‘Splainshaming: when “centering other voices” becomes a tool to silence dissent

  • Straightsplainshaming: rebuking, ridiculing, or dismissing a straight person for speaking on issues of sexuality, just because they are straight.
  • Whitesplainshaming: rebuking, ridiculing, or dismissing a white person for speaking on issues of race, just because they are white.
  • Mansplainshaming: rebuking, ridiculing, or dismissing a man for speaking on issues of gender, just because he is a man.

I recently finished reading the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by pastors Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. The book recounts the history of white supremacy in America and urges the Christian church today to play a leading role in providing restitution and restoration for the descendants of enslaved African Americans. I don’t want to give a full review of the book here, but I do want to address one of the claims made toward the end of the book, under the section heading “Centering Other Voices”:

In this conversation, we believe that our place, as people who have not suffered the deprivations of White supremacy as African Americans have, is not to lead but to follow, to let our voices give way to the voices of others.

Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, p. 185

I have observed this sort of language used frequently in contemporary discussions on social justice. I have no doubt that the idea of “centering other voices” is often meant as a good-faith effort to rectify past injustices against marginalized voices. And I believe that is precisely how Kwon and Thompson intend it here. However, whether intended or not, this idea ultimately functions as a rhetorical tactic to silence opposing viewpoints.

To understand why this is the case, note the recent popularity of terms like straightsplaining, whitesplaining, and mansplaining. These terms refer to any instance of a socially privileged group member making an explanation or comment to a socially marginalized group member, often on the subject of their marginalized group status, and often with a presumed sense of superior competence or knowledge. A lot of different kinds of statements are said to fall under the umbrella of these categories: “I don’t see color.” “I know what you mean; I have a gay friend.” “Women are more emotional than men.” And so forth.

There is a sense in which these terms do refer to a legitimate problem. When making knowledge claims, having a socially privileged status is not a substitute for having firsthand lived experience. However, another problem arises when the “lived experience” of marginalized groups is elevated over objective standards of evidence. When this happens, those deemed socially privileged are automatically placed in a position of rhetorical disadvantage, no matter how empirically factual or logically sound their claims may be. Such people are told to yield to marginalized voices and listen humbly.

As a rhetorical tactic, this serves to invalidate dissent without having to engage the actual arguments. I refer to this tactic as ‘splainshaming, which can be subcategorized as straightsplainshaming, whitesplainshaming, mansplainshaming, and so forth. It is a type of ad hominem fallacy that C.S. Lewis referred to as Bulverism, wherein an opponent’s position is assumed to be wrong and then explained in terms of the opponent’s identity.

‘Splainshaming is a popular-level application of what is known as standpoint theory or standpoint epistemology, which teaches that all human knowledge is socially situated, and that the standpoints of marginalized groups are epistemically advantaged. According to feminist standpoint theorist Sandra Harding:

Each oppressed group can learn to identify its distinctive opportunities to turn an oppressive feature of the group’s conditions into a source of critical insight about how the dominant society thinks and is structured. Thus, standpoint theories map how a social and political disadvantage can be turned into an epistemological, social, and political advantage.

Harding, The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader, pp. 7-8

Notice that this description states only that a social disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. Standpoint theory does not teach that minorities automatically possess epistemic advantage; they only possess such advantage after achieving “critical consciousness” or, in contemporary terms, getting woke (Kristen Intemann, p. 785).

There are certain elements of standpoint theory that do have some degree of plausibility. We can grant that knowledge is conditioned by one’s social location; there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” We can even grant that, when oppression happens, the one being oppressed is more likely to recognize it, whereas the oppressor, who benefits materially from the oppression, has an incentive to ignore or minimize it.

Building upon these commonsense principles, one might then reasonably suppose that the oppressed person, in her desire to expose the reality of her oppression, could appeal to objective standards of evidence that are neutral with respect to such identity traits as sexuality, race, and gender. On the basis of such universal standards, she could convince the oppressor of the truth that he can deny only on pain of irrationality.

At most, what this proves is that minorities may possess epistemic advantage per accidens, but not per se. That is, their particular circumstances may alert them to aspects of society that might otherwise be ignored by dominant groups, but that does not automatically confer greater authority on their knowledge claims. Their claims must still be tested against the same standards of evidence as everyone else. Further, no prior assumption needs to be made about the existence of oppression in a given social setting (let alone the oppression of entire groups); it may exist, but this must be an a posteriori judgment demonstrated by the evidence.

Standpoint theory, on the other hand, goes further. It teaches that minorities possess epistemic privilege per se, not just per accidens. This provides the rationale for “centering other voices” and for dismissing dominant group viewpoints as mansplaining, whitesplaining, etc. It amounts to a kind of epistemic affirmative action, where knowledge claims are automatically weighted differently depending on the alleged power status of the knower.

Standpoint theory commits the fallacy of circular reasoning in two related ways. First, it assumes a particular framework of oppression within society. Granted, standpoint theorists generally do not hold to an essentialist view where oppression exists in the same way in every time and place (they believe it is hypothetically possible to conceive of a racist-free society, for example). However, they do believe that within our given social context, systems of oppression are known in advance and form the basis for weighting group member knowledge claims differently.

Second, standpoint theory is circular because it appeals to its own framework to dismiss minority voices who disagree with this framework. As stated above, standpoint theory teaches that two things are necessary to achieve a privileged standpoint: minority status plus critical consciousness. If a minority group member lacks critical consciousness, a standpoint theorist would say that this is either because this member has internalized their own oppression (perhaps to curry favor with the dominant group, for example), or because their oppressed status has led to a lack of access to the educational resources necessary to understand their own oppression (Intemann, p. 784; see also Bradley Levinson). On these terms, it is inconceivable that a minority group member might have good reasons to question standpoint theory’s tenets.

To return to Kwon and Thompson’s book, the minority voices whom they center are only those who broadly agree with their framework in defense of reparations (p. 244 n5). On the other hand, they do not center minority voices who disagree with this framework, such as John McWhorter or Jason Riley. This is consistent with standpoint theory, which sacrifices viewpoint diversity for the sake of identity group diversity.

I would also highlight a serious practical consequence of standpoint theory: what happens when a minority group member makes a false accusation of oppression? This can happen for a number of reasons, whether it be due to deception, paranoia, or sincere misunderstanding. However, if knowledge claims are weighted differently according to power status, then in such cases dominant group members are automatically rendered suspect, being denied due process and the benefit of the doubt. Is this really fair?

I hope I have made it clear why ‘splainshaming is such a pernicious rhetorical tactic. It might be motivated by a sincere desire to correct past injustices against certain groups, but it ultimately overcorrects and thereby produces more injustice. A biblical view of social justice will affirm the need for “just weights and measures” (Lev. 19:36; Deut. 25:13-14). I believe that this applies to our epistemological and rhetorical weights and measures as well.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

2 Responses to “‘Splainshaming: when “centering other voices” becomes a tool to silence dissent”

  1. Two questions: (1) have you read Thompson and Kwon’s response to DeYoungs review? I think their response shows pretty clearly what they mean by centering other voices and demonstrating how DeYoungs approach is a manifestation of the centering white voices.

    (2) I haven’t read the book so this is a genuine question: are you unfairly lumping Thompson and Kwon in with ideology and ideological proponents unfairly simply because they use the term “centering other voices”? Is what they are doing really fairly lumped in with mansplaining and whitesplaining? Isn’t there a difference between telling someone their opinion doesn’t matter because of their race or gender and saying that domes opinion DOES matter because of their race or gender? Those two are not logically equivalent and I’m skeptical that Thompson and Kwon do the former.

    • Kwon and Thompson’s response to KDY was coincidentally published at the same time as my post. I think their response is a clear example of what I am talking about in my post. Their position is not materially different from standpoint theory at all, as far as I can tell. Standpoint theory doesn’t say that majority voices don’t matter; it only teaches that (woke) minority voices should be weighted more.

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