Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor has brought the relationship of identity to judgment center stage in the national debates. Sotomayor was widely cited leading up to yesterday's nomination for her view that gender and ethnicity "may and will make a difference in our judging." Such views are widely held, but not widely expressed or defended. The difference with Judge Sotomayor is simply that she has put the view out there.
Critics from the right continue to spout slogans about neutrality and objectivity in reasoning, as if anyone could set aside all they know and have lived through in their assessments of a case. They are now raising the old canards about a mutually exclusive option between objective judgment versus biased reasoning. They cannot countenance the idea that identity can play any legitimate or productive role in reasoning; after all, allowing such an idea would make the pallor and body types that generally run Congress more of an evident problem.
Critics from the left are often just as confused. They think that if identity affects judgment, it looks like politics will replace reason, and reason is generally the best arm of defense the left has against the increasingly hysterical and emotional appeals of the right. They also worry that the gender and ethnic identities Sotomayor refers to will be taken up in the public airwaves in stereotyped ways, as flat, monochromatic categories without any internal diversity or fluidity.
Meanwhile, people on the street know better. They know that identity is a rough guide to experience, and that experience affects how we see things, what we notice, how we gauge the plausibility of a story, or the credibility of a speaker. It also affects what background understanding we have at our disposal, such as what life is like for children in diverse families, or among those who live paycheck to paycheck, or without paychecks. And it affects what baseline information we happen to know without having to do any research, such as knowledge about the sterilization abuse inflicted by the United States on Puerto Rican women or the history of treaty violations with American Indian tribes.
Reasoning involves judgment calls, not deductive logic. The judgment of relevance, coherence, and plausibility can be more or less rational, but they are never axiomatic.
When Anita Hill testified against Justice Thomas nearly two decades ago, Congressmen kept repeating their perplexity over the fact that she didn't "immediately report." How could such egregious offenses have really occurred if she did not march right down to the Human Resources office and report the crime? Many of us watching, many women, wondered what planet these guys lived on. Give up a good job for what would surely be a long drawn out fight with little chance to win while gaining an almost certain reputation as a trouble maker? It's hopeless nine times out of 10 to fight the boss on sexual harassment, and most women know this from personal experience.
Anita Hill chose to make a fight when more than her own situation was at stake, when Thomas was put forward for a position with unimaginable power in which his small minded misogyny could conceivably harm many others. Then, it became worth the gamble of losing. The lives of others were at stake. Still, she lost.
Judge Sotomayor has simply stated upfront what most of us know full well: identity affects experience, and experience makes a difference in our judgment. It is never absolute or foolproof: Clarence Thomas's own background did not lead him to the left, thus showing that no identities are flat or monochromatic. We each have to interpret on our own what our identities mean, and in what way our experience is, or is not, relevant to a given situation. Acknowledging the relevance of identity does not replace reason with politics; it simply expands our idea of what reason is, and makes it more reasonable.
Linda Martín Alcoff's book, Visible Identities: Race Gender and the Self (Oxford 2006), takes up these questions at greater length. Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics for 2006 by Hispanic Business Magazine.