Sunday, September 18, 2022

Intersectionality, Queering Science, Lived Experience, and Rationality

Plenty gets written about intersectionality. I have a feeling that my repeated use of the word might be giving some of my readers nausea by now. Yet I feel like there's plenty that's not written about intersectionality. Questions like the following: What's the relationship between intersectionality and science? How does intersectionality validate lived experience? And what's the role of rationality in an intersectional world?

Queering science

Firstly, if you have not heard Sayantan Datta speak about this topic, you should first do so. YouTube search for "queering science sayantan". Watch 4-5 topics Sayantan has already delivered on this topic.

There's an (unsettled?) debate in cognitive science about whether human beings can think without language. Can we think about things if we don't have words for it? If I didn't know the word "chair" in any language, would I be able to think about chair?

There probably are several instances in our lives where we had a concept that we had in our mind and on a random day we find a term for what it is called. The name for that concept. Let's take the word "intersectionality" itself. One can see the concept addressed in Ambedkar's pre-dated work on caste. But perhaps Ambedkar would have felt like "ah, that's what I am talking about" when/if Ambedkar came across the word intersectionality. One might argue that these are instances of us thinking without words.

Yet, we can also probably argue that words help us think clearer. Having a word for a concept makes it possible to refer to that concept more frequently. It allows us to give that concept its own dedicated space and examine its *cough* intersection with other concepts. When we have a word for something, we are able to think about that concept more concretely than when it was an amorphous, ambiguous, vague undertone to our thoughts. Perhaps if Ambedkar had a word like "intersectionality", Ambedkar could have written a couple of volumes about it.

A closely related concept is "reification". I don't fully understand it. So I'll rely on others' definition of it. "Reification is when you think of or treat something abstract as a physical thing." Now in Marxist terms there is probably a different meaning also for reification. But in the book "The Social Science Jargon-Buster" Zina O'Leary gives this example: 

Consider the following statement: ‘Mother Nature cares about all her creatures.’ Here we’re reifying Mother Nature by treating an idea as a real
thing... with a name (note the capitalization), a gender (her), a relationship
(mother) and a human characteristic (caring). The same is true when we say
something like, ‘Religion tries to repress sexuality’.
In some sense, coining a word for a concept similarly reifies it, gives it a certain concreteness. And that concreteness which words provide is the way in which human beings communicate with each other things that are far more complex than what other animals can communicate.

Footnote/aside: This also makes words very powerful. Words, especially the ones we coin from existing words, can have strong associations. Which is why many opposing movements coin different terms for the "same" concept. Aside on aside: If you haven't read this elaborate, gripping article called "Hiding Behind Language" by Vijeta Kumar, you should.

Words also categorize things. By giving something a label, you're creating a box. There are some things which will fit inside that box and some which are not allowed inside. These categories are often very helpful for human beings because it allows them to think through things. Is this "kind", "cruel", or "neutral"? Is this "lavish", "minimal", or "thrifty"? Is this "love", "hate", or "indifference"?

And such categories form the basis of most of science too. The whole of biology is one big categorization exercise. Kingdom, phylum, genus, species, blah blah blah blah. Chemistry has the periodic table and element groups. Even sociology divides people into cultures and groups and classes and so on. Categories make it easier to observe things and make useful predictions about the world. Categories are abstractions that allow humanity to function.

But categories (and classification of entities into categories) have as much limitations as powers. Categories tend to be binary. Rigid and "all or none". And categories tend to create a pressure of conformity. To see everything through the lens of those categories. To label things that don't fit as "exceptions".

Binary is not intersectional. Binary is reductionist. Binary tends to erase differences and falsify conclusions. Binary forces us to see a lesser truth where reality could be far more grander and complicated.

That's why science needs to be queered. To queer is to question categories. To queer is to mix and match. To queer is to think intersectional. To queer is to see truth as it is without being colored by labels and labelled expectations.

Science is indeed picking up intersectionality here and there. Not necessarily expensive stuff like individualized medicine or precision medicine. It is also simple things like viewing sex as a spectrum.

The book x + y by Eugenia Cheng is a brilliant exposition of the role of mathematics (category theory specifically) in all of this. That book connects society, science, and intersectionality all together in a way that truly forms a manifesto of our work forwards.

Intersectionality and the lived experience

If intersectionality doesn't do so well with categories, what does intersectionality rely on to draw inferences and make decisions about human life and society? When you apply an intersectional lens, what do you look at?

Lived experience is one of the main things that you look at. Lived experience is the sum of all realities that pertain to one individual or entity. With an intersectional lens, one doesn't try to categorize and draw causal inferences. One doesn't jump to reductionist conclusions like, "Ha, this person is so because of their childhood trauma", "Ha, this person is poor and that's why they're unable to attain healthiness".

Instead an intersectional approach forces one to think about how different life experiences have contributed to a particular situation in a particular individual (or anything) in that particular point in time with respect to their surroundings. It is a complicated causal web that intersectionality is interested in.

Footnote/Aside: Realist evaluation is one of the few "scientific" methods that I see closely related to all of this. (Coincidentally, there's a realist evaluation workshop being hosted by IPH, Bengaluru this month).


How does rationality fit into all of these? Does rationality become unnecessary when intersectionality enters the scene? Does it become obsolete? Is rationality a thing of the "categorical" sciences? Is there any utility for rationality in the intersectional scene?

Before we answer any of this, there's one important article about reasoning that I would like my readers to read, if they haven't. It is called the "Unraveling the Enigma of Reason", written by Scott Young. It tells us - similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow - how our brain makes decisions and then justifies them with a reason rather than the other way round. It is something that truly underlies all of what I'm saying.

The brain is the ultimate intersectional equipment. It computes millions of lived experiences and inferences (which get encoded as biases) every moment when we're interacting with the world - to come up with decisions. On what to wear, what to eat, how to respond to traffic, and what to do in the presence of someone who looks a bit different from the people who the brain is used to seeing.

A lot of that power is unused in routine situations though. We tend to drift to extremes. Binary thinking is easier for us. All or nothing. And we slip into such patterns. 

We can avoid such binary stereotypes and biases by being actively aware of our biases and stereotypes. When we're constantly reflecting on our actions and evaluating the reasons for our behaviour, we tend to see the patterns that we're used to. And once we see the patterns, our brain autocorrects some of those. And then we see some new patterns. And then we autocorrect some more (sometimes in the opposite direction). And so on.

When we start thinking at extreme levels of intersectionality, life becomes unlivable too. If we need decisions, choices to be made; we will need a way to discard irrelevant lines of thought, prioritize one thing over the other based on arbitrary and normative moral principles, and arrive at some actionable path forward.

And that's where rationality comes in. Rationality is what demystifies things and allows us to focus on what's important. Rationality is a tool to connect the infinite possibilities of intersectionality with the pragmatic needs of the real world.

Rationality is what allows you to call a spade, a spade. To call out bullshit. To cut the crap. And to focus on praxis. On stuff that matters.

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