Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Another difficult question, this one of standing

Another difficult, politically incorrect question is bothering me today. In my recent post about mental illness and the potential responsibilities thereof, I expressed significant discomfort in raising the question, and many commentors echoed that discomfort in their responses. An unspoken but broadly shared assumption seemed to be "if you haven't experienced this for yourself, you're not qualified to comment."

I saw this assumption in play again today when xterminal made a comment which echoes this trend on nihilistic_kid's lj. The comment is in reference to something said to xterminal, not by xterminal, to the effect that they weren't qualified to review a book because they were "not (a) teenaged, (b) female, and (c) lesbian."

Also saw it today in this political blog commenting on Tookie Williams and capital punishment in general, where the author felt the need to disclaim their opening lines of:

"I don't carry water for Tookie Williams. I'm not as familiar with his story as some, but I oppose the death penalty firmly and unequivocally."

by saying immediately following:

"If you feel a need to criticize me for being insensitive to the survivors of murder victims, please read this first."

So who has standing to comment on issue of cultural, personal, racial or gender sensitivity? It seems to be the case in our society that if you aren't part of the demographic or (sub)culture, your opinions are automatically suspect.

It's easy to ridicule this trend in genre fiction. I can read, review or have opinions on City of Saints and Madmen without having had experience of being either a saint or a madman. But where real people's real lives and life experiences are at stake -- murder victims' families, rape survivors, oppressed minorities -- am I, a middle class, middle aged white man of WASP background, entitled to an opinion? If not, why not?

This is one of those issues I can see from either side. The very real emotional investment people have in their life experiences, especially in experiences of victimization, cannot be authentically matched by my perspective. I am the transparent case of the majority against which women, people of color, the economically disadvantaged, etc., compare themselves. But at the same time, if I am capable of transcending the constraints of the viewpoint of my race, class and generation (and I believe that I am), is my contribution less valuable?

I don't think anyone can be a successful writer of fiction without being able to look beyond their own experience, through the eyes of someone else in another set of circumstances. It's an issue of characterization, after all, from the writer's perspective. But in wider society, I am disturbed by the trend which says I don't have the right to hold opinions about circumstances I have not personally experienced.

Is it critical to have standing in a situation before one can have an opinion? Does one's opinion gain value from having that standing?
Tags: personal

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