The Myth of Objectivity

There's been a lot of discussion, as Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings have gotten underway, about the idea of judicial "neutrality." Sotomayor has argued that every person's perspective is influenced by their life experiences, and that as a Latina woman, she brings not only a different, but also a valuable, perspective to the Court. Some opponents have argued that her frank admission of that influence and perspective make her unqualified as a judge.

I've never met Sonia Sotomayor. I can't see inside her head. But for the past 20 years, I have worked as a female journalist and writer in the field of aviation--a field that is not only 94% male, but has maintained that percentage, unchanged, for the past 50 years. (The percentage of female commercial pilots within that 6% has increased over time, but the overall male/female ratio has remained pretty constant.) And that experience has taught me a lot about "norms", assumptions, lenses, and bias.

I remember reading somewhere that power politics are always better understood by those on the bottom than those on the top. A large part of the reason for that is, if you're in the majority of a system, industry, or group, surrounded by people who share your experience and views, the world as it is doesn't look out of place, manufactured, or tilted in your favor. It looks normal. But if you're a minority, you are always aware that your experiences, view and perspective are different. So you can't possibly mistake any of that for some kind of accepted norm or pure, objective truth.

But whether we see it or not, we all are a product of our experiences, and those experiences give us a particular set of lenses through which we view the world. They influence how much weight we give to different factors in an argument, and what we tend to believe, out of what we're told. A friend of mine recalls an old General Electric training film, apparently produced in the hopes of improving tolerance across widely varying age groups in the company's workforce, that was called "We Are What We Are Because of What We Were, When." Which is to say, if your formative experiences were the Depression and WWII, it left you with a different set of lenses, sensitivities, and beliefs than if you grew up in the tumultuous 1960s.

Likewise, someone who grows up in an immigrant family, scraping to maintain a small business, will intuitively understand the challenges of that situation better than someone who was born into money and privilege. A woman who walks through the world her whole life aware of her vulnerabilities will intuitively understand another woman's fear of sexual assault, pregnancy, or abuse far better than she can intuitively understand a man's fear of being falsely accused of having a role in those things.

Not that we can't cross those bridges, or get beyond our own lenses. And just being part of a particular group doesn't mean you share the same lenses (think Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas). But the bottom line is, there are some viewpoints that, for reasons of our background, personalities, experiences and beliefs, we intuitively understand and resonate with. Others, we have to work to understand. And succeeding at that cross-understanding is tougher than we sometimes give it credit for being.

The first step in that process, however, is recognizing that there is work to be done; that the lenses through which we intuitively react to and interpret facts, events, and situations, are not objective and clear. And at least Sotomayor recognizes that her lenses exist. The notion that a human can read the facts of a legal case, compare it against the words in a 200-year-old document, and then simply analyze or rationally deduce a single clean, correct answer is idealistic at best, and disingenuous, at worst. It avoids taking responsibility for our intuitive resonances and filters. It also avoids acknowledging the need to balance those subjective filters by making a concerted effort to see not only the words and facts, but the words and facts as they might appear through a different set of lenses.

After all, if truth and justice were easily discernible through logic and careful, objective reading of facts and application of precedent, the Supreme Court wouldn't need nine justices. One would do. There are nine because it's understood that little in the realm of human endeavor is simple, clear, or objective. Least of all humans.

The second step in that process, however, is actually seeing the world, or particular situations, through someone else's lenses. And that's hard to do without having some diversity in the group. At the same time as stepping into a male field taught me very quickly that my own perspective on the world was not the only, or even dominant, one, I know my presence there has helped some men to view situations or issues differently than they did before. And I'd like to think we're all the wiser for it.