I guess this is just a “fuck the transphobes” blog now: big whoop, much intellectual
Very Clive James Indeed
Amongst the better pieces I wrote for my Master’s degree was a short bit about epistemic injustice which, for the laity reading, means I, or rather my rich dad, spent thousands of pounds and a year of worry and stress to show the following for it.
I’ll reproduce the piece itself here, so anybody not up to speed on “epistemic injustice” can hopefully bring themselves up to speed on some of the details, but the basic point is that there are – of course – times when our methods for trying to arrive at the truth are waylaid by defeaters. Lying, dishonesty in general, is one example, but there are other ways that this can happen as well. For example, when a doctor denies painkillers to a black person arriving in A+E  they often do both their patient and themselves the epistemic disservice of trying to find out if they’re suffering from blood diseases to which people of West African descent are particularly susceptible, rather than a junky scrounging codeine.
(“epistemic” means “about knowledge”)
Prompted by all of our ongoing bafflement at the shifting surface geography of TERF twitter that sits uncomfortably on the tectonic plate we lovingly call “transphobia” I was abruptly reminded of the insight I tried to make clear towards the end of that short bit: “being a racist” and “being transphobic” aren’t by themselves epistemic injustices, they’re just straightforward injustices simpliciter.
What’s much more insidious, and specifically counts as an “epistemic” injustice, is when a society, or a collective, or a conversation between supposed peers, can’t even use tools of practical reason (such as the agreed meaning of words, rules of inference, principles) to make sense of the world, politics, anything. The aforementioned doctors are just abusing and misusing those tools in the service of moral injustice, whereas properly epistemic injustice is when one or more parties in a society, collective, conversation, renders them simply inoperable in the first place.
As @christapeterso on twitter has so diligently documented, the transphobe movement currently ascendant in academic philosophy have, intentionally or not, been pursuing this exact project of undermining the possibility of collectively reasoning towards an at least agreeable consensus on the realities and rights of trans people. But the problem seems, to me, less to stem from the moral injustice of being transphobic (which is a common enough prejudice), than from the specifically epistemic injustice of denying the very possibility of collectively reasoning at all about anything to do with the very word “transgender”. What we have instead is Surkov’s world, as illustrated in and by “his” novel Almost Zero  of permanent, manipulated and autonomous distrust and confusion: the injustice of never being able to know at all.
So, for that and other hopefully informative insights, here’s the bit:
(and please, for the sake of those hopefully informative insights, replace “Tom” with “anybody you know who has been transphobed at any point” while you’re reading, if you’re reading)
To what extent is Fricker’s “Testimonial Injustice” a properly epistemic injustice?
Two putative kinds of epistemic injustice Miranda Fricker presents strike me as primarily moral injustices with an epistemic dimension attached, rather than specifically epistemic injustices. Epistemological consequences follow from recognising these injustices, but their vice, in my characterisation of her characterisation, is a moral rather than an epistemic one. At the very least, the epistemological dimension runs parallel to an overriding moral argument that exclusion from a community and objectification by that community are unjust. However, I think there is a case heretofore unconsidered in which Fricker’s account of injustice is a thoroughly epistemic one. I therefore describe her account; argue that it is a primarily moral one; and present a further case which counter-argues that her account can also supply a primarily epistemic injustice.
In her chapter on “Original Significance”, Fricker identifies two putative kinds of epistemic injustice: pre-emptive injustice, whereby some feature of the testifier’s social identity prevents even the solicitation of their testimony; and objectification, whereby the testifier is characterised in such a way that the testifier’s role as a subject – an active and communicative testimonially participating agent – is erased, and replaced by a passive role as a mere source of information: an object. As a subject, a testifier is accorded respect and has attributed to them an active testimonial role to play within a community. Whereas as an object, the testifier is treated with the circumspection of a research target, as with an oscilloscope, or “a felled tree whose age one might glean from the number of rings” (Fricker pp. 144).
Importantly for my following argument, she ties these accounts of injustice to Edward Craig’s “State of Nature conceit” (Fricker pp. 129), such that it is the formation of an epistemic community out of a State of Nature by “pooling” epistemic resources – mutually relying on each other’s epistemic capacities – which governs the virtue of testimonial justice. So the vice of testimonial injustice is a vice whereby one’s right to membership and recognition in that community is unjustly abrogated, since one has a capacity and a right to have one’s testimony considered, and one’s membership of that community recognised as something other than a mere object of investigation. This is violated in cases of testimonial injustice. The background of this is given in the foregoing chapters, where she defends a view of the State of Nature as “the original counterpart of the virtue of testimonial justice”, and the subsequent discussion extends that to the account of these two particular injustices.
Fricker’s account implies a right to participation in an existing community of mutual respect for each others’ status as a subject out of the state of nature. Fricker defers to a literary case to explain her intuitions about epistemic injustice. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a black man, Tom Robinson, is brought to trial for the rape of a young white girl, but his testimony is not taken seriously due to his race, and the testimonial injustice of his treatment is down to that fact: Tom Robinson is not treated as a subject belonging to his testimonial community, his testimony is pre-empted, and he is objectified as a testifier. In short, he is not treated as belonging to a community of testifiers in the way a white man’s testimony would be treated, even given an otherwise similar position, and suffers from both of Fricker’s kinds of testimonial injustice.
But it is therefore implied that the ideal epistemic community exists in order to fulfil a duty to recognise Tom as a subject long before the question arises how to treat his testimony. If it can be shown that Tom’s subjecthood is unjustly abrogated prior to the question of his testimony, it would render the fundamental question at the heart of the example an example of justice qua justice, not purely a question of epistemological virtue. A properly epistemic injustice would have to be delineable from an overarching injustice, as an injustice that has specifically to do with knowledge, rather than e.g. unjust exclusion from a community, objectification simpliciter etc. If this can’t be done then the testimonial injustice is captured by a broader moral injustice, to which epistemic injustice is only incidental.
I do not think that it can be done with Fricker’s presentation. In Tom’s case, his testimony is handled unjustly and also epistemically viciously: he is objectified and his testimony is not taken seriously even though it should be. The townspeople’s behaviour is both epistemically and justicially vicious, but their epistemic viciousness doesn’t quite track their justicial viciousness. Were they to have treated him with testimonial respect, it is true that they would not have failed to be epistemically virtuous, but that epistemic virtue seems to be incidental to whether they would have acted justly. Where they behave unjustly is in failing to treat him with any kind of due respect in the first place.
The townspeople already pre-empt testimonial solicitation from and objectify Tom on the grounds that they do not consider him a properly participating member of their community or even of the human community. This is a crucial theme in the novel. Tom is not just discluded from the field of testimony, he is discluded from any substantive participation in their world at all, with the side-effect that his testimony is treated the same way as anything else of him. Bob Ewell does not simply lie and encourage lies about Tom because he thinks nobody will believe him, or desires that they don’t, he lies because he does not consider Tom worthy of any kind of virtuous treatment, which is brought out when Bob attempts to lynch Tom for a crime he knows Tom has not committed – and this has very little to do with epistemology.
This brings us to the question of inclusion in a community as outlined in the concept of “pooling” as introduced in Fricler’s analysis [for blog readers: “pooling” literally just means “pooling your resources]. On the strongest interpretation, epistemic, though not testimonial, injustice is irrelevant: Tom is simply excluded from a community that fails to recognise his subjecthood simpliciter. As such, testimonial injustice is a special case of moral injustice. But even on the weakest interpretation, the specifically epistemic testimonial injustice that takes place is a mere corollary of a wider pattern of injustice against Tom: he is objectified as, for example, a sexual object, and as an object whose life has no or at least abrogated moral worth; his identity as a black man pre-empts recognition in any sphere, far beyond testimony.
I will not defend the stronger interpretation, but even on the weaker, the primary injustice that Tom suffers is a moral one of unjust exclusion, with testimonial injustice forming only a part of a pattern of injustices that exclude him from deserved recognition, with the associated epistemological injustice forming part of that pattern as well. Not only that, but a significant portion of those injustices are also of the same kind as the testimonial injustices, being forms of objectification and pre-emption, e.g. pre-emption from empathy and moral consideration as mentioned above, objectification as a sexual animal etc.
We have seen how Fricker’s argument as presented could be reduced to a properly moral, rather than epistemological, account of injustice, but this does not preclude her ultimate conclusion that pre-emption and objectification can be properly epistemic injustices. Building on her employment of Craig’s “State of Nature”, we can see how a properly epistemological account of testimonial injustice may emerge, even from the same sort of literary account she uses.
This argument will rest on the notion that the cardinal case of testimonial-epistemic injustice, by Fricker’s own lights, is where no testimonial community exists, rather than where one is excluded from an existing community. I want to note that although I emphasise the difference between exclusion from an existing community vs the absence of any such community as the major difference between Fricker’s case and mine, I do not mean to say that this will always be the dividing line between properly epistemic and properly moral (mistaken for properly epistemic) injustice. Instead I merely want to say that the absence of any such community is a definitive case of properly epistemic injustice, whereas Fricker’s “exclusion” account a la Tom Robinson is more fraught.
Natan Dubovitsky/Vladislav Surkov’s novel Almost Zero describes a fictionalised modern Russia in which the very notion of a community “pooling” its epistemic resources is suspect, in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984. In both these cases no epistemic community exists for an individual belonging to a maligned category to be excluded from. Consequently, the problem as presented in both novels is not the immoral exclusion of an individual from the sphere of communal life, but the impossibility of communal life giving rise to trust. This is brought out especially when one considers Dubitovsky’s dual role as (plausibly, but only plausibly) the chief of propaganda in Putin’s government: Surkov. The novel is (or is not) meta-fictional in both satirising the testimonial confuscation of an epistemologically “managed” country, and being itself an act of managing testimony in that country by means of deliberate confuscation. The novel itself is quite possibly (but not indubitably) a deliberately confuscating intervention into Russia’s testimonial landscape.
Necessarily parenthetical hedges like the above illustrate the situation well. Not only are the characters unable to participate in a testimonial community, but no such community exists, and this situation is quite possibly an invention of a real person who intends by this intervention to perpetuate a reflected state of affairs in the country whose testimonial landscape he intends to disrupt, not least by sowing confusion about his own role in that testimonial landscape. Whether or not it is a biting satire from a disenfranchised observer of or a participant in that confuscation becomes a salient question for the reader, who is therefore further entrenched in deep and justified distrust as to how testimonial participation works in her country. The very conditions for testimonial justice of Fricker’s kind are actively debased in the first instance, rather than merely corrupted or run over by the prejudice which excludes identities like “Black” from due recognition.
So as according to Fricker and Craig’s account, the problem in Almost Zero is no longer the moral question of whether or not one has moral justification for failing to include a testifier in the epistemic community, but the properly epistemic question of how to pool epistemic resources in the first place. This also applies well to objectification: in Dubitovsky-Surkov’s account, subjects are not only immorally objectified in the sense described above, but they are treated as sources for the deliberate sowing of epistemic confuscation. A journalist who putatively opposes the status quo, with all attached confiscation, and martials worthwhile evidence of corruption to defend her case, nonetheless readily takes payment to abjure her own testimony after the fact, therefore rendering herself an object of legitimate testimonial distrust.
At this point, there is not even a possibility of an injustice in distrusting her testimony, and there is no question of a moral injustice if an agent is to disclude her from a putative testimonial community, since there is no such notion. This is exacerbated by Dubitovsky-Surkov’s role: we are invited by the uncertainty about identity to be circumspect about the very tale being told about the teller, which suggests a vicious circle of doubt which even further rules out Fricker/Craig’s defence of testimonial justice on the basis of a community prepared to pool its resources, and renders – unless we are fierce reader-response theorists – our considerations of the vicously satirical unstable. Is Surkov writing to some purpose, to lie to us, from within the Kremlin? Or is Dubitovsky viciously satirising modern Russia from outside the halls of power? This is an important question, for if we cannot even characterise the mode of testimonial transmission, we find we lose any account, even a folk account, of how we should characterise the testimony. [Consider bit about defeaters] And that matters even more if you believe in the power of political satire, as I think Fricker seems to.
I think this renders the Dubitovsky-Surkov case a properly epistemological rather than a moral+epistemological account of injustice: recall that when in the previous case, some moral harm had been committed by the exclusion or objectification of a deserving subject. What characterises this different case is the need for the subject to be able to form a bond to be broken in the first place. We could therefore imagine subjects here as if they were in a state of nature, except that (a) this state of affairs is ruthlessly orchestrated to prevent any “pooling” of epistemic resources and (b) it is orchestrated, such that it is not a state of nature as would comply with Fricker’s account.
But perhaps there is really no such difference between the Almost Zero case and To Kill a Mockingbird: the injustice rests in the exploitation of a thwarted community by its managers, and as such, is a similar case of unjust exclusion from a community. It could be the case that by thwarting the formation of such a community those at the top are performing roughly the same role as the racist townsfolk of To Kill a Mockingbird. But this cannot be the case for Almost Zero, because the managers are bound by their own creation to all of the same silences and detachments as they propagate: to an important extent the system manages itself, and they are lucky enough to benefit from a greater level of social prestige within it, but cannot be said to be running the process of dissociation and exclusion. Several times it is made clear that our anti-hero only does so well because he has exceptional talent for mistrust and for deception. To some extent, then, there is mere moral injustice in using one’s talent for lies to the exploitation of another, but that sits alongside a broader communal pattern of injustices which are properly testimonial, in a reversal of my earlier analysis of Tom’s predicament.
We can see the difference in the solutions to each problem. In our latter case it is not to render equitable, as with Tom Robinson, but to create an epistemic community capable of pooling its resources in the first place. What is unjust in Almost Zero is roughly that testimonial knowledge is not possible for anybody, although it should be, whereas in Fricker’s case the injustice is that testimonial knowledge is very easily possible, since a testimonial community already exists, even though it is not fully realised due to the prejudices of its existing members.
Here I can reasonably be read as having tried to draw a line between moral injustice, testimonial injustice, and epistemic injustice, and demonstrate how they intertwine. Moral injustices certainly overlap with both, but properly epistemic injustice requires a properly epistemic mode in order to not be a mere moral injustice with an epistemic consequence or parallel.
- Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press. Chap. 6
- Lee, Harper (2006). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
- Dubitovsky, Natan (2017). Almost Zero. Inpatient Press, translated by Nino Goji and Nastya Valentine
- “The Emergency Room” for Americans.
- To those not in the know: this is a brutally common practice, even though explicitly barred by e.g. NHS guidelines: there are rules in place which attempt to guide doctors to make more sophisticated decisions than “he’s black, must be a junky”. They are routinely ignored. I know this because I built a spreadsheet about it collating the publicly available data from every single NHS Trust in the South-East of England and it was not fun at all.
- Which by the way is a great read if you’re as anxiety-ridden as me, and like that kind of aesthetic.