Anti-intellectualism also comes out in full force on the anti-oppressive side of things. It manifests itself in the view that knowledge not just about what oppression, is like, but also knowledge about all the ethical questions pertaining to oppression is accessible only through personal experience. The answers to these ethical questions are treated as a matter of private revelation. In the academic field of ethics, ethical claims are judged on the strength of their arguments, a form of public revelation. Some activists find this approach intolerable.
Perhaps the most deeply held tenet of a certain version of anti-oppressive politics – which is by no means the only version – is that members of an oppressed group are infallible in what they say about the oppression faced by that group. This tenet stems from the wise rule of thumb that marginalized groups must be allowed to speak for themselves. But it takes that rule of thumb to an unwieldy extreme.
Let me give an example. A gay person is typically much better acquainted with homophobia than a straight person. Moreover, a gay person has a much greater stake in what society does about homophobia, so their view on the matter is more important. However, there is nothing about the experience of being gay in itself that enlightens a gay person about the ethics of sexual orientation.
To take a dead simple case, you don’t have to hear it from a gay person to know that homosexuality is ethically just fine. If you’re a straight person and a gay person tells you that homosexuality is wrong, you can be confident in your judgement that they are full of shit. In this situation, the straight person is right and the gay person is wrong about homosexuality and homophobia. Gay people have no special access to ethical knowledge, in general or about sexual orientation specifically. Gay people do tend to have better ethical knowledge about sexual orientation than straight people, but that is only because of how our life circumstances move us to reflect on it.
If I said the same thing about another context that isn’t so simple — when the correct opinion isn’t so obvious — I would be roundly condemned. But the example’s simplicity isn’t what makes it valid. People who belong to oppressed groups are just people, with thoughts ultimately as fallible as anyone else’s. They aren’t oracles who dispense eternal wisdom. Ironically, this principle of infallibility, designed to combat oppression, has allowed essentialism to creep in. The trait that defines a person’s group membership is treated as a source of innate ethical knowledge. This is to say nothing about the broader problem of how you’re supposed to decide who’s a source of innate knowledge. Certainly not someone who innately “knows” that homosexuality is disgusting and wrong, but why not, if you’re simply relying on private revelation rather than public criteria?
It is an ominous sign whenever a political movement dispenses with methods and approaches of gaining knowledge that are anchored to public revelation and, moreover, becomes openly hostile to them. Anti-intellectualism and a corresponding reliance on innate knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a cult or a totalitarian ideology.
Aurora Dagny knows everything is problematic.
It was really hard to quote this essay because the entire thing is 100% worth reading; it’s about anti-intellectualism and cultish dogma in left-wing social justice activist circles, by someone who considers themselves a member of said circles.