Social Justice Usage
Source: Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, 26(2), 2011: 238–259, pp. 236–237.
In short, to communicate we all need an audience willing and capable of hearing us. The extent to which entire populations of people can be denied this kind of linguistic reciprocation as a matter of course institutes epistemic violence.
Epistemic violence in testimony is a refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owing to pernicious ignorance. Pernicious ignorance should be understood to refer to any reliable ignorance that, in a given context, harms another person (or set of persons). Reliable ignorance is ignorance that is consistent or follows from a predictable epistemic gap in cognitive resources. According to this definition, a reliable ignorance need not be harmful. For example, taking ignorance as merely indicating a lack of knowledge, a three-year-old child is ordinarily reliably ignorant of voting practices in the state of Michigan. This and other like instances of ignorance are gaps in knowledge that can be reasonably expected in would-be three-year-old knowers. The three-year-old’s reliable ignorance may not necessarily be harmful, however. The mere state of possessing reliable ignorance is not, in itself, harmful, so that identifying harmful, reliable ignorance requires an analysis of context. In fact, identifying pernicious ignorance that leads to an audience failing to meet speaker dependencies in a linguistic exchange is a context-dependent exercise. It requires not only identifying ignorance that would routinely cause an audience to fail to take up speaker dependencies in order to achieve a successful linguistic exchange, but it also requires an analysis of power relations and other contextual factors that make the ignorance identified in that particular circumstance or set of circumstances harmful. … Pernicious ignorance should not be determined solely according to types of ignorance possessed or even one’s culpability in possessing that ignorance, but rather in the ways that ignorance causes or contributes to a harmful practice, in this case, a harmful practice of silencing. Epistemic violence, then, is enacted in a failed linguistic exchange where a speaker fails to communicatively reciprocate owing to pernicious ignorance.
New Discourses Commentary
“Epistemic violence” is a rather extreme term that is, from within the Theory of Critical Social Justice, supposed to characterize the effect of silencing the voices of marginalized groups. It is, quite clearly, an exaggeration of the semantic range of the term “violence,” which is characteristic of both critical theories and postmodernist philosophy (thus, Critical Social Justice, as it is the combination of these lines of thought). In practice as such, the concept of epistemic violence inches our society closer to being able to justify responding to certain non-violent behaviors with violence (see also, tolerance).
The concept of epistemic violence originated with the postcolonial Theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, although it is conceptually attributable to her reading of Michel Foucault and his thoughts on the relationships between knowledge, power, and social control (see also, postmodern, Foucauldian, episteme, power-knowledge, and biopower). In that essay, Spivak is particularly concerned with characterizing the “subaltern,” which is a person of marginalized status who is also provided with no voice, and she characterizes the silencing of the subaltern class as doing epistemic violence to them by removing their ability to speak for themselves on every level—including by destroying their systems of knowledge, beliefs, traditions, and language under colonialist rule—and thus imprisoning them in their oppression (see also, voice and voice of color).
The concept of epistemic violence has been further developed by the black feminist philosopher Kristie Dotson in more recent years. Dotson seeks to characterize epistemic violence as a type of pernicious ignorance that occurs when dominant hearers refuse to meet marginalized speakers “halfway” or on their own or some compromised epistemic turf between them. That is, she characterizes it as a kind of “reliable ignorance” (meaning a kind of ignorance you can expect to be present—or utilized) that does harm specifically through the alleged power dynamics between groups in the situation. Bear in mind, again, that this is Theorized within Critical Social Justice to be a form of violence being done to the allegedly unheard members of oppressed groups.
That last point is one that needs elaboration: being unheard, which is to say the crux of pernicious ignorance in the first place (see, pernicious ignorance). Dotson’s claim is that dominant groups reliably and almost maliciously (as it causes harm) ignore the testimony of members of marginalized groups (see also, testimonial injustice, epistemic injustice, and epistemic oppression) because they do not value them as knowers and do not want to value them as knowers. This status is explained to be because admitting different, excluded, and marginalized knowledge(s) would necessarily upset the existing power dynamics that benefit the dominant groups (see also, privilege, internalized dominance, ideology, hegemony, patriarchy, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and white supremacy, and also, active ignorance, willful ignorance, white ignorance, white equilibrium, white comfort, and racial stress, and also, science, liberalism, human nature, individualism, and universalism).
The key thing to understand, as can be read in the examples below, is that according to Dotson’s formulation, epistemic violence can occur without any intention to do violence, so long as pernicious ignorance results in some form of harm being done to a marginalized group, particularly in terms of their status as knowers (see also, impact versus intent). This leaves open a door to a very highly interpretive means of assessing when violence has been done to a member of what has been Theorized as an already vulnerable group—for instance, as in Ibram X. Kendi’s (rather daft) understanding of policy, which states that public policy is to be deemed either racist or antiracist, with no middle ground possible, analyzed ex post based upon its resulting impacts on racially minoritized groups. In the case where the policy generates or even allows racially disparate outcomes, that policy would be deemed “racist,” and under the given understanding of epistemic violence, the people who crafted and implemented the policy could be credibly accused of having done a form of violence to those marginalized groups and its members. This is probably not a wise way to proceed.
Active ignorance; Antiracism; Biopower; Black feminism; Cisnormativity; Colonialism; Critical; Critical Theory; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Exclusion; Foucauldian; Harm; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Human nature; Ideology; Impact versus intent; Individualism; Internalized dominance; Knower; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Marginalization; Minoritize; Oppression; Patriarchy; Pernicious ignorance; Postcolonial Theory; Postmodern; Power (systemic); Power-knowledge; Privilege; Racial stress; Racism (systemic); Science; Silence; Social Justice; Subaltern; Testimonial injustice; Theory; Tolerance; Universalism; Violence; Voice; Voice of color; White comfort; White equilibrium; White ignorance; White supremacy; Willful ignorance
Source: Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, 26(2), 2011: 236–257, pp. 241–242.[A] person who possesses a reliable ignorance possesses an insensitivity to, or abject failure to detect, truth with respect to some domain of knowledge. That is to say, the state of reliable ignorance insures that an epistemic agent will consistently fail to track certain truths. If this failure to track the truth also happens to cause harm, then it is a pernicious ignorance. Pernicious ignorance that causes failures in linguistic exchanges constitutes epistemic violence, on my account, not simply because of the harm one suffers as a result, but because epistemic violence institutes a practice of silencing. If left unaddressed, epistemic violence and the resulting practices of silencing will continue, whereas instances of silencing may occur only once and never again. This is not to say that an instance of silencing is not harmful, but that epistemic violence concerns a practice of silencing that is harmful and reliable.
At this point, a robust understanding of epistemic violence can be articulated. Epistemic violence is a failure of an audience to communicatively reciprocate, either intentionally or unintentionally, in linguistic exchanges owning to pernicious ignorance. Pernicious ignorance is a reliable ignorance or a counterfactual incompetence that, in a given context, is harmful. Children are not exempt from demonstrating pernicious ignorance and, thereby, are not exempt from acting in ways that are epistemically violent. Intentions and culpability do not determine epistemic violence in testimony. Reliable ignorance, harm, and the failed linguistic exchange itself determine epistemic violence. It is in mapping the ways in which epistemic violence is enacted by an audience against a speaker, or where audiences do not meet a speaker’s dependencies (that is, do not adequately meet the demands of reciprocity in a successful linguistic exchange) due to pernicious ignorance, that we can begin to track practices of silencing with greater detail and precision.
Source: Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, 26(2), 2011: 236–257, pp. 236–237.
Gayatri Spivak uses the term ‘‘epistemic violence’’ in her text, ‘‘Can the Subaltern Speak?,’’ as a way of marking the silencing of marginalized groups. For Spivak, ‘‘general, nonspecialists,’’ ‘‘the illiterate peasantry,’’ ‘‘the tribals,’’ and the ‘‘lowest strata of the urban subproletariat’’ (Spivak 1998, 282–83) are populations that are routinely silenced or subjected to epistemic violence. An epistemic side of colonialism is the devastating effect of the ‘‘disappearing’’ of knowledge, where local or provincial knowledge is dismissed due to privileging alternative, often Western, epistemic practices. Spivak’s account of ‘‘subaltern classes’’ has come under fire, but her insight into the difficulties of addressing a type of violence that attempts to eliminate knowledge possessed by marginal subjects is still useful today. As she highlights, one method of executing epistemic violence is to damage a given group’s ability to speak and be heard. Because of Spivak’s work and the work of other philosophers, the reality that members of oppressed groups can be silenced by virtue of group membership is widely recognized. Much has been said about the existence of silencing, though relatively little has been done to provide an on-the-ground account of the different ways members of oppressed groups are silenced. This paper is a step toward providing a mechanism for identifying on-the-ground practices of silencing.
I claim that attempting to give a reading of epistemic violence in circumstances where silencing occurs can help distinguish the different ways members of oppressed groups are silenced with respect to giving testimony. I will demonstrate this claim by first offering an account of epistemic violence as it occurs in testimony that can be used to demarcate practices of silencing. Second, I will use this definition of epistemic violence to identify two different practices of silencing testimony offered from oppressed positions in society. The two kinds of silencing I will identify are testimonial quieting and testimonial smothering. I claim that these two practices of silencing are predicated upon different formations of epistemic violence within a testimonial exchange. It is by locating the forms of epistemic violence in silencing that we can begin to delineate, with contextual detail, practices of silencing on the ground.
Revision date: 7/13/20