Epistemic injustice and rape culture

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

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

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.

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “Epistemic injustice and rape culture

  1. Conrad

    “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. ”

    That’s a great and important point. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

    “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.”

    I am reminded of the dismissive responses to Scott Aaronson’s writings of his experience as a young nerdy male http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/01/untitled/

    “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. ”

    The opposite of this tendency would be the tendency to disbelieve a man who claims he is being falsely accused of rape. I am genuinely unsure what happens more often (relative to the actual incidence): disbelieving women who say they were raped or disbelieving men who say they are being wrongfully accused. I mean, there have been plenty of high-profile cases where the women were believed (and where people expressing skepticism were dismissed, ridiculed or demonized). I can’t readily think of examples where women were widely disbelieved while later their accounts were proven to be true. (This American Life had an interesting example of this though)

    “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. ”

    Yes, and before I started reading more about these issues I don’t think I had ever really realized how vulnerable/threatened women may feel in these situations.

    “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.”

    Not sure re this. Men face a lot of abuse online too (and i think it is an open question who experiences more abuse online: men or women). And I hardly hear anybody mention or discuss the abuse men face, so it seems that their experiences of this abuse are easily ignored too.

    1. Paul Crider

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I’m not really aware of men facing a lot of abuse online. Do you have a link or anything about this? I’m sure there are areas where men may face abuse, like if they find themselves in a radical feminist forum. But I’m not aware of men–just for being men–facing much abuse in your garden variety comment threads.

      1. Conrad

        e.g. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/04/men-are-harassed-more-than-women-online.html

        Also, it is not clear what percentage of the online abuse of women is committed by men and what percentage by other women (or other genders).

        In general though, there is not much good research on the topic who experiences more online abuse, who experiences the most severe forms of online abuse, and who commits what % of abuse. In discussions and think pieces biased assumptions typically substitute for good research.

  2. Conrad

    ““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.”

    At the same time, if it is constantly asserted that “rape culture” exists, this will certainly negatively impact the way men live their lives too.

    “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. ”

    I don’t think that is the objection. I think the objection is that the concept of “rape culture” is being misused and exploited by e.g. a certain faction of feminists so as to polarize society more and more, to make it seem as if men are more powerful than women in society and that they are implicitly, structurally abusing this power. To the extent that this is true, such behavior makes more difficult genuine dialogue where men and women can talk with each other about their respective experiences, concerns and vulnerabilities and can come to more mutual understanding and appreciation.

    ” 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.”

    It is not so much equivalent to accusing one’s male interlocutors directly of rape but accusing them of being dismissive of the problem of rape, of not caring enough.

    The men’s rights movement is an utterly natural response to the influence militant forms of feminism have in today’s society. Militant feminists and men’s rights activists thrive by fueling conflict and misunderstanding between the genders. I think society would be much better off if we listened less to the (militant feminists’ and men’s rights) extremes in this debate and become more open to talking about and listening to our respective experiences, concerns and vulnerabilities. Women have issues men know and understand way too little about, and men have issues women know and understand way too little about.

    1. Paul Crider

      But if there *is* a rape culture–and I understand you may not want to grant this point–then I think it’s right to bring it forward for discussion. The idea of rape culture can certainly be weaponized (as by some radfems), and used to shut down dialogue. This needs to be avoided. But MRAs also need to be open to the idea that not every mention of rape culture is meant as an attack.

      1. Conrad

        I agree that if there *is* a rape culture it is right to bring it forward for discussion and to do so relentlessly. But you’re right that I do not want to grant that point.

        Yes, MRAs as well as less fringe skeptics of the rape-culture assumption should be open to the idea that not every mention of rape culture is meant as an attack, just as (extremist and more moderate) proponents of the rape-culture assumption should be open to the idea that not every expression of skepticism is meant as an attack.

      2. echo

        You should probably have used non-weaponized examples then, rather than the culture war battles you chose to mention. Have you looked into the history of the “Atheism+” movement that emerged from your first example? It is–and was born as–pure weaponized ideology, and has done nothing but hurt everyone who came into contact with it.

        Casually labeling systems of thought as “injustices” is an attack on the ability of other people to discuss issues in a cultural framework outside of your control. The Rolling Stone case is an excellent example of this, despite your claim that it was simply a matter of journalistic misconduct.
        Journalists did not accuse the people who questioned their story of being “rape denialists, like Holocaust denialists”. That was done by people (or Vogons) who are trying to redefine the concept of “justice” such that “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake”.

        By allowing you to force a weaponizable concept into the conversation, people make themselves vulnerable to those weapons being used against them. Maybe not by you, but definitely by people in your… community.
        Why would anyone be stupid enough to allow that?

  3. Conrad

    Also, I think there is some evidence that we live in the opposite of rape culture.

    You write:

    “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. ”

    Well, take the Rolling Stone UVa article: what I found astonishing was that despite there being several elements in the story that should have raised serious doubts about its veracity the story was widely, almost universally believed. Truly, in the days after the story was first published I think at least 95% of the responses (comments, tweets, blog posts etc) assumed the story to be true. So that is the exact opposite of what you write here: “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. “

    1. Paul Crider

      The Rolling Stone UVA debacle was a case of journalistic misconduct. A journalist covering a story needs to exercise a lot more skepticism and caution than a regular person interacting with people in everyday ways. I don’t think people should be faulted too heavily for taking the facts presented in a credible publication at basically face value.

  4. Conrad

    Not sure about this. For 2 reasons:

    1. The (alleged) facts presented in the article really should have been enough to at least give one pause about the story’s veracity. But people who asked questions/expressed skepticism were attacked and dismissed.

    I understand your point that people can be forgiven for basically taking the story at face value because it was published in a supposedly credible publication. I remember I read the story a day or so after it was published and then emailed a friend saying something to the effect of ‘This is so weird. I simply don’t believe this actually happened, because of reasons a, b and c, but I can’t understand why RS would decide to publish it if it’s false.’

    Also, many of the initial comments on the story made wider claims than just about this specific story’s veracity. Many people were saying even incidents as severe as described in the story are common, that they were not surprised by the story at all. To the extent that people were claiming this, and to the extent such claims are false, we live in the opposite of rape culture.

    2. RS essentially only did what activists and more and more people in the mainstream implore us to do: Believe Survivors! (by which they mean Accusers) Yes, that is journalistic misconduct. But it is strange to hear that accusation coming from the same people who implore others to Believe Survivors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s