather than reason.

I think safe spaces, affirmative action, Curves, etc. are all perfectly fine forms of discrimination. I think they're also kind of blunt instruments likely to cause problems along the way, but they generally provide more good than harm. They're "good enough", but they're not really great, and resting on them as the ideal solution doesn't do anyone any favors.

I would disagree with your last paragraph. Men's concerns aren't really top concerns for society so much as society has baked in deep historical and structural privileges that benefit them. There's a difference between passively inheriting power and actively pursuing it. The latter view practically requires an antagonistic relationship, which is never going to be particularly fruitful, while the former presents a problem both sides can work together to undo.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 11:35 am (UTC)
I really agree with this post, and I like the last line. Also, I think it's very important that people who are not a part of a minority or oppressed group do get to express their feelings on the topic sometimes, but there's a time and a place.
Oct. 23rd, 2013 01:50 pm (UTC)

I hadn't thought about this argument before and I really like it. It feels very C.S. Lewis-ish, which I guess makes sense given it's you. :)
Oct. 23rd, 2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I find that quite flattering. Though I don't always directly agree with him, I have always admired how his brain works, how he approaches an analytical problem. That was probably the single biggest influence on the development of my critical thinking as well as my creative thinking. :-)

Edited at 2013-10-23 04:50 pm (UTC)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

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MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

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Vivat Regina
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Base Instruments
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Saturday, May 13th 2017
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"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
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"Adonis" screenplay
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