Social Justice Usage
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatia 32(4): 876–892, p. 879, bold added.
Epistemic home terrains must be constantly and vigilantly guarded and defended. Broadly speaking, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback is a form of worldview protection: a willful resistance to knowing that occurs predictably in discussions that threaten a social group’s epistemic home terrain. Defending that terrain is one way for dominant groups to resist “new material that deeply unsettles the paradigms through which they make sense of the world. When ideologies like the myth of meritocracy or their sense of who they are as a person, are deeply unsettled, students will often fall back on various defense mechanisms to try to maintain order” (Case and Cole 2013, in Berila 2016, 95). In practice, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback is a family of cognitive, affective, nonverbal, and discursive tactics that are used habitually to avoid engaging ideas that threaten us. This resistance, as José Medina argues, offers a form of “cognitive self-protection” (Medina 2013, 5). When our sense of self, group identity, core beliefs, and privileged place in the social order is challenged, we adopt defensive postures to resist what we perceive to be destabilizing. Protecting our epistemic terrain requires that we put up barriers made of opinions and prejudices, which are fortified by anger, shame, guilt, indifference, arrogance, jealously, pride, and sometimes silence. These feelings sit in our bodies: our hearts beat faster, our muscles tighten, we scowl, and our minds chatter. Sometimes we shut down completely.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatia 32(4): 876–892, p. 881.
Treating privilege-preserving epistemic pushback as a form of critical engagement validates it and allows it to circulate more freely; this, as I’ll argue later, can do epistemic violence to oppressed groups. For these reasons, we need to be clear about the differences among critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback.
New Discourses Commentary
Social Justice doesn’t allow itself to be contradicted or even disagreed with. In order to ensure that it is never possible for Theory to be wrong, it has filled itself with concepts like privilege-preserving epistemic pushback to cast any potential disagreement in a cynical light, as though it is the product of some kind of specialized ignorance (like various kinds of false consciousness or internalized dominance), inability to tolerate being wrong, or a kind of privilege-rooted depravity, in which privilege intrinsically begets a want to maintain, legitimize, justify, and even increase one’s privilege (see also, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, willful ignorance, shadow text, racial contract, white ignorance, colortalk, and white fragility).
As a species in this menagerie of mind-reading defeater-defeaters, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback claims that when people in dominant groups have their privileged status revealed to them or challenged or are asked to consider the perspectives, lived experiences, ways of knowing, or knowledge(s) of marginalized or oppressed groups (see also, epistemic injustice and epistemic oppression), they react in ways—not necessarily intentionally—that seek to preserve their privilege, largely by attempting to willfully avoid engagement with the material (see also, epistemic friction, racial stress, and racial stamina). This should allow them to avoid confronting their privilege and thus maintain their privileged comfort (see also, white comfort and antiracism). It is also explicitly theorized to do a type of “epistemic violence” to members of oppressed groups.
The purpose of the concept, like the others in the genus, is to always have ready to hand a variety of concepts that can be deployed to shut down any opposition to Theory. Because motivations and intentions are not provable—or more importantly, disprovable—opposition to the Theory of Social Justice can easily be cast as the result of selfish motives rather than the kind of response one might give after clearly understanding the concept at hand. This can even happen without the person realizing it (see also, implicit bias) as a result of having “internalized” dominance or merely having become comfortable in it.
Because of concepts like privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, it can be effectively impossible to argue against, disagree with, or ignore Social Justice moralizing without being accused of suffering some cognitive or moral deficiency that prevents one from being honest about having understood it. That is, within Social Justice, understanding the concepts imply accepting them (thus, failing to accept them implies failure to understand them properly). This seems unlikely to be an accurate understanding of a real concept within ostensibly serious academic philosophy, but it is standard within the critical methods that follow from what was ultimately a forced marriage of Marxian analysis and Freudian psychoanalysis (see also, critical theory).
Ultimately, this concept and ones like it are predictable results of a Theoretical construct that view the world entirely in terms of systemic power dynamics that aren’t perfectly “just,” especially when power is understood in postmodern (specifically, Foucauldian) terms. Under such a view, it is impossible for dominant groups to fully understand the effects of marginalization, oppression, or even their own privilege (see also, positionality and standpoint epistemology), and so it is extremely likely that any explanation of these offered to them would result in a failure to understand. Because this view of power contains the axiom that power always seeks to justify itself, concepts like privilege-preserving epistemic pushback are a natural consequence of the broken Theory underneath them.
Active ignorance; Antiracism; Colortalk; Critical; Critical theory; Dominance; Epistemic friction; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; False consciousness; Implicit bias; Internalized dominance; Justice; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Marxian; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Privilege; Racial contract; Racial stamina; Racial stress; Shadow text; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Systemic power; Theory; Ways of knowing; White comfort; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; Willful ignorance;
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatia 32(4): 876–892, p. 888.
Psychologically speaking, allowing privilege-preserving epistemic pushback to circulate as if it were skepticism or a critical-thinking practice can create a hostile learning environment. Repeated performances of pushback function as microaggressions: words and behaviors that happen in everyday interactions that “send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership” (Sue 2010, 24). In the cases under consideration, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback functions as a form of microaggression called a “microinvalidation,” which happens when words or actions are aimed at excluding or denying a person’s thoughts or feelings about their lived reality.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatia 32(4): 876–892, p. 877.
Classrooms are unlevel knowing fields: contested terrains where knowledge and ignorance are simultaneously produced and circulate with equal vigor. There are constellations of resistances at play here. Dominant groups are accustomed to having an “epistemic home-turf advantage”; that is, we are used to having conversations about racism or sexism in discursive spaces where our perceptions go unchallenged. So, when our epistemic home terrain is under threat, we hold our ground. Consider the white student who is unwilling to hear the testimonies of students of color about the daily injustices they experience as anything more than complaining. Members of marginalized groups also resist: we push back against texts and conversations that distort, erase, or fail to acknowledge our experiences. Consider the Latina who chooses to be silent or to skip class rather than have another conversation about race and immigration with white folks who just want to argue.
As a white feminist philosopher I want to focus on one particular node in this constellation of resistant responses. Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback is a variety of willful ignorance that dominant groups habitually deploy during conversations that are trying to make social injustices visible. I want to work with, not against, this ground-holding reflex by offering a possible strategy for tracking it productively, with the caveat that resistance can be nuanced. It’s not always easy to spot or interpret. I focus on these ground-holding responses because they are pervasive, tenacious, and bear a strong resemblance to critical-thinking practices, and because I believe that their uninterrupted circulation does psychological and epistemic harm to members of marginalized groups.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes,” Hypatia 32(4): 876–892, pp. 879–880.
Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback has a strong normative dimension. Terrain-defending habits partially stem from the feeling that others are challenging the basic sense we have of ourselves as good people living in a basically just world. These are not mere disagreements. As Barbara Applebaum observes, they are discursive strategies deployed to protect our sense of both innocence and goodness; this single-pointed focus obscures our complicity in the subtle workings of white racism (Applebaum 2010, 184–86). Members of dominant groups are more comfortable discussing social justice from the comfort and safety of our epistemic home terrain, so when we are nudged onto a more critical terrain we become disoriented and unsettled. We defend our epistemic home terrain not only for the sake of maintaining our worldview, but also to preserve our perceived entitlement to a racial and gendered comfort that is strongly tied to our sense of being good white folks. When our goodness is threatened we respond by redirecting the conversation back to more comfortable turf. If racialized and gendered locations are always epistemic locations, then racialized and gendered (dis)comfort will always yield epistemic discomfort. So, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback is not only a form of cognitive self-protection, it also helps us to maintain an image we have of ourselves as good people or reliable allies.
The lure of being a good white antiracist or a good male feminist is strongly linked to the desire for ontological wholeness, a form of metaphysical comfort. Robin DiAngelo’s account of “white fragility” has advanced my understanding of the deep and abiding hold metaphysical comfort has on most members of dominant groups’ desire for innocence. White people, she observes, move through social environments in ways that insulate us from race-based anxiety and stress, and this fosters expectations of racial comfort. We have a low tolerance for racial stress. In general, white fragility triggers a constellation of behaviors that work to steer us back to epistemic terrains where we feel whole, comfortable, and good. Consider how white folks repeatedly bolster our metaphysical wholeness with stories about our good deeds, merit-based accomplishments, immigration stories, or the long hours we’ve worked. These narratives keep us whole.
Finally, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback cannot be dismissed as an occasional set of responses from a few random individuals who happen to be uncomfortable with social-justice topics. These responses are predictable, and their regularity points to their historically deep systemic origins. Like all forms of privilege, these discursive patterns are unmarked and circulate subtly. As Beth Berila notes, privilege is the oil in complex systems of domination that help these systems work smoothly. When the works get gummed up, these systems have a “back-up plan that involves built-in, learned reactions that will come flooding in to protect the system of privilege, usually in the form of defensive, so-called resistant reactions… This back-up buffer prevents [us] from really questioning privilege and neatly reroutes [us] back into upholding the system” (Berila 2016, 92). Consider how easy it is to forecast most non-Black people’s responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. The words barely leave our lips before the chorus of “I think all lives matter!” or “Blue lives matter too” fills the room. So, the pushback I have in mind cannot be attributed exclusively to a few stubborn students who are unwilling to leave their epistemic home terrain. The predictability of these discursive moves signals that these forms of privilegeprotection are deeply historical and continue to be culturally active.
Revision date: 1/31/20