I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

Strange as it may seem, the biggest stumbling block on much of the left may be a crude philosophical error, dogmatic subjectivism.  This is a position that holds that subjective experience is the highest form of knowledge, whose claims can’t be challenged by “lesser” criteria like logical analysis or empirical observation.  To the extreme subjectivist, if I feel something to be true there is no legitimate counterargument: I think (or feel), therefore I know.

This is at the heart of the current blowup over the mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.  It was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a member of the Communist Party and acolyte of Diego Rivera, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.  To make his point about the centrality of racism and oppression in American history, he portrayed Washington as the slaveowner he was, with a group of slaves toiling away to make him rich.  He also showed pioneers headed westward past the body of a dead Indian.  Not surprisingly, Arnautoff got into trouble during the McCarthy era and was effectively hounded out of the world of public art.

But several groups and individuals who claim to speak for today’s oppressed think the mural glorifies racist violence and makes the high school an “unsafe” environment.  The San Francisco School Board’s advisory group, The Reflection and Action Working Group, deemed Arnautoff “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”  One of the Board members said that efforts to save the mural from being painted over were reflective of “white supremacy”, since the artwork some want to save is “white property”, while its effects are harmful to “Black and Brown ppl [people]”.  The head of the high school’s Indian Education Program asserts this and other Arnautoff murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive….”  Others bring up the triggering effect of images that remind us of the brutality that permeates American history.

What interests me is that none of these arguments draw in any way from an analysis of the impact of art on its viewers or empirical evidence of any sort; they are simply assertions from personal feeling.  This is not to say that feelings don’t matter—of course they do—but surely they are not the only thing that matters.

There are two fundamental problems with the subjectivism on display in San Francisco.  One is the obvious point that humans are not omniscient and infallible.  Our subjective judgments are often wrong, and as they go through life sensible people are constantly revising their reactions to the things around them and rethinking what they thought they knew.  “This is how I feel” is simply a self-report of how one feels; it has no additional value as a basis for judgment.  Even as a self-report it may be wrong, since there is a lot of evidence that people misconstrue their own perceptions and emotions.  So, not only are the claims about what the mural means dubious in light of its actual history and content, but even the claims about the feelings it engenders can’t be taken at face value.  And to go one level deeper, if people knew more about the history of the mural and the ways in which it had been viewed across the decades since its creation, perhaps their emotional response might be different.

The second problem is that subjectivities collide.  I may feel something deeply and be absolutely sure of it, and you may feel something else in exactly the same way.  If our feelings contradict each other, how do we decide who’s right?  This is even more vexing when the subjectivity in question is collectively attributed to a social group, like a racial, gender, national or other identity.  If I say that, as an older person, I know that a comment, idea or work of art makes older people feel unsafe, and another older person disagrees, subjectivity alone is not sufficient to resolve the issue; we would have to appeal to some other form of knowledge—you know, like looking at evidence—to determine who’s right.  If you are committed to the primacy of subjectivity as the bedrock of your outlook on the world, however, that solution is disallowed.  The only alternative is to propose a “true” identity, a collective subjectivity, that includes me and excludes you, or vice versa.  And this is how it actually plays out: the real members of an oppressed group know in their bones what the score is, and if other ostensible members disagree, this just shows they aren’t really part of it.  I’m sure, for instance, that if you polled all the Black or Indian students at George Washington High School, some would be upset by the mural and others not.  One way to deal with the situation would be to consider the reasons for these feelings to see which make sense and fit the objective evidence, but that is out of bounds if subjectivity can’t be questioned.  The alternative is to say that students who are really part of this identity share a common subjectivity, which eludes those who take a different side.

What I don’t get is why dogmatic subjectivism is so central to the outlook of some people.  Where did it come from?  Why is it embraced so unquestioningly?  What purpose does it serve?