Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Listening and Epistemic Injustice

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

So I’ve written a couple of posts about listening. I love that I was writing simply about listening. And honestly, to a great extent, it was about listening. But a couple of conversations on Twitter helped me realize I am really also alluding to some deeper philosophical ideas. And I should capture this while I can so that I can come back and dig deeper later. As I read more about these… I realized the ideas apply to a lot of what I think and talk about in terms of practices that could learn more from feminist and postcolonial and decolonial ways of knowing. And surprisingly, really shockingly, what Virtually Connecting is and can do. Bear with me.

First, someone I don’t know mentioned my comments in 2018 on how I think Women’s ways of knowing should be applied to digital literacies to approach it differently. Thanks to him (Steve Covello) he introduced me to this approach called Legitimation Code Theory

From what I understand, LCT is about making explicit some of the implicit ways knowledge is legitimated… and it seems to also be challenging some of the more traditional ways it is (but I need to read more. The language is confusing but I get the drift).

I got more interested, though, in Miranda Fricker’s notion of Epistemic injustice. Which is not new to me as a concept (first heard of it through Thomas Mboa I think, and have used it loosely) but I was not aware of Fricker per se

So I downloaded a sample book and here is a quick rundown of what blew my mind.

Epistemic injustice is all about hearing/listening and about how some people don’t get heard because the hearer has prejudice against their credibility or because social systems have made it more difficult for them to be understood (hermeneutical epistemic injustice).

  • Examples of testimonial epistemic injustice are police not believing someone coz they are black. My examples: journals editors never passing a paper for review altogether because it comes from Egypt – yes this happens- or academics not considering someone’s views because they don’t have a PhD or are at a community college
  • Examples of hermeneutic injustice given in the book are women experiencing sexual harrassment but not having the language to express it or be understood in the culture they’re in. My examples relate to being a postcolonial scholar and being unable to express exactly how or why some Western theory doesn’t apply to my experience and how difficult sometimes it is to convey this to a Western audience without being deemed lazy or sub-intellectual. Also things like how entire culture’s knowledge is not considered because it does not exist in written form. Or how narrative research building on people’s lived experience is (in some contexts) considered less scientifically valid/valuable than “objective” research by outsiders. Or how much of published knowledge about Africa is created by non-Africans such as for an African to publish about Africa they need to cite those non-Africans, in Western languages, in order to get heard.

This is my interpretation of it. A lot of what I have been saying about listening here and here is about developing a sense and sensitivity of epistemic justice. A lot of what I have been writing about over time related to academia becoming more inclusive of global South scholars and marginal scholars relates to these two things. A lot of what I have been saying about Wikipedia needing to not reproduce epistemic injustice can be explained by these two things *which I have been saying for a while* (who is credible on Wikipedia and has power to decide who else is credible? And what social systems result in Wikipedia’s criteria of what is credible and how does it reproduce inequality and power by using existing knowledge systems that are inherently power imbalanced). It also relates to how I mention things like Women’s ways of Knowing and building both empathy, awareness of bias, and a sense of equity to our critical approaches – because epistemic justice would entail a sensitivity to the ways traditional epistemology and rationality are blinding us to understanding the experience and legitimating the knowledge of others who may have something valuable to add but have historically been marginalized and cannot express their experiences in traditionally framed ways. Not because they have a problem with expression but because the systems were created without their participation…so the systems need fixing.

Let me back up and give some quotes I highlighted from the book sample. So this is just from the intro.

testimonial injustice is caused by prejudice in the economy of credibility; and… hermeneutical injustice is caused by structural prejudice in the economy of collective hermeneutical resources.

(Emphasis mine. Kindle location 28 in sample)

I think this separation at individual and systemic levels is important and our awareness of them (like the difference between bias and othering, maybe?) Is important for how we strive towards righting the injustice.

Another really important quote

power is affecting our functioning as rational subjects; for it eradicates, or at least obscures, the distinction between what we have a reason to think and what mere relations of power are doing to our thinking. (Location 44 in Kindle sample).

I think what I had been thinking of in terms of bad listening relates to this somewhat. Systemic knowledge structures makes it difficult, particularly for the dominant, but also for less conscious once-dominant others to fit radically different ideas into existing schemas for many reasons: they don’t appear in a form or language familiar or considered credible to them. They simply don’t appear frequently enough or in connection to other familiar things, so they don’t stick even if we intend to listen to them.

The book, Fricker, also talks about the importance of situated approaches not just abstract theory. We need to look at how our epsitemic practices create injustice. Situated analyses allow us to look at the interplay of power and epistemic authority.

I want to give more situated accounts of how I interpret all this but I do not have time right now. I will add a couple of quotes before I hit publish, though:

Any claim of injustice must rely on shared ethical intuition,

And for me this is a crucial thing. Nuilding this shared ethical intuition is not easy and requires participation from diverse people in our lives. Something i have argued for for many years.

More on hermeneutical marginalization:

the unequal disadvantage derives from the fact that members of the group that is most disadvantaged by the gap are, in some degree, hermeneutically cally marginalized-that is, they participate unequally in the practices through which social meanings are generated.

our collective forms of understanding are rendered structurally prejudicial in respect of content and/or style: the social experiences of members of hermeneutically marginalized groups are left inadequately conceptualized and so ill-understood, perhaps even by the subjects themselves; and/or attempts at communication made by such groups, where they do have an adequate grip on the content of what they aim to convey, are not heard as rational owing to their expressive style being inadequately understood.

I need to also go an read this book I got earlier last year Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

16 Comments

  1. This statement caught my attention: “Any claim of injustice must rely on shared ethical intuition.”

    I will go out on a limb here and suggest reading the premise behind Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape” [ https://samharris.org/books/the-moral-landscape/ ]. Harris is known more for his criticism of organized religion. And to be frank, he can often be a jerk. I don’t vouch for his personality in so much for his acumen as a thinker and his ability to express his positions clearly and with a strong defense.

    With that caveat expensed, my connection to Harris here has to do with the idea that he proposes a scientific method for moral and ethical inquiry which relies on an empirical, agnostic, and (presumably) non-prejudicial calculation of a “factually based state of human and animal well-being”. He believes that moral relativism is false, which, in my view, has kinship to the “justice relativism” of dismissive power dynamics described on Bali’s post. This Wikipedia entry elaborates [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moral_Landscape ]

    “Harris contends that the only moral framework worth talking about is one where “morally good” things pertain to increases in the “well-being of conscious creatures”. He then argues that, problems with philosophy of science and reason in general notwithstanding, ‘moral questions’ will have objectively right and wrong answers which are grounded in empirical facts about what causes people to flourish.”

    Coming back Bali’s quote: “Any claim of injustice must rely on shared ethical intuition.” How is this shared ethical intuition attained? Part of it would require coming to some mutually agreed upon rule set (to borrow from Thomas P. Barnett) which validates neither party’s subjective claim to moral clarity or legitimacy, i.e. my religion versus your religion, my race versus your race, my history versus your history, my privilege versus your privilege, etc. IMO, those arguments, while valid arguments to make, are waged and ultimately “won” in our current discourse through social and legislative warfare which, I argue, is neither efficient nor conducive to winning hearts and minds towards a great good.

    Rather, Harris suggests that an empirical scientific method can be implemented which would reveal whether well-being (justice) is served under a given set of conditions, given the reality that there are, in his words, universal facts about what enables humans and animals to flourish.

    My intent here is to advance the idea that if there is to be a shared ethical intuition about anything, we would all have to agree upon how that ethical intuition is constructed. Harris’ scientific method aims to achieve that by measuring against universal human needs rather than any particular rule set. I contend that Harris’ focus on well-being is complementary to Bali’s (and other’s) focus on justice.

    • So I actually don’t think that is what I am saying or not what I mean. I actually do believe in some degree of contextual relativism as more important as a stance than universalism. By shared ethical intuition I do not assume we will all agree on a set of rule for all contexts. I assume that for particular situations and contexts, the relevant stakeholders (as broadly defined as possible) have a participatory process by which they understand each other’s ethics enough to develop a similar ethical intuition about that situation/context. This may differ in different contexts for many reasons including a different set of stakeholders involved in a decision. I can give examples later…gotta go now, though.

      • I just want to add that intuition is NOT empirical or scientific… like to me, it is completely NOT that. The intuition is built by knowing the other over time… not investigating or studying scientifically

  2. Luckily, I authored it offline in text doc, so if it was squirted out of the universe like a watermelon seed between your fingers, I still have it. 🙂

  3. I know that you are not. What I am suggesting here is that perceptions of injustice (as you state) are similar to perceptions of moral authority. Harris offers a scientific approach that could also be applied to discussions of injustice. Just a thought.

  4. Just tried it again. Shouldn’t the WP dashboard for Comments allow you to publish specific comments even they are flagged?

  5. Amanda Fricker’s work in this book has been very influential in philosophy circles, for good reason. I really appreciate your thoughtful engagement here. I need to read more of her book myself! I want to figure out more of what I can do as someone who, because of their background and social position, can’t always *hear* what I need to hear. I try, but I am sure I still have silences where I should be listening.

    Another book I’ve been meaning to read is José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-epistemology-of-resistance-9780199929047 Our library has it and I just need to set myself some time to read it (and more of Fricker!).

  6. Thanks for this reference to Fricker. I like the stress on injustice though of course, that also carries the risk of selective focus on injustice that I worry about in femedtech 🙂
    When I read your original tweet, I immediately thought of two sets of writing, both from South Africa. Despite searching my Mendeley and Google Scholar, I can’t find the one that, to my recollection, was about telling stories from Apartheid in the post-Apartheid era. Stories aren’t just told – they also have to be listened to.
    The second one https://innerweb.ukzn.ac.za/scer/Journal%20articles/Le%20Grange%20Theory%20roots.PDF I posted in the last paragraph of blog post in our shared context of rhizo14 https://francesbell.com/bellblog/dimensions-of-power-knowledge-and-rhizomatic-thinking/ where I asked the question “Can we accommodate different ‘knowledges’ on #rhizo14?”
    Reflecting at this point, and in the light of later research, I think our limited success was simultaneously enabled and constrained by social media and algorithmic streams.

    • Thanks Frances. I’ve downloaded that and plan to read it. There’s also literature on decolonization that I want to tie into this and Nancy Fraser’s work on social justice as well. But I am unsure what you mean by “risk of selective focus on injustice”? What would a focus on injustice blind us to?

      • I think a focus on injustice is great as long as it acknowledges the intersectional nature of injustice.So I am very interested in gender inequality but want to remain cognicant of intersecting racial and class inequality.
        And referring to my last sentence in the comment, apparent democratising effects of “connection” may conceal other obstacles to certain less-connected voices being listened to.

        • My understanding of injustice is always intersectional. I had huge problems with critical approaches that focused on just gender, just race, just class, just postcolonial, etc. None of these felt right on their own…and they shouldn’t. Intersections and contexts matter. Identities and power play out differently in different spaces and both the micropower and macropower matter. Connection is, for the most part, full of social capital and tacit power (dunno if that is what it is called?). The social capital and power play in digital spaces may or may not align with macro power and can challenge them….but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a new power dynamic there. It’s like… I mean I know you know this and you’re saying it… I’m just confirming. Sometimes these new power dynamics reproduce others, sometimes a whole new system of power.

          But here’s the thing. For me, democracy is not the ideal I hold digital spaces up to. This may be because I have not experienced political democracy ever and am jaded about the practices of democracy in other countries.

          But perhaps you mean participatory spaces where everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in decisionmaking..and if so, digital spaces usually do give more opportunities for this than more hierarchical spaces offline…but we know the opportunities are still not equitably distributed. Some people with little or no power f2f get it online (so many of us, Bonnie Stewart’s research)… and intersectionality and context matter.

          I also think being a minority in one space influences how we behave in other spaces, even when we have more power in those other spaces. The identity of being minority influences our worldview. Dunno if this is clear or makes sense. I noticed, for example, people with a history of being bullied reacting very aggressively to things many others don’t consider to be threatening. I imagine women who have been abused might be more sensitive to smaller offenses (I don’t know, just imagining).

  7. That’s very interesting what you say about democracy – women have had the vote in the UK for 100 years and they still struggle to achieve equality in many spheres. The democratising effects of the web/Internet were often claimed since the early days of the web but I always felt that they were overstated. I agree with much of what you say. I do feel that (equal) participation and connection are also often overstated. Participation in decision-making and culture formation online can happen but aren’t guaranteed, and not available or sometimes wanted by all. Participation can’t be uniform in online spaces, either within one space or across several spaces. In an aysnchronous space where it’s easy to participate, there will often be more content than we can feasibly engage with, and so participants make choices as they filter content. And if the content is on social media, the algorithmic presentation of content will further influence what is engaged with and how. So blog posts might be posted on Facebook (with some participants reading only the extract published by Facebook) or linked on Twitter. So Facebook et al become agents in decision-making and culture formation eg a less-connected poster might never get their post in others’ streams, and even if they do their less-connected status may influence others in their human filtering.
    Personally, I think it’s quite dangerous to categorise the behaviours of bullied people and compare them with some sort of cultural norm within a group – that seems like a deficit approach to understanding bullying and feeling bullied. Maybe, I’m misunderstanding what you are saying. I didn’t really understand what you meant about being minority in one space.
    My feeling is that we have a lot more work to do to understand better how power works across online spaces and we need to focus on human as well as machine behaviours. I think the work I did with Jenny and Mariana made a contribution but it’s quite difficult to see what influence it has on practice.

    • I think we’re mostly talking along similar lines. Totally agree about ways algorithms filter what we see. I do think a heightened awareness of this can help us overcome some of this influence, but not all (I turned off all of Twitter’s influence on what I see but it still somehow hides some notifications from my notification timeline). I also use Facebook less and differently..but i don’t know if it helps in any way.
      What you mention about online spaces and attention is well taken. I am not even sure if facilitators themselves can keep track enough (in an open online space) to bring less connected voices in.

      The point about being a minority in one space but not another…is what I once told u privately. In rhizo14 I was one of v few ppl of color* from global South. In that space i was well connected but my identity as Egyptian Muslim female doesn’t go away. So my “loudness” as an academic stuck with me because i am used to ppl from my part of the world needing to shout to be heard. As my online presence became more…established(?) I modified my loudness, or at least my own self-amplification.

      *In my country I am not really a minority (well, female, but not religious minority – and not considered a person of color in any way) but in my context at the American university in Cairo I am constantly in the face of American and Western culture and am somewhat part of the neocolonialism that is my institution and at the same time part of the Westernized elite fighting against it…and trying to raise consciousness of students who are Westernized elites. It’s a really complicated situation and really complex in terms of the power dynamics of every interaction and overall. Like a hybrid identity crisis every minute

  8. Thanks Maha. I appreciate your candour – I also find it helpful to reflect on my own behaviour 🙂 Having said that, I think the relational aspects are important – human-machine-human and that ‘s where I hope we can ground our reflections and changes to practice. Changing the machines is challenging though but that’s another story.

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