Testimonial Injustice

this paper is the exact transcript of an Arthur writer’s speech at the Trent Philosopy Symposium 2012

 Throughout the course of my paper I want to defend my coverage of the Curve Lake pow wow while offering a description of testimonial injustice and how it relates to identity politics and the formulation of positive epistemic communities. First will be a definition of testimonial injustice and an introduction to my example, the cover of Arthur, issue 3. Then the difference made clear between objectization and objectification, two very different terms with very different connotations. After that I will describe Fricker’s dependance on a Kantian “ends in themselves” ethic and his equating the rational with the ethical. Another key distinction of Fricker’s will be made between an informer versus a source of knowledge. How these concepts are used in a sort of reality creation, epistemic organization and the essentialist pitfalls in these frameworks will then be brought to bear on the issue testimonial injustice. And then finally I’ll further complicate the idea of essentializing identity when entering into a broader epistemic conversation.

Testimonial injustice occurs when human rationality is undermined and identity power excludes contributions to a greater body of knowledge. When identity politics alienate certain peoples’ experiences, it creates isolated pockets of knowledge instead of a general body of knowledge. In some cases, the suppressed identity driven knowledge communities take on either the oppressive nature of the dominant knowledge community or in an attempt to contribute to the dominant knowledge community, suppresses its own experience. Fricker describes this process as: “powerless social groups [that] might be deprived of opportunities to contribute their points of view to the pool of collective understanding”.

A good example of a testimonial injustice claim is the controversy surrounding my news coverage of the Curve Lake pow wow. The Community Race Relations Committee accused me of suppressing the indigenous experience of the event by indulging in my own experience of it, thus representing the entire Trent community as “ignorant settlers.” The claim, as I understand it in the language of testimonial injustice, is that I work within a “pool of collective understanding” that excludes Indigenous Knowledge and therefore any attempts at objective, telegraphic style news coverage is going to exclude the experiences of the “those social groups who are subject to identity prejudice.”

The process of objectization that Fricker describes helps to understand how this happens. Objectization is when an individual’s subjective experience is held out into the world via self expression (language, art) and the experience of their presence by others, thus wrapping said subjective experience in many layers of interpretation. In this the original subjective experience becomes unnecessary to the understanding of the experience. You experience as a subject, but you are seen as an object. So the way in which you experience the world may not line up with the overall experience of the dominant knowledge community, thus rendering your epistemic contributions obscured or invisible. And in the same way, you are interpreting the experience of others as objects.

Fricker looks to Kant to make the point that this does not have to be a problem ethically because as long as we respect others as rational agents with goals, projects and means of their own, objectization does not become objectification, the difference being for Kant, the word “mere”. Indulging in your own experience and participating in a larger, generalized body of knowledge is only a problem ethically if it is “undermining a dimension of a person’s rationality.” We are forced to treat others as objects since we can never experience what they are experiencing. This does not mean we have to treat others as mere objects, or a mere means to our own ends. Respecting a person’s rationality means you respect the fact that they are a special kind of object in that they have goals and projects of their own, just as you have goals and projects of your own. Since Kant’s account of ethical conduct is structured by his account of rationality, what makes for an ethical person, also makes for a knowledgeable person. Right conduct is that in which leads to the flourishing of human rationality.

This lines up with Fricker’s account of testimonial injustice when she describes Craig’s account of the State of Nature. In the State of Nature knowledge meets basic human “epistemic needs” that go beyond mere true belief (129). For Craig, there are “sources of knowledge” and there are “informants.” Informants can be a source of knowledge but they can also be “knowers” in and of themselves, whereas “sources of knowledge”, such as events or “states of affairs”, lack subjective substance (130). The testimonial injustice occurs when societal prejudice and power relations determine the character of a “good informant” rather than the true belief they judge to be knowledge (130). A sort of ad hominem fallacy where the criteria for a “good informant” is determined by who they are or who they are affiliated with, not the evidence that their experience provides.

In the example of the pow wow coverage, the argument that was being made, when translated into the language of testimonial injustice, is that by not having the coverage of the event be self-representational, the newspaper is preemptively silencing the epistemic contributions of the people of Curve Lake and that as a reporter, I was using them as “sources of knowledge” only, not “good informants.” In reality though, I was using the people as “good informants” and not as mere means to my own ends. The people I attended the event with from the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre were “good informants” because not only did they know what protocols I should follow when taking pictures and writing others accounts of the events, they were also “sources of knowledge” in that they experienced the event as well. In no way did I disrespect their rationality or ability to inform me based on societal prejudices or essentialized notions of what cultural identity I associate with them. In fact, the opposite occurred where they held a privileged epistemic position in that they had attended more pow wows than I and their lived experiences were a necessity to my understanding. The purpose for them being there was to raise awareness about Aboriginal issues and inform people about the Friendship Centre. In this way our goals and projects lined up and made a genuine collaboration possible.

The Community Race Relations Committee is reacting to real epistemic injustices though. Traditionally the First Nations populations of Canada have been undermined as knower’s and therefore undermined as practitioners of reason. In the political sphere the contributions and experiences of many different peoples have been suppressed to meet the needs of this oppressive epistemic community. Fricker, via MacKinnon, uses the example of sexual objectification in pornography to describe epistemic objectification: “Thus a certain sort of sexual reality is created.” But Fricker takes exception to the sweeping generalization by saying that “[i]t essentializes the multifarious nature of women’s historical subordination… it attributes to pornography too powerful an influence on the social construction.” In the same way the CRRC places too much time and effort battling the benevolent collaborations of the student press with a Friendship Centre instead of recognizing the larger influence of government in the role of shaping an epistemic framework and community. The CRRC also “essentializes the multifarious nature” of the relation between First Nation communities and the press. If powerful and dominant social institutions behaved as I did at the pow wow, “epistemic and discursive relations between” colonial governments and First Nations would be that of sovereign to sovereign, instead an unequal relation of testimonial injustice: “Relations of reciprocity furnish the communicative climate” . In Fricker’s description of this process of silencing, “women’s testimony is not quite pre-empted,” it is heard but “it is not heard as genuine testimony at all.” And again, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples literally took the testimony of Aboriginal people all across Canada, but made their own decisions anyway.

There are complications with this way of talking about testimonial and epistemic injustice though, beyond the language of a preemptive “credibility deficit” and the informant”/”knower” . There is a disconnect between a “good informant”, a reliable source, and what it is to actually know.  It all comes back around to objectization, where the actual subjective experience is removed from the understanding of the concept that experience can represent. So it is this collaborative inter-subjective conversation between people that line up subjective experiences as similar or the same in order to determine what is real, what we can know. This epistemic conversation is something that transcends identity politics.

About Anthony P. Gulston 0 Articles
Redheaded radio writer that specializes in events coverage, underwater journalism and media news. Listen to his reggae radio program, the Anth co dub-Station on Trent Radio, read his blog, read his work in Absynthe or follow him on Twitter.