Selection from Bindewald (2020):
Foucault’s (1984) analysis of the knowledge/power... provided a rhetorical strategy that permitted the rejection or acceptance of claims on the basis of their political utility and the identity of the claimant rather than their epistemological warrants (Zhao & Bindewald 2018).
Foucault’s subjectivist, postmodernist view of knowledge... contributed significantly to the development of a group-based conception of justice that divides the world into binary categories of oppressor/privileged (e.g., white, Anglo Saxon, cisgender, heterosexual, male, Christian, able-bodied, etc.) and oppressed/marginalized (e.g., black, Hispanic, Indigenous, LGBTQ, female, Muslim, dis/differently-abled, etc.) identity groups.
Adherents of this view claim that straight, white males in particular collectively benefit from unearned power and privilege (e.g., McIntosh 1988), and, as a result, their subjective views have been arbitrarily elevated in epistemic status above those of other groups...
Intersectionality [Crenshaw 1991a; 1991b, n.9.] provided a framework for group-based analyses of power, privilege, and oppression that integrated ideas from a wide variety of critical Marxist and postmodernist traditions... The resulting dynamic of group-specific rights, responsibilities, and moral status grants “epistemic privilege” (Gottesman 2016, 98) by determining who gets to speak, on which issues, and by what standards their claims and behavior will be evaluated...
Selection from Zhao & Bindewald (2018):
A "theorist who may have contributed greatly to the current progressive intolerant and non-engagement approach to opposing political and ideological views is Michel Foucault, one of the most influential thinkers in the period of the 1980s-90s throughout the beginning of this century. Foucault's [postmodernist philosophy]... has enabled a dismissive approach to knowledge claims and helped to brush aside meaningful difference among divergent truth/knowledge statements.
His analysis of the functions and effects of truth statements and his inattention to questions of validity regarding their supporting warrants replaces close examination of the content and merit of claims with an analysis of the positionality of the claimants. This approach can serve to dismiss and otherwise impede productive democratic deliberation across difference.
Paul Rabinow, editor of The Foucault Reader (1984), commented that Foucault “doesn't refute [claims of universal truth]; instead, his consistent response is to historicize grand abstractions. In the last analysis, … he changes the subject and examines the social functions that such concepts have played in the context of practices” (4).
Rather than asking the what and why questions in relation to a particular truth claim, Foucault’s emphasis is on who is speaking and what has made the claim possible. Starting from the question of how a particular conception/claim has come to be what it is, he exposes its conditions and functions: who interprets, what circumstances, and to what effect.
Foucault goes even further to suggest that power produces knowledge and therefore, knowledge functions as a technology of power. He states,
"We should admit.… that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations" (Foucault 1984, 175).
This entanglement, this wholesale claim of the power-knowledge apparatus is the unswerving assertion that “it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge,” but the nameless “power-knowledge… that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.”
For some scholars influenced by this conception of knowledge, it becomes unsavory to engage with others’ perspectives, examine the warrants of their claims, consider their truth value or ethical significance, understand their meanings, debate ideas, or reach agreement or compromise.
Thus, when someone issues a different point of view, all that is needed is to point out its connection to power and its potential functions and effects. No serious engagement or understanding is needed, and the debate is already won on the basis of how one positions oneself and one’s opponent.
But such an approach does not resolve our differences with others or enable us to communicate productively across these differences. It only brings on an analytical paralysis when one faces different points of view and diverse perspectives. In fact, when unwarranted assumptions embedded in claims and speeches are dismissed quickly without scrutiny and challenge, they become entrenched among their proponents.
By positioning ourselves in oppositional terms and by simply dismissing others’ points of view, we make democracy a political battle in which, as Dewey noted decades ago, “The ballot is … a substitute for bullets,” rather than a public forum where questionable assumptions can be challenged and rejected, and common interests identified and pursued.
Furthermore, this approach fails to motivate many members of the historically powerful groups to engage with members of less-powerful groups, thus entrenching the power imbalance.
By denying basic moral considerations to political opponents, this approach eschews the values of true justice and equality to all that are needed to foster productive, democratic pluralism. The resulting identity politics renders it difficult for members of various oppositional groups to engage, compromise, and solve common problems with one another.
In the current political and ideological landscape, we see echoes of Marcuse’s approach in radical activists’ (sometimes aggressive) intolerance against not only the far-right but also conservatives and even liberals and progressives who are deemed too tolerant of people on the right, with the justification that tolerance and recognition of the speech rights of those groups would help establish and reinforce the status quo. We clearly see the influence of Marcuse when activists suggest that verbal protest is insufficient and suppression of speech and physical violence are needed.
Yet one may notice that our society has significantly progressed ...and now voices on the left, through over-representation in the mainstream media, popular culture, and education..., have become dominant in public discourses and thus have tipped the imbalance in information sharing and perspective expression. This situation calls for extreme caution and self-discipline—so that one system of oppression is not merely replaced by another.
We see echoes of Foucault also when a person’s right to speak on particular issues is contingent upon their place in an intersectional oppression hierarchy. In many progressive-controlled spaces, a person’s identity categories seem to determine a their power and privilege, as well as the moral significance of their expression.
Thus, rather than looking into the actual statement of expression, searching for its particular meanings as well as possible embedded privileges and prejudices, the categories a person possesses predetermine the power of their statement, unless they are advocating on behalf of other identity groups.
In these contexts, we seem to have ignored Freire’s prescient warning against the oppressed becoming the oppressors. Such identity politics fuels the inflamed right-wing movements advocating exclusively for the interests of historically powerful groups and further undermines prospects for productive democratic pluralism.
Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Paul Rabinow, “Introduction,” in Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
Guoping Zhao & Ben Bindewald, "Tolerance and Free Speech in Education: A Habermasian Perspective," Philosophy of Education, 2018.