In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker describes two kinds of epistemic injustice, testimonial and hermeneutical. They are “epistemic” in that they impact the individual specifically in their capacity as a knower. Fricker argues that since reason is often what is seen to make humans distinct from other species and individuals capable of morality, epistemic injustice harms an individual in a core aspect of their being in addition to various deleterious secondary effects. In this post I want to describe the concepts involved before applying them to the controversial topic du jour, rape culture.
Testimonial injustice is in its simplest formation the injustice a Hearer does to a Teller when, without good reason, Hearer disbelieves the testimony of Teller. This can be incidental or one-off. Suppose in a sportsball match you don’t believe a referee’s call because it results in a penalty for your preferred team. Even though (suppose) the referee was in a better position to judge and you were peering into your beer at the time of the play, you disbelieve the referee. This is merely an incidental testimonial injustice as it is low-stakes for the Teller and localized in its effects.
The more interesting and nefarious case is when testimonial injustice is systemic: individuals belonging to certain identity groups experience a credibility deficit that tracks broader prejudices against that group. Fricker gives the example of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Robinson is accused of raping a white girl and faces an all-white jury in the deep south in the middle of the 20th century. Atticus Finch has provided the jury with overwhelming proof that Robinson is innocent, but stuck between the words of a white girl and a black man, the men of the jury are simply incapable of believing the latter.
Testimonial injustice can be stealthy, as when it takes a preemptive form: members of certain groups may simply not be asked their opinions on certain matters. Or the credibility deficit of certain groups may come from “residual” bias, where we still act according to patterns unconsciously established long ago despite our conscious and earnest belief in the nonsexist, nonracist ideal.
Imagine, for example, a woman who has freed herself of sexist beliefs–a card-carrying feminist, as they say–and yet her psychology remains such that in many contexts she is influenced by a stereotype of women as lacking the requisite authority for political office, so that she tends not to take the word of female political candidates as seriously as that of their male counterparts. Such a conflicted figure exemplifies the phenomenon of (what we might call) residual internalization, whereby a member of a subordinated group continues as host to a sort of half-life for the oppressive ideology, even when her beliefs have genuinely moved on. Sometimes this might simply be a matter of the person’s affective states lagging behind their beliefs (a lapsed Catholic’s guilty conscience, a gay rights activist’s feelings of shame). But other times it can be that cognitive commitments held in our imaginations retain their impact on how we perceive the social world even after any correlative beliefs have faded away. These commitments can linger in our psychology in residual form, lagging behind the progress of belief, so that they retain an influence upon our social perception.
Hermeneutical injustice is a little more complicated. It starts with the notion that as a society we have a common pool of concepts and meanings we can draw from, not only for communication with one another, but also for our own understanding of our own experiences. This interpretive resource evolves naturally, but it tends to tilt to the advantage of groups who have traditionally held greater power and influence, just as literature, textbooks, and jurisprudence all tend to emphasize the experiences of the privileged class. Because of this bias in the common pool of meanings, someone not of the dominant group seeking to understand a situation that feels vaguely unjust may flounder to describe what exactly is wrong and how they should be treated instead.
Since this is clear as mud, let’s go to an example. Fricker discusses the situation of victims of sexual harassment before “sexual harassment” was a commonly accepted and understood concept. If a woman was groped or brushed against “accidentally” or sexually propositioned (jocularly or seriously), she had no name with which to identify what was happening to her. The only available concepts were those favorable to the male point of view: “flirting” or “just having a little fun”. “Rudeness” doesn’t have the same positive spin, but it also obscures what is distinctive about the behavior. “Sexual harassment” as a concept emerged from women’s groups engaging in consciousness raising sessions aimed at getting women to open up about their experiences in a safe environment. Once sexual harassment had a name, women could identify it in their own lives, understand that other women suffered similar harassment, and that they weren’t crazy or overreacting. Once “sexual harassment” existed in the common pool of concepts, it could act as a focal point for analysis, an interpretive nucleation site for various observed behaviors. Acts that were once collectively amorphous could be picked apart or superposed to see if they were actually sexual harassment. Once firmly within the common resource, “sexual harassment” empowered women to construct compelling cases against their harassers where before they could only complain about disparate incidents of boorishness.
But I have come on a bit too strong. “Sexual harassment” doesn’t completely displace “flirting”. The same set of acts in a given situation can be described by either interpretation. This isn’t an idealized, well-controlled science experiment where a single datum can in principle falsify and overthrow one theory in favor of another.* Prior to the consciousness raising that produced the sexual harassment paradigm, all but the most obviously repulsive or violent conduct of men around women would be shoehorned into the available male-privileging paradigms. The linguistic interpretive innovation of “sexual harassment” offered women a more liberatory paradigm, one that opened up avenues to understand and ultimately right wrongs.
Fricker defines hermeneutical injustice as “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization”, where the latter concept refers to the notion of lacking effective participation in contributing to the pool of social meanings. Where testimonial injustice is the condition of not being believed, especially due to prejudice, hermeneutical injustice means not being understood, especially due to structural prejudice. Both forms of injustice fundamentally hurt a person in their capacity as a knower, a contributor to the pool of social knowledge, in addition hurting them in various secondary but potentially serious ways.
The virtues of epistemic justice
Virtues can be understood as correctives to natural inclinations we have to corresponding vices. With this in mind, testimonial justice consists in a trained awareness that members of some groups are often unfairly not believed due to identity prejudice and taking special care to believe these individuals unless strong reasons to do otherwise are at hand. Hermeneutical justice requires fostering awareness that members of marginalized groups may have experiences that aren’t well conveyed by commonly available concepts. These individuals may struggle to describe their experiences in a way that others (and sometimes they themselves) can easily grasp. Justice means going to greater lengths to try to understand these experiences, and to have an open mind to linguistic and conceptual novelties that seem implausible at first. It should go without saying, but like with all virtues judgment is required. People do sometimes lie after all, and not all neologisms from the women’s studies or critical theory departments bear the fruit of their promise.
Rape culture: a case study of epistemic injustice
Epistemic injustices of both kinds come up in rape culture. One of the central characterizing features of rape culture is the tendency to disbelieve a woman who claims to have been raped if her story deviates from the classic stranger-out-of-the-bushes trope. This is a clear case of testimonial injustice. But the credibility deficit goes beyond rape or sexual assault claims to descriptions of the ambient conditions of rape culture. Women are routinely disbelieved or dismissed when they discuss street harassment (“cat-calling”) or when they explain why, say, being propositioned in enclosed spaces is threatening. Many women reasonably believe they can never be sure that such “harmless” or “awkward” behavior is not backed up by violent intentions. But women’s descriptions of this threatening atmosphere fall on deaf ears. Men often dismiss the barrage of rape threats women receive just by being out as women online on the theory that such threats aren’t actionable. Or even that “this is how men talk to each other online too,” as if the situations of men and women reading rape were identical. Testimonial injustice enters in all these cases when women describe the ways they change their behavior to minimize harassment and worse, and when women describe their fatigue (and actual fear) from the onslaught that has a chilling effect on their online speech; men too often don’t understand or don’t believe that women can be so impacted.
The case for hermeneutic injustice in rape culture is a little more tenuous, and I advance it in the spirit of exploration. This account of hermeneutical injustice differs from the case of “sexual harassment” in that “rape culture” does already exist in our vocabulary. What I’m describing here is the process of the conceptual lacuna getting filled in, and its opposition. “Sexual harassment”, after all, didn’t go from nonexistent to accepted overnight, but faced resistance beyond that of a nonpolitical neologism.
The purpose of the term “rape culture” is to discern the broader patterns at play in attitudes toward rape and consent, in the effects these attitudes have on male and female behavior, and in how social institutions interact with these attitudes and behaviors. The existence of rape culture is not something that can be proved or disproved like a mathematical theorem. Instead it is an interpretive framework that, like “sexual harassment” before it, provides a focal point for analyzing experiences of the various manifestations of and threats of sexual violence, and all the social ramifications that follow. “Rape culture” suggests a pernicious macroscopic pattern arises from the interplay between institutions, culture, and individual attitudes and behavior. This pattern significantly negatively impacts how women can live their lives.
But there is a desperate struggle to prevent “rape culture” from taking root in the common pool of epistemic resources. Critics of the term dismiss, misconstrue, evade, and lie about its meaning. Rape culture is often simply dismissed as hyperbolic rhetoric. The claim here is that rape is an terrible crime, but it isn’t so central to our society that the term “rape culture” is warranted. The objection is that the problem of the threat of sexual violence isn’t great enough to meaningfully impact how women (and others disproportionately victimized by sexual violence) actually go about their lives. This can be simple skepticism, but it’s often accompanied by a stiff resistance to the idea that women have privileged awareness of their own experiences and that men might be blind to those experiences. The term is also explained away as a way of getting women to justify to themselves their poor decisions and their consequences.
Then there are the misrepresentations that are deliberate or obtuse. Critics often insist that a “rape culture” must mean that rape is legal or celebrated. Or that it means most men are rapists. A related occurrence is for men involved in the discussions to take personal offense, as if the suggestion that we live in a rape culture is equivalent to accusing one’s male interlocutors directly of rape. This of course shifts the discussion away from the concerns of women (etc) and onto male concerns. Foreign countries are often proffered as “real” rape cultures, as if the concept requires that there be some limited number of such cultures that can qualify. Discussions about rape culture are often evaded by derailing into semantic discussions about the term instead of the phenomenon itself. When the discussion centers on what would constitute a “real” rape culture, then the actual substantive issues of sexual violence, its threats, and its subtle and indirect effects can be lost.
I want to make room for honest skepticism that admits of the realities women (etc) face, but takes some issue with the term for strategic, marketing, or other reasons. Perhaps the shock value of “rape culture” invites the defensive responses described above more than another term might. Or perhaps the diffuseness of the idea works against the principle of individual accountability. Or maybe the term just fails to resonate with the people it needs to resonate with. I suspect the same defensiveness and hostility (rather than simple skepticism) would greet any term offered as a replacement (see the reactions to “patriarchy”). Not everyone will ever be happy with any term that highlights oppression, but that shouldn’t prevent coordinating on language. It’s probably impossible to distinguish skepticism from the hermeneutical injustice I’m describing. I would suggest as a heuristic that the hermeneutical injustice of frustrating coordination on “rape culture” must be accompanied by testimonial injustice: without testimonial injustice in this case, there is no hermeneutical injustice.
*Science, even the “hardest” kind, doesn’t work this way either. See T. Kuhn.