On the value of objectivity

Information being objective is preferable by most to its being subjective – we trust objective information more easily because we think it reflects the facts and we want to think that we are getting the real, actual facts to form our own opinion, or to mirror the so called objective fact in our opinion and call it our own. However, true objectivity is impossible to reach in non-numerical data, all information passes through at least one human observer, us ourselves if not any middlemen. Even numbers can be manipulated and presented according to a person’s preexisting opinions, often without noticing. The natural sciences are not objective either: the data is read through the researcher’s lens and usually serves the purposes of a group. Research contains gender, racial, cultural, or other forms of bias. But we still value objectivity and consider it an ideal to strive to in our accounts, and we decide who is objective and who is subjective when acquiring information, and make up our minds accordingly. However, as everything involving human interaction, the way we evaluate objectivity is not neutral; it is political.

We tend to consider ourselves more objective than others if we do not consciously hold a bias, or at least we trust our objectivity easier than the objectivity of others, as we would know if we were not being objective. This leads to two things: first, we are more inclined to believe the words of people similar to us, because they are probably more objective. Second, we tend to disregard the societal influences on our ideas of objectivity.

Let’s explore the example of gender. We associate manhood with objectivity, or rather womanhood with emotional responses and a lack of logical thinking, while it has beenproven scientifically that there is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain, that women are socialized from childhood to be more empathetic and perform emotional labor while men are socialized to avoid displays of emotion and are not taught to perform empathy the same way women are, and that there is no significant difference between logical thinking of men and women. Still, we associate womanhood with emotional responses and second-guess women’s opinions or narratives of women, we do not consider them to be accurate and lived accounts but tainted with emotion and therefore subjective and therefore not worth considering in the so called real world. But the real world (laws, social policies, attitudes towards women) directly impacts the experiences women have navigating the said world, and it is only natural that their voices should be a driving force in shaping it, for example in issues like reproductive health. But then, the issue of subjectivity arises: according to the dominant narrative, a woman (or someone affected directly by a problem) cannot be trusted to opine or legislate on it because they cannot be objective(as it affects them directly).

But then, the dominant narrative of objectivity holds the opposite of this true as well. People outside the dominant narrative, for example, people from outside the Western world, or minorities in a country, or very young people, or very old people, cannot offer an objective account of the dominant narrative and therefore cannot be trusted. To give a concrete example: I cannot be trusted in issues about Turkey because I must be biased, as I am from there and I am a member of the ethnic majority there, and so on. But then, I cannot talk about American politics, because I am not from there, and same goes with Europe. This makes me think that the problem is actually about me, since some people can very well talk about their own countries (I don’t think I ever heard someone be told that they cannot talk about Switzerland since they are Swiss, that is, with conviction and in a serious discussion, as a random example), and then they can use their objective outsider perspectives to make objective and true declarations about countries they have nothing to do with, enlightening locals and other foreigners alike. I am sure the locals appreciate your objective perspective based on a few readings and a week-long trip (or even years of study, as these are not really what we use when classifying narratives), and want to thank you for rescuing them from the crushing subjectivity for spending a lifetime in their own country, from having a complicated and nuanced experience that can only be expressed in a complicated and nuanced narrative, and sometimes being unable to just walk away from the country because of their deep ties. As it seems, voices outside the dominant narrative are subjective no matter what, and voices from within are automatically objective due to the virtue of not being marginalized or holding any actual stake in the conversation. Of course dominance is highly contextual, but in most given discussions it seems to work like this.

To deepen the personal example, I (and when I say I, I don’t mean just I, I know many people experience this, but I will speak for myself for now) am not trusted on many issues about Turkey because I may be subjective about it. Which is, to this day, odd to me because it encompasses several assumptions: it assumes that I am not able to make the correct decision for myself based on the information I encounter, which is infantilizing and condescending in itself. It assumes that I am incapable of reaching accurate information based on the press freedom limitations in my country, which is honestly insulting as I was 8 when I learned how to use anonymous proxy filters to access banned websites, and 12 when I learned to change my DNS settings and use VPN’s – not out of interest but more out of necessity. I think I am capable of using my English skills (I am proficient – I even have IELTS scores to prove it) and my Turkish-citizen-starter-pack tech skills to access information. Moreover, I can access information in Turkish provided by dissidents and independent sources, and even by non-independent sources, so that I have an idea of what all sides are thinking (and somehow not believe everything I see!). I do not have the luxury of considering being available in English as a measure of worth when it comes to information, thankfully. And then the last assumption, or rather conviction is that the direct impact of the issues we are discussing on my life are negligible or somehow a hindrance to a pure logical discussion. The truth is – you can go on with your life without remembering my country exists. There are millions of people who live and die without even learning anything about my country. I cannot do that. I can move away and have a life elsewhere but I will always be carrying the country with me, and I will have a level of attachment to there. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s complicated, but it shapes most interactions I have. Additionally, I most probably cannot go on with my life ignoring your country as well, as its policies influence my country and my life.

The next time you feel like telling someone that they’re not capable of talking about their own country because they must be brainwashed, please consider that you’re assuming they’re incapable of assessing their own situation – usually some kind of Orientalist assumption that the Oriental peoples are incapable of self awareness and self determination. You are assuming their critical thinking skills are not as developed as yours. Also, people of all countries may be manipulated and brainwashed to an extent about their country through childhood and education, and most people put effort into unlearning this. I know that I personally had to question and reconsider many things I was taught in school and reached different conclusions, and so did many people I know. This is a real effort one has to make, and it is important to recognize this before writing someone off as being brainwashed. I would not claim to have more insight about the functioning of French society even if I studied France extensively, because I did not grow up here and can only learn about some aspects instead of living through them and observing firsthand. I may have a different perspective based on my own experience and origin, but I would not claim to be more objective and therefore a more reliable source on France.

I’m definitely not saying only the citizens of a country should be able to speak about it, of course not. But the problem begins when we start ascribing this title of “objective” to outsider voices, and “subjective” to insiders, and go on to only considering the objective as legitimate. The insider voice isn’t necessarily subjective, but more importantly, especially in the social sciences, subjective is not inherently less valuable and less valid. A subjective voice is colored by personal experience and even reflects what an (objective!) ethnographic study can reflect. I find it important to listen to a variety of subjective voices and construct a narrative combining them, considering the reasons for differences in these narratives and experiences. The fact of not being from a country can have its own subjectivity, as your information will be either from research that’s been through other people’s lenses already, or what you can observe as an outsider with an inevitable gap in context. We should stop considering objective and subjective as adjectives evaluating the validity of a narrative, or as inherent traits, and start questioning the reasons behind our classifications, and the selectivity in our application of this framework. Let’s learn from subjective insider accounts, and place the outsider accounts in their own context of being an outsider, perhaps being from a globally dominant perspective or having a different worldview. Everyone’s accounts of the same topic will be colored by their individual circumstances, but some colors are considered default while others are marginalized with the title of “subjective” and everything it carries – and we need to change the way we think about objectivity.

Alaz Ada

Alaz is from Istanbul, Turkey and is in the dual degree program with University of British Columbia. She enjoys writing essays especially on the social sciences but also writes poetry and prose; and sometimes also reads, paints and cooks as a hobby.

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