Yesterday when President Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as his choice for replacing Supreme Court Justice David Souter, I was glad, finally, to hear that he was doing something I could really get behind.**** Naturally, then, that choice immediately came in for a barrage of nasty, even hateful attacks. Today, feminist theorist Linda Martín Alcoff has a piece on Common Dreams, Sotomayor's Reasoning, that addresses criticism of the nominee's forthright declaration that gender and ethnicity "may and will make a difference in our judging." As Alcoff notes, "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." Alcoff, by the way, addresses criticisms from both the right and the left, noting that many on the left are confused about identity and see any open articulation of it as susceptible to rigid stereotypical spinning. "Meanwhile," she notes,
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.
Alcoff refers back to the inability of the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear and understand Anita Hill's testimony during Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing.
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.
Glenn Greenwald's Justice Samuel Alito on Empathy and Judging (originally appearing at Salon.com), considers the double-standard Judge Sotomayor faces, in comparison with the reception given Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. His piece begins:
As is true for any Supreme Court nominee, there are many legitimate questions to raise about Sonia Sotomayor, but the smear attacks on her as some sort of "identity politics" poster child -- which are still being justified largely if not entirely by the Jeffrey Rosen/TNR gossipy hit piece on her -- are nothing short of disgusting. As Anonymous Liberal put it: "Apparently, the only way to avoid 'identity politics' is to pick white men for every job." Both Adam Serwer and Daniel Larison note the glaring, obvious hypocrisy in simultaneously insisting that "empathy" has no place in the law while protesting Sotomayor's decision in Ricci on the completely law-free ground that what happened to the white firefighters is so "unfair." And Matt Yglesias writes that he is "really truly deeply and personally pissed off my the tenor of a lot of the commentary on Sonia Sotomayor" and, in a separate post, notes the wildly different treatment between Sotomayor and Sam Alito despite very similar records.
Do check out both of these pieces.
PS I hope to be doing some WisCon reporting soon.
****ETA Looks like I spoke too soon. I really can't get behind anyone who isn't clearly going to be supporting abortion rights-- as it now appears may be the case with Sonia Sotomayor.*****
*****ETA Although I probably did speak too soon, it looks as though my misgivings on abortion rights are misplaced. See Nancy's comment below.