June 30, 2011

Power and Decision Making

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

In California, the sexual orientation of a judge has become news following his judgment about Proposition 8. Prop 8 was passed by California voters in 2008, and served to amend the state’s constitution to deny access to marriage for same-sex couples. Recently, the judge’s sexual orientation has been disclosed as “homosexual,” and some are suggesting that the decision he made was biased because of his personal status.

Sociologically, what can we learn from this situation? Can people make fair decisions on political issues when their personal lives might be File:Vaughn Walker adj.jpgaffected? 

Judges must objectively consider the facts of the case in the context of our legal system and all the legal precedents that exist. Much like scientists, they are trained and expected to be as objective as possible and most do succeed, at least partially, in doing so. The better your training and the longer you work at seeing beyond your personal perspective, the better you can get at limiting most forms of bias.

Thus, the bureaucratic constraints of legal and scientific occupations can help people in those professions retain as much objectivity as possible.

On the other hand, is it reasonable to assume that anyone, no matter what their personal life, status, or demographic profile, is free of opinion on controversial political issues? Since the answer to that is no, one must broaden one’s perspective to ask whether a judge with any specific sexual orientation would be able to deliver a more fair or unbiased judgment on Prop 8.

The outcry that a “gay” judge would be biased against Prop 8 seems to suggest that a “straight” judge would be more objective in their decisions. This, however, isn’t necessarily true. If one thinks a ”gay” judge would make a biased decision, wouldn’t a ”straight” judge be as likely to make a biased decision as well?

Using the type of reasoning, would people who are white be fairer than people of color in making judgments about racial discrimination? Would men make better decisions about sexual harassment than women? Would wealthy people make better policies about poverty than middle class or working class people? Some may think that people in the dominant groups are more capable of being fair and objective or are at least in situations that are not obviously affected by the issues of the subjugated populations. However, those in the dominant group have a position of power in maintaining those differences and often make decisions to maintain those distinctions.File:Same Sex Marriage-01.jpg

While it is true that coalition politics is paramount to any social change, it often takes some time to get those coalitions to build. Women didn’t get the vote in this country until enough men agreed that it was important (and their mothers and wives persuaded them to vote in favor). We didn’t have civil rights legislation in the 1960s, when enough white people finally realized that their lives were also negatively impacted by the separate and unequal conditions. Same-sex couples might not have the right to marry more widely until enough people realize how denying consenting adults the right to marry their loved one negatively impacts the entire country.

Keep in mind that these twentieth-century social changes didn’t change the minds of everyone in the country. There are still misogynists and racists who disagree with many of the social policies we have to protect the rights of people who have not been granted access to dominant group status. Indeed, we still have our society structured by powerful structures of inequality.

As standpoint theorists remind us, people who are part of marginalized groups sometimes have unique insights into the social world that those in dominant groups do not. While people may question the objectivity of those who have been oppressed, we should also question the objectivity of those in positions of privilege.


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There is nothing wrong with allowing homosexuals to have the same rights as the rest of the heterosexual population. I hope the discrimination stops.

This is a very good post. I do not agree with this banning of homosexual marrige. Banning someone to marry a loved one is wrong and it should be stopped.

Those who are against gay marriage are obviously on the wrong side of history.

Well some people cannot make a good decision but thats life.

Yeah nothing wrong with being gay !

Nothing wrong with being gay at all.

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