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.