By Pat Reilly
Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court was a public reminder that the narrative of the powerful is a difficult one to challenge.
Why, for instance, was his submission of a handwritten calendar taken seriously as evidence? Why was Dr. Ford’s accusation and testimony met with the same familiar string of questions that seem to follow any accusation of sexual misconduct despite the psycho-social answers readily available and repeatedly offered: Why didn’t she report it then? Couldn’t she have him confused with someone else? Why can’t she remember all of the background details?
Many factors are at play in any interactions that involve a clear power differential. One of these factors well worth exploring is the notion of epistemic injustice which has been discussed by scholars such as Linda Martín Alcoff, Miranda Fricker, and Rachel McKinnon. Epistemology attempts to answer questions about knowledge, belief, justification, rationality, and related issues.
Recently, these questions have been asked as they relate to the social reality in which any instance of knowing or believing actually occurs. One major result of this trend has been a focus on the importance of testimony (not just in the legal sense of the word). That is, much of what we come to believe comes from what we hear and what we read.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone’s testimony is considered equally credible. Sometimes this is for reasons that relate to how reliable someone really is. But often, it is wholly unrelated to actual reliability. Often, credibility is assigned for reasons of personal and social identity. The same hierarchies that influence so many aspects of life come to bear on testimony as well. Racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression all impact the way that testimony is taken up by hearers and readers, which in turn reinforces those systems. Those with a great deal of social power tend to be given more credibility than they deserve, and those without social power are given less.
Epistemic injustice affects more than just testimony. It can make it difficult for marginalized people to even make their experiences understandable to those with power. Fricker, for instance, points out that, prior to the 1960s, there was no name for the myriad of behaviors we now call sexual harassment. Without a concept to attach to one’s experiences, it becomes extremely difficult to articulate them to others.
Finally, Alcoff points out that those with social power have a motivation, whether conscious or not, to remain ignorant to the injustices occurring around them. Most people do not want to feel complicit in an unjust system, and so it is easier to ignore the situation. We can notice this phenomenon in the backlash against various notions of privilege. It’s worth frequent reflection in our everyday lives, especially if you come from a position of privilege (as I do).
It’s easy to see epistemic injustice at work in many situations. It makes an appearance whenever an accusation of sexual assault is not taken seriously, and it sneaks in when people believe cops by default when they shoot people of color. Any time you’re tempted to believe the side of the story told by the powerful, think carefully about why that is.