Mistrust and Misunderstanding

Featured image is The Weighing of the Heart Ritual, from the Book of the Dead of Sesostris.

There’s a path dependence to trust. We trust the people we already know, we guess at the trustworthiness of people we meet for the first time based on what we’ve learned from people we already trust.

There’s a path dependence to understanding. Our pre-established understanding of our situation, and the range of possible situations we might encounter, heavily influences how we read each new situation we enter into.

There are political implications for each. To extend our trust is to empower, to withhold it is to deny options or access. To read a situation one way means to affirm that some responses to it are called for, and deny others.

These things cannot be profitably examined apart from one another for long. How we understand the games that life throws us into is the basis of who we trust, but the web of trust we are within is what pulls us into the specific games we find ourselves playing, and shapes our understanding.

We understand our situation based in part on what we are told by peers, family, and authorities (such as teachers when we are children), because we see them as peers, family, and authorities. Our understanding is shaped by trust which is shaped by our understanding.

To extend our trust is ultimately to make a leap of faith, whatever our understanding of the person and their role. We are always capable of making that leap, to trust people we’re initially inclined to believe are untrustworthy.

When we analyze these things in merely formal terms, it’s hard to understand how we can ever grow beyond our initial position. Faith and spirit do not lend themselves very readily to formal treatment. A good faith effort at conversation, approached in a spirit of openness to the new and unfamiliar, likely contains no formal differences from its opposite. Anything we can take as a signal of good faith or openness can just as easily be interpreted as a cynical maneuver to get an interlocutor to let their guard down.

One can understand, then, why many people think Gadamer is simply doubling down on the cage of our nature when he affirms the power of tradition:

That which has been sanctioned by tradition and custom has an authority that is nameless, and our finite historical being is marked by the fact that the authority of what has been handed down to us—and not just what is clearly grounded—always has power over our attitudes and behavior.

When in reality few are more optimistic about our ability to reach new understandings than Gadamer:

The fact that we move in a linguistic world and grow up into the world through an experience preformed by language does not at all remove the possibilities of critique. On the contrary, the possibility of going beyond our conventions and beyond all those experiences that are schematized in advance opens up before us once we find ourselves, in conversation with others, faced with opposed thinkers, with new critical tests, with new experiences. Fundamentally in our world the issue is always the same as it was in the beginning: in language we are trained in conventions and social norms behind which there are always economic and hegemonic interests. But this is precisely the world that we as humans experience: in it we rely on our faculty of judgment, that is, on the possibility of our taking a critical stance with regard to every convention.

It may seem like a paradox, but it is precisely our starting point, path dependency and all, that makes it possible for us to arrive at understandings which are radically different from them. You cannot go on a long journey without starting from somewhere—but obviously your starting point makes some end points more or less likely.

I agree with Paul that the essentially contested nature of trust and understanding have, as I said above, political implications. He draws on the work of Miranda Fricker, who shows her debt to Rawls by making justice the prism through which the political is viewed. But justice—that is, determining who is owed what, and how much, and in what way—is not prior to the hermeneutic problem. It is rather the other way around. The very notion of justice is “sanctioned by tradition and custom” with “an authority which is nameless”. We can see this clearly in Fricker’s formulation, which presupposes the heritage of late 20th century liberalism. We cannot get around the thrownness of our understanding by appealing to some notion of justice intended to stand outside of it. No understanding can stand outside of this thrownness.

It seems trivially true that our webs of trust and the understandings that make them possible create relationships of domination. But we should not be seduced into thinking that such relationships are one-directional; the dominion of the cartel of mutual trust against the untrusted. The narrative of the hegemony over the narratives of the oppressed. No, just as often trust and heterodox narratives are weaponized against the trusting and the orthodox.

The Catholic priest abuse scandal was just a special case of the basic fact that the people we trust are overwhelmingly the most likely to hurt and exploit us. According to one source, 68% of child abuse cases are perpetrated by a family member, and 90% are done by someone the child knows. Priests and other high status officials in a community command a trust that is dangerous not only because potential victims let their guard down, but because victims are by default less credible than the victimizers.

Moreover, any understanding can become a tool of domination. Look at the communists. They believed that they had the one, true understanding, which would allow them to overthrow exploitation. How’d that work out for them?

When we demand that people yield to our understanding over theirs, when we claim that ours is the path to righteousness and theirs is a pretense for protecting their interests, this can be described as an attempt to dominate. After all, our reading of a situation has political implications—and so rhetoric, ethics, and politics can all be collapsed into various struggles for power. If we choose to embrace cynicism whole cloth.

Acknowledging the truth of all this while avoiding vulgar cynicism requires, I think, an embrace of faith and of spirit. As I said elsewhere:

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

Whether or not a given conversation, a decision to extend or withhold trust, to spend our time trying to understand something new or simply apply what we already understand—whether any of these are better treated cynically or idealistically depends upon the spirit in which they are pursued. We cannot trust everyone, and we cannot understand everything. We cannot even completely understand the concepts we are already most familiar with; our time on this Earth is simply too short, and our concepts are too rich in implications and too broadly interconnected with other concepts.

Every attempt to abolish privileged (or prestigious) roles or frameworks will fail, because it is in the nature of the game to create such privileges. To put it differently, they are a necessary part of how humans act in concert; we could not achieve our greatest accomplishments without making ourselves vulnerable to our worst abuses.

So I must conclude that Fricker draws some useful distinctions, but the direction of her inquiry (as Paul represents it in any case) seems wrongheaded. The problem is much larger than whether or not we have good reasons to mistrust someone, or whether we misunderstand the plight of the oppressed because we haven’t formulated enough concepts.

But that’s probably just a convenient fiction I am holding onto in order to advance the hegemony of my web of trust.

5 thoughts on “Mistrust and Misunderstanding

  1. Paul Crider

    Thanks for the excellent response, Adam. I basically agree with the central thrust, that good faith is essential to any attempt at conversation, and any attempt at relationship.

    “After all, our reading of a situation has political implications—and so rhetoric, ethics, and politics can all be collapsed into various struggles for power. If we choose to embrace cynicism whole cloth.”

    This is totally correct, and it’s a point I often want to make but rarely make so well. Likewise your point that heterodox and critical narratives can be weaponized is on target. My major concern with my post was that I didn’t allow enough wiggle room in my discussion of the hermeneutical injustice of rape culture to admit honest skeptics.

  2. Paul Crider

    But I think you make quite a few leaps in your post, and not necessarily of the good faith kind. It certainly wasn’t my intention to portray Fricker or her ideas as nearly as totalizing as you’ve interpreted them to be. Fricker doesn’t present her theory of epistemic injustice as anything like the one true evil that must be overcome to end privilege and oppression. Her book is just a discussion of the specifically epistemic dimensions of privilege and identity prejudice, which she, I, and (I think, probably?) you all acknowledge are real.

    You approvingly quote Gadamer as saying that we can take “a critical stance with regard to every convention.” But I worry that you don’t actually take this seriously. After all, this is all Fricker is doing. She is absolutely not reducing our dialogue and relationships to nothing but cynical power relations. She is beginning with our relations and conversations as they currently exist and she’s highlighting a subtle way they can exhibit a lack of faith, though this lack of faith is not always intended. This is why she lays out new virtues–self-critical stances to cultivate–to correct the problems she’s identified. She does this instead of condemning or trying to silence anyone, or demanding a whole political program to “abolish privilege”, as you say.

    The biggest leap you made was your paragraph about Fricker’s debt to 20th century liberalism. While I grant that my section on hermeneutical injustice in rape culture invited the interpretation that Fricker is some kind of radical, nothing I wrote implied anything about Fricker drawing on Rawls. Rawls doesn’t even appear in the index. And she explicitly avoids the “distributive” paradigm of justice. She doesn’t present or presuppose any particular theory of justice at all. She takes the opposite strategy of Rawls in that she begins not with justice, but with injustice, and tries to infer something about justice from analyzing injustice. Her prism is a basically Aristotelian virtue framework concerned with flourishing. Virtues of judiciously navigating between extremes in a world of multipolar obligations, values, desires, etc seem entirely compatible with your idea of being “thrown” into a set of complexly nested and interweaving games. Justice *is* still a virtue, right, and not just a Rawlsian dog whistle? 🙂

    1. Hmmm…it probably would help to retrace my steps a bit here.

      Let me start with what I see as highly representative examples of what Fricker’s trying to get at with each form of injustice.

      Testimonial injustice: not trusting someone because they are black.

      Hermeneutical injustice: there being no legal recourse or even understanding of marital rape because, before a certain time, marriage by definition was understood to be consent.

      Starting from examples like these, she attempts to formulate general concepts for each type of injustice.

      One issue is that it seems to imply that, by default, we *owe* people our trust. I wanted to subvert this by showing that it is often the trusting who are exploited.

      It’s harder to articulate what is owed in the hermeneutical case (Fricker’s definition is a mouthful) but I wanted to subvert what she was saying by showing that often “collective understandings” held only by a minority are often more dangerous than status quo ones. That doesn’t directly subvert her argument, but I think it might get at the *spirit* of what she was arguing, if you follow me—it seemed there was an implicit framework in which the needs of special groups get ignored because it isn’t convenient to have a broadly held narrative about them (or something). That’s probably not fair, but it was a thread I thought I saw there, so I pulled.

      That pointed (in my mind) toward the whole debate about rationalizing the status quo vs critical frameworks like Marxism or feminism, and then the postmodern critique of all of it as power relations, and so I pursued that, but not because I thought she was herself that kind of cynic. Sorry if I gave that impression! I just like one-liners 🙂

      I understand she wasn’t writing some magnum opus theory of everything. But I do think that approaching trust or understanding from the angle of justice is not the best starting place (even if you’re backing into it via injustice). Unless you can talk meaningfully about what good reasons are for trusting (or mistrusting) or believing a given understanding, etc, I don’t know how you could jump right into a theory of mistrusting-as-injustice. But maybe that isn’t fair—after all, I agree that the example she gives *is* an injustice. So I don’t deny that testimonial injustice exists. I’m more skeptical of hermeneutic injustice, which is what *really* seems to open up the can of worms.

      Perhaps we could formulate hermeneutic *justice* as the notion that we deserve to be understood. But it’s not clear how that’s a thing that can be deserved—that is, it’s a pretty hard problem, understanding one another! I don’t know how you can talk about what’s justice or injustice in this arena without just going whole hog into hermeneutics.

      Sorry for the Rawlsian dog whistling 🙂 it’s not that I thought she bought into this theory, so much as I think his influence is a big part of why analytic philosophers try to understand so many disparate things in terms of justice.

      1. Paul Crider

        Thanks Adam. That clarifies a lot, actually. Trust by its nature creates vulnerability, so it is often the trusting that are exploited. I agree.

        On trying to understand trust from the starting point of justice, I agree with you in general. Trust shouldn’t *always* be analyzed in terms of justice. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t aspects of trust that do involve justice. This gets back to that old chestnut, the unity of virtue.

  3. echo

    That was certainly refreshing to read, thank you. I have to admit Crider’s article left a rather awful aftertaste.

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