Narrative and Epistemic Injustice – An Introduction

Narrative and Epistemic Injustice 

An Introduction

Based on observable epistemic injustices throughout society there is a strong/urgent case to be made for improving epistemological awareness for the betterment of humanity.

What happens when humanity finds itself awash in a sea of information? Engulfed by prolific social media that collect personal artifacts, social media that knows individuals better than they know themselves. What does it mean to be uniquely human in a setting like that? And what does it mean to critically assess competing narratives in all aspects of life; politics, religion, capitalism, communism, news, advertising, to name a few. When competing narratives are vying for power, is injustice in the distribution and understanding of those narratives not the inevitable result? Are there unwitting participants? Both willing or unwillingly ignorant and capable of being manipulated to the advantage of political, economic or religious power brokers? Are people who lack the requisite context, language and means to understand not necessarily and largely defenselessly exposed to cleverly designed narratives? In a world where the many find themselves living in various replicas of Plato’s cave, can epistemological justice be evoked to remove the scales from their eyes? 

It is my contention that such epistemological and hermeneutical justice is imperative to enable fully human existence and that, consequently, a disruption of the epistemological status quo is needed. Little by little, awareness of context, the power of language and clarity of what it means to interpret increasingly need to be made available to all people, thereby promoting well lived lives. What is needed is nothing less than the recovery of narrative as part of the art of knowing and understanding.   

I am going to build off the work of Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.[1] She defines epistemological and hermeneutical injustice as follows, “Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.” It is no secret that the dissemination of stories and claims that fundamentally lack credibility have only become possible through the prevalence of social platforms such as Facebook. When such platforms approach the task of fact checking political adds, for instance anemically, that important responsibility is simply passed on to the end user. Regrettably, those users appear to be increasingly less able to be able to live up to that task. Consequently, so called alternative facts and narratives are now able to take on the mantle of credibility. Their destructive power, at this point, is exponentially increased.

For epistemologically and hermeneutically justice to be instated, just and authentically human paradigms of knowing and pedagogy need to be imagined creatively and innovatively. An epistemological and existential crisis has to be sparked by a disruption in knowing, in how to know. The “knower” needs to be empowered to question, to look for context, to deploy language meaningfully and to comprehend reality credibly. 

Prominent examples of where epistemological injustice has occurred in recent history include, the use of mis-information to justify the U.S. led invasion of Iraq; the torture of suspected Al-Quada leadership with a few to creating alternative narratives of truth for the end consumer, the 2016 U.S. election that involved both, domestic campaigns of mis-information and foreign interference, the U.S. embargo against Cuba ostensibly for purposes of pressuring and helping the private citizens of Cuba, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth; and the willful confusion of biblical theology and conservative or right wing politics in the context of evangelical churches in the U.S.. All of the above have their genesis in competing narratives for dominance, with little regard for truth. Truth, apparently, is no longer the issue. Instead the focus has shifted to realpolitik and the pragmatism of power. Gustave Le Bon impressively discusses what happens when polarized crowds are at odds with each other, “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” [2]

What would the process of dissecting any given narrative look like? What tools would be needed to make sense of reality? 

I propose to use the tools visual ethnography.[3] By asking a wide range of individuals a series of epistemologically motivated questions, I hope to construct a meaningful snapshot of epistemological and hermeneutical awareness. I plan to do so in Duluth, Minnesota at a Starbucks, the UMD Campus, Curly’s Bar, the street, Cuban exiles in Miami, Florida as well as Cuban citizens in Havana, Cuba. My visual ethnography tool, besides interviews, is photography. In this manner, the verbal discourse that emerges from the interviews will properly localized visually. 

I also propose to use speech act theory as a tool for interpreting narratives, thereby examining how locutionary acts, illocutionary acts, and/or perlocutionary acts are able to shed light on cultural meaning and understanding. The importance of this endeavor is powerfully illustrated  by Anthony C. Thiselton in New Horizons in Hermeneutics[4]specifically when he quotes Emilio Betti, “For humankind, nothing lies so close to the heart as understanding one’s fellow human being.” Thiselton goes on to write, “This process entails a recognition of the limits of my own understanding, and learning to listen, with patience and respect, not only to what the other person says, but also to why the other person says it.” Paul Ricoeur in Hermeneutics and Human Sciences[5] writes, “Here I should like to propose that hermeneutics has to appeal not only to linguistics…. but also to the theory of the speech-act such as we find it in Austin and Searle. The act of speaking, according to these authors, is constituted by a hierarchy of subordinate acts which are distributed on three levels: (1) the level of the locutionary or propositional act, the act of saying; (2) the level of the illocutionary act or force, that which we do in saying; and (3) the level of perlocutionary act, that which we do by saying.”

I will also use critical realism to attempt to bridge the gap between positivism and phenomenology. Critical realism is located both, between those two ends of the spectrum, as well as being offset from the axis that connects them. It is “realism” to the extent that it expresses sympathy with a view that reality exists externally to the mind, while at the same time not succumbing to what has become known as naïve realism. Having said that, it is also indebted to phenomenalism at least to a degree, in that it insists that reality can only ever be understood subjectively. Such understanding can never be proven. On the plus side, and as a celebration of true humanity, the necessity of subjectivity in understanding enables change and transformation in human beings. To that extent it is fundamentally human. Positivism, on the other hand is neither interested in or capable of understanding this. In Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Baskar’s Philosophy[6] Andrew Collier writes, “Bhaskar’s work offers us the possibility of a new beginning. This is so, in the first place, because it avoids the alternatives of irrationalism and a positivistic conception of rationality, which dilemma has beset modern philosophy. On the one hand, it is committed to unfettered reasoning, to a belief that science can give us real insights into the nature of things, and to an interest in the potential of reason and science for human emancipation….On the other hand, Bhaskar avoids ‘foundationalism’ of most of the thought stemming from the Enlightenment, the belief that reason and/or sense experience could provide out of their own resources, abstracted from any historical and social context, foundations for the edifice of knowledge – and indubitable foundations at that.”  

Critical realism attempts to break out of the very epistemological paradigm that has created gridlock in the conversations between the liberal left and conservative right. Ironically, they are both arguing from the same basic epistemological framework, while, on the other hand, reaching opposite conclusions of content. Effectively, they are dancing to the same tune, but they are certainly dancing differently. This dichotomy goes to the very heart of our inability to make sense of cultural realities and to distinguish truth in competing narratives. Nothing less than our shared humanity is in peril. Bhaskar writes about societies, “I shall concentrate first on the ontological question of the properties that societies possess, before shifting to the epistemological question of how these properties make them possible objects of knowledge for us. This is not an arbitrary order of development. It reflects the condition that, for transcendental realism, it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us; that, in nature, it is humanity that is contingent and knowledge, so to speak, accidental.”[7]

In light of the above, how can we succeed in creating an innovative challenge in knowing differently and in knowing better? For now, I am pursuing this conversation on my blog[8]. I have also been asked by my friend and public speaker Maria French, the director of Hatchery & Co. to teach an online class on this very matter in January/February 2020. Also, as Warehouse Theology progresses under the leadership of Dr. Moritz, I am looking forward to teaching further classes that pursue the ideas foreshadowed here. Meanwhile, my visual ethnographic project will be extended to include more people and more locations.

Appendix A: Interview Questions

First Name:

Age:

Gender:

Education:

Can I take your photo:

  1. Who is the President of the United States of America?
  2. Who is the President of Russia?
  3. Who is Billie Ellish?
  4. Who won the Super Bowl in 2019?
  5. Do you have:
    1. Facebook
    1. Instagram
    1. Twitter
    1. Snapchat
    1. TikToc
    1. Twitter
    1. YouTube Channel
  6. Who is Mark Zuckerberg?
  7. How many books have you read in the last year?
    1. 1-5
    1. 5-10
    1. 10 or more
  8. Is there a God?
  9. What tv news shows do you watch?
  10. How do you identify politically?
  11. Did you vote in the last election 2018?
  12. Did you vote in last Presidential election 2016?
  13. Do you think truth is fixed or fluid?
  14. Do you go to church?
  15. Are most issues black, white or gray?
  16. How do you know what you know?
  17. How do you interpret life?
  18. What is truer – a fiction or non-fiction book?
  19. How many foreign countries have you visited?
  20. Do you have a passport?
  21. Does education help or hinder one’s understanding of his/her experiences?
  22. What is most real/true for you?
  23. What do you most value?
  24. What are you grateful for?
  25. What does epistemology mean?
  26. What does hermeneutics mean?
  27. Are you interested in thinking about why you know what you know?
  28. Are you interested in thinking about how you interpret what you experience?
  29. In your opinion are there more than two genders?
  30. Is gender fixed or fluid?

[1] Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). p.1.

[2] LeBon, Gustave, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002).

[3] See proposed question in Appendix A

[4] Thiselton, Anthony C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992). p.33.

[5] Ricoeur, Paul, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. & trans. by Thompson B. John (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016). p.161.

[6] Collier, Andrew, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (London, New York: Verso, 1994). p. ix.

[7] Collier, Andrew. p.137.

[8] https://thefaceofhumanity.blog

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