Who Are You, What Do You Know, Does It Matter?

Written by Margaux Marzuoli

In an era where ‘cancel culture’ seeks to ostracize people that hold views or do things that are not thought of as acceptable, and in a time where we are all rediscovering our identities, I often wonder if the place I was born in, the color of my skin, or my gender, impacts the validity of my knowledge. Is the validity of this article going to be influenced by these factors? What role do personal circumstances play in determining the validity of knowledge?

In this context, I choose to use the word ‘knowledge’, because it is vast. ‘Knowledge’ represents anything – an opinion, an essay, or an art piece – that can be fabricated by someone. This means that there are different ways of creating knowledge. For instance, historical knowledge (knowledge about history) is based on empirical evidence, meanwhile artistic knowledge (art in itself) can be based on emotions. As such, we can all acquire, create and share knowledge by doing things as simple as talking with other people. And importantly, knowledge does not need to be published or made public for it to be acknowledged.

Now, how can we assess if knowledge is valid? Although knowledge does not need to be validated for it to be ‘knowledge’, I often hear people saying “you are valid” or “that is valid” when validating other people’s experiences or emotions. Sometimes it can be used as a joke and sometimes people truly mean it. In this context, ‘knowledge’ can be validated in different ways. For instance, the validity of historical knowledge is often measured according to how (logically) correct it is. This is different to artistic knowledge which relies more on appreciation for validation.

Claim 1: Personal circumstances do not affect the validity of knowledge.

Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and one of the founding fathers, is an example of a historical figure whose personal circumstances did not affect the validity of his knowledge. His knowledge contributed to forming the Declaration of Independence – “the principles on which [the US] government, and [US] identity as Americans, [is] based”. Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves and held racist beliefs. Yet, today the Declaration of Independence remains valid as it “[inspires] people around the world to fight for freedom and equality”. This exemplifies the ability we have to dissociate knowledge and the personal circumstances of the knower.

Some have benefited from this by being able to produce knowledge without the constraint of potentially unfavorable personal circumstances, like Thomas Jefferson. However, it can sometimes be useful to consider the origins of a source in validating it. For instance, when former US President Donald Trump issued his many tweets calling global warming a “hoax”, one must take into consideration the situation he is in as a political candidate answering to his lobbies. This is a relevant point of discussion in an era of fake news.

Claim 2: Personal circumstances affect the validity of knowledge.

Indeed, not everyone can and wants to produce knowledge that is free of personal bias. This is often the case when artists make art. Richard Wagner, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, was influenced by his antisemitic views when creating his works. These became very popular during the Third Reich, as he became one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite composers. Today, there are some who refuse to listen to Wagner’s music and there are some that have dissociated the man from the art. Both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians have used and performed Wagner’s musical compositions over the years. However, listening to Wagner’s music remains problematic, which goes to show how the validity – or in this case the appreciation – of one’s knowledge can be influenced by one’s personal beliefs.

A Tangent: Context

This also raises an important implication with regards to the importance of time on personal circumstances. At the time, Wagner’s artistic knowledge was only validated by the Third Reich. Nevertheless, as time passes and the world heals from the wounds of the Nazi regime Wagner’s knowledge appears to be easier to validate as great art. This implies that the validity of knowledge changes according to the context. It is worthwhile noting that this example also has its limitations due to the subjectivity of assessing the validity of artistic knowledge, compared to historical knowledge which arguably holds more objective truths. That said, it is interesting to think of the role of context in altering society’s perception of personal circumstances.

Claim 3: Context affects the perception of personal circumstances and the validity of knowledge

Joshua Bell – a renowned violinist – went busking in the Metro station in Washington in 2007. “Out of 1,097 people that passed Bell by, only 27 gave any money, and only 7 actually stopped and listened for any length of time”. Bell had in fact, played in the Library of Congress that same week. This demonstrates the importance of context in validating knowledge. This implies that knowledge could become invalid, simply due to a context which does not favor the personal circumstances of the knower. Likewise, this also suggests that invalid knowledge could be promoted because of favorable context. Needless to say, these findings bear considerable implications.

Claim 4: Context does not affect the perception of personal circumstances and the validity of knowledge

There are also examples of people whose personal circumstances have not evolved although the context has, and their knowledge has remained valid. This has been the case for Loung Ung. Having been a witness of the genocide that took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, she has devoted her life to being vocal about her experience and although she has done so in different contexts her knowledge has remained valid.This could largely be due to the fact that Ung’s knowledge is historical and that it arguably holds more objective truths. Nevertheless, there could be potential implications to consider if the perception of one’s personal circumstances remain unchanged through time and space. The fixed label of a Genocide survivor legitimizes Ung as a human rights activist, but not everyone wants to be defined by their personal circumstances wherever they go.

Indeed, not everyone has favorable personal circumstances which is yet another interesting subject to get into. For now, I have tried my best to shed light on what I think is a topic of significant importance. The implications of whether personal circumstances impact the validity of our knowledge are considerable.

Edited by Veda Rodewald, artwork by Lena Cohen Zennou