Social Justice Usage
Source: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994, pp. pp. 88–89.
Identity politics emerges out of the struggles of oppressed or exploited groups to have a standpoint on which to critique dominant structures, a position that gives purpose and meaning to struggle. Critical pedagogies of liberation respond to these concerns and necessarily embrace experience, confessions and testimony as relevant ways of knowing, as important, vital dimensions of any learning process. Skeptically, Fuss asks, “Does experience of oppression confer special jurisdiction over the right to speak about that oppression?” This is a question that she does not answer. Were it posed to me by students in the classroom, I would ask them to consider whether there is any “special” knowledge to be acquired by hearing oppressed individuals speak from their experience—whether it be of victimization or resistance— that might make one want to create a privileged space for such discussion. Then we might explore ways individuals acquire knowledge about an experience they have not lived, asking ourselves what moral questions are raised when they speak for or about a reality that they do not know experientially, especially if they are speaking about an oppressed group. In classrooms that have been extremely diverse, where I have endeavored to teach material about exploited groups who are not black, I have suggested that if I bring to the class only analytical ways of knowing and someone else brings personal experience, I welcome that knowledge because it will enhance our learning. Also, I share with the class my conviction that if my knowledge is limited, and if someone else brings a combination of facts and experience, then I humble myself and respectfully learn from those who bring this great gift. I can do this without negating the position of authority professors have, since fundamentally I believe that combining the analytical and experiential is a richer way of knowing.
New Discourses Commentary
“Ways of knowing” is another way to say “epistemologies,” which refer to theories of what knowledge is and how it’s produced and transmitted. Specifically, the term “ways of knowing” is used extensively by those who advocate Critical Social Justice, and they seem to mean “ways of knowing that aren’t actually rigorous epistemologies.” That is, “ways of knowing” refers to epistemologies when what is being referred to isn’t really an epistemology at all. (NB: Critical Social Justice’s advocates and its Theory would insist that in this characterization I’m merely excluding alternative ways of knowing from the valid list of epistemologies because of my privilege and dominance, thus power, and to understand this position, readers are referred to the related entry in this encyclopedia for the term “truth.”)
Ways of knowing of interest to the Theory and activism of Critical Social Justice specifically include those that they deem to have been unjustly excluded or marginalized. These include tradition, superstition, storytelling, and emotion. They are considered to have been excluded by white, Western men who established their own (typically Eurocentric, white, and/or masculinist) ways of knowing—like science, reason, logic, and empiricism (see also, master’s tools). Because white, Western men had the power to do so, they have unfairly privileged these approaches and imposed them upon other cultures (see also, colonialism). They did so failing to realize that they’re also just cultural products, while rationalizing them as more valid, more correct, and methodologically stronger than others (see also, meritocracy, positivism, objectivity, white science, white empiricism, reality, and internalized dominance). People (in the West and who have adopted methods from the West – see also, colonialism) are believed to have been socialized by the dominant forces of society (not rigor or utility) to accept that these “cultural products” are in fact superior to others, according to Theory. In some sense, this understanding arises from cultural relativism, but it also has roots in both postmodern Theory and other critical theories. These, respectively, see knowledges wholly as cultural products (see also, Foucauldian, episteme, power-knowledge, racial knowledge, truth, realities, and reality) and intrinsically caught up in issues of justice and injustice (see also, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
Critical Social Justice wants to reverse this state of affairs and forward these “other” (marginalized and excluded) ways of knowing. The usual claim from advocates of Critical Social Justice is that knowledge as we generally conceive of it is merely a cultural product of powerful white, Western men, who then systematically exclude other ways of knowing outside of their own cultural tradition. The demand is to make room for and advance these “other ways of knowing” either by expanding the available set of “shared epistemic resources” (e.g., by engaging in cultural sensitivity, cultural humility, racial humility, cultural relativism, cultural responsiveness, and shutting up and listening), in order to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, or by “decolonizing” the existing knowledge system, its canon, its literature, and its canon (see also, research justice). That is, the claim in Critical Social Justice is that a sort of knowledge equity is necessary to remake the system (see also, revolution), and the way to do this is to include and advance “other ways of knowing” that have been excluded from white, Western, male thought.
As indicated, methodological rigor has essentially nothing to do with the worth of a “way of knowing” (epistemology) in the Theory of Critical Social Justice. In fact, rigor is often construed as a form of white, Western male dominance in knowledge systems. What is relevant, nominally, is the degree to which some other way of knowing has been ignored (marginalized) or excluded by the existing (“white, Western, male”) dominant system—this meaning politically, at least by the influence of hegemony and at worst intentionally (see also, anti-blackness and orientalism). The more marginalized or excluded a “knowledge” and “way of knowing” has been, the more important it is to forward it. Again, it’s validity is irrelevant because “validity” is yet another social construct of those with dominance (see also, episteme and power-knowledge). More accurately, what is relevant is how this claim to marginalization and exclusion can be used as an epistemological cudgel to advance the politics (and often careers) of the radical activists and scholars claiming that we need to forward “other ways of knowing.”
In general, the questions that people are trying to answer with epistemology include “What does it mean to know something?”, “When do we consider ourselves to know something?”, “How is that determined?”. In other words, the central occupation of epistemology is ultimately trying to answer, “What are ‘ways of knowing’?” The approaches that humanity has devised since the Enlightenment have a lot to do with a belief can be considered knowledge when there is sufficient evidence supported by reason to consider it in correspondence with reality, that is, true. A “way of knowing” is considered more valid or rigorous when it employs methods that have been generally more successful in this endeavor than others. The methods of the sciences are considered to be a highly rigorous and successful “way of knowing.”
Critical theories have not necessarily been openly hostile to this in general. The original Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School would have claimed that it is of central importance, though they did reserve skepticism of the politics of the processes involved and advocated that Critical Theory play a complementary role to “Traditional Theory” to ensure that knowledge isn’t merely a reaffirmation of existing biases. Postmodern Theory, on the other hand, took this to a radical extreme and threw more or less all “ways of knowing,” short of direct lived experience, to the winds. Postmodern philosophy essentially believed that knowledge, truth, epistemology, and so on, are always fundamentally political projects, and any correspondence between “truths” produced by them and reality is largely incidental.
Thus, the inheritors of these views in Critical Social Justice today tend to see “lived experience” (especially of oppression), as interpreted either through Theory itself or through some excluded or marginalized interpretive frame (often then re-interpreted through Theory), not only as epistemologically sound as but also as epistemologically more important (not more valid!) than approaches such as science. These, by comparison, are deemed positivist, biased, masculinist, male, sexist, colonialist, imperialist, Eurocentric, Western, white, racist, normative, exclusionary, dominant, and so on, thus in need of devaluing and replacing by “other” ways of knowing. Again, it isn’t even that methodological rigor for them is irrelevant; rather it is that methodological rigor either completely misses the point—political power—or is a part of the fundamental bias that needs to be disrupted and dismantled by radical epistemologies.
Anti-blackness; Bias; Colonialism; Critical; Critical theory; Cultural humility; Cultural relativism; Cultural responsiveness; Cultural sensitivity; Decoloniality; Dismantle; Disrupt; Diversity; Dominance; Engagement; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equity; Eurocentric; Exclusion; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Hegemony; Imperialism; Inclusion; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Justice; Knower; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Masculinism; Master’s tools; Meritocracy; Normative; Objectivity; Oppression; Orientalism; Other; Positivism; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Racial humility; Racial knowledge; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Research justice; Revolution; Sexism (systemic); Shut up and listen; Social construction; Social Justice; Socialization; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; West, the; Western; White; White empiricism; White science
Revision date: 4/21/20