Lidal Dror (Princeton University), "Is There an Epistemic Advantage to Being Oppressed?"
We have all heard someone say something to the effect of, “as a Black person I know…”, “as a woman I know…”, “as a minority [of some type], I know…”, before making a claim about society, group relations, or justice. Perhaps we say such things ourselves. These are appeals to a marginalized social location as epistemic support for a claim. But what is the link between being in an oppressed group, and being able to know something about the system which oppresses your group? And what important social and political implications come from our answer to this question?
In my paper, which you can read here, I investigate whether there is an epistemic advantage to being oppressed. The view that socially marginalized groups have an epistemic advantage in virtue of their social (political and material) marginalization is typically associated with Standpoint Theory. My paper draws on standpoint theory, but is also in some respects an intervention in it. I focus specifically on “The Inversion Thesis”, the claim that socially marginalized people, by virtue of their social location, have a superior epistemic position than non-oppressed people when it comes to knowing things about the system that oppresses them, and where this knowledge is supposed to go beyond knowing merely what it feels like to be in that group.
We can distinguish a weak version of the inversion thesis, which claims only that the oppressed tend to have an epistemic advantage, because they tend to have more relevant experiences and motivation. According to this thesis, relevant informative experiences and motivation are fundamentally open to the non-oppressed, which can put them in just as good of an epistemic position. We reasonably expect a worker who has had to strike for a living wage to have had experiences and motivation which give them insight into the exploitative and unfair nature of our economic system. But it’s possible that a middle-class person, say one who decided to become a union organizer, may similarly have experiences and motivation which make them just as well placed to see the injustices of our economic system. It’s just that richer people tend to have these experiences and motivation less often.
My paper explains why the weak inversion thesis is the most plausible way to defend there being an epistemic advantage to being oppressed, but, importantly, highlights the limits of the thesis as well. Among other things, the truth of the weak inversion thesis is contingent on an array of pertinent social facts. For instance, there are many important ways that oppression is epistemically bad for the oppressed. Substandard educational opportunities and intentional misinformation by the oppressing class (e.g. the widespread disinformation during COINTELPRO activity against Black radicals and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States) can deleteriously affect the oppressed’s epistemic standing vis-à-vis their own oppression. Further, even oppressed groups are susceptible to the influence of oppressive ideologies which legitimize unjust states of affairs, and some oppressed people may accordingly develop false consciousness. Noting all this doesn’t mean that we should discount the interest and motivation the oppressed have for correctly perceiving their oppressive circumstances, nor the many experiences that oppressed people routinely have that shed light on the oppressive nature of society. For several obvious reasons, the weak inversion thesis seems defensible. But it needs to be properly situated in its contingency.
My paper also discusses a strong version of the inversion thesis, according to which there is something about having the very experience of being an oppressed person which provides a unique epistemic advantage vis-à-vis the oppression of one’s group. On this view, all else being equal, an oppressed person will have an epistemic advantage over a non-oppressed person, just in virtue of having the experience of being oppressed. This stronger thesis doesn’t preclude a non-oppressed person obtaining a better epistemic position than an oppressed person – a white social scientist might still be better-placed to know about the injustices of White Supremacy than some Black people. But the thesis does imply that if, abstracting away from their race, a white social scientist and a Black social scientist are epistemic equals vis-a-vis White Supremacy, then the mere fact that one is Black means that they are actually the epistemic superior vis-à-vis White Supremacy. This stronger thesis runs into greater problems than its weaker counterpart. In the paper, I use an analogy to Frank Jackson’s “Mary’s Room” thought experiment to help show why. Although Mary lacks knowledge of what it feels like to see red, she seemingly has all the propositional knowledge about red. In a similar spirit, it seems plausible that one can lack knowledge of what it feels like to be oppressed, but still be well situated to have deep knowledge of a system of oppression – where one’s lack of knowledge of what it feels like to be oppressed doesn’t disadvantage one vis-à-vis this other knowledge.
In the paper, I ultimately find that only a very qualified defense of the strong inversion thesis is viable. We should accept (with caveats) that knowing that something causes you (an oppressed person) feelings of hurt (and the like), does give you some evidence about how something makes oppressed people feel, which does have implications for the normative standing of various institutions and actions. Yet ultimately the normative standing of actions and institutions in society are largely objectively analyzable by anyone, and one needn’t have the qualia of being oppressed to be able to analyze all the relevant facts that determine whether, say, the criminal justice system is racist.
One of the reasons I wrote this paper is because I think overly strong endorsements of there being an epistemic advantage to being oppressed have pernicious implications. It’s important that we don’t occlude the aforementioned bad epistemic consequences of being oppressed. Moreover, in positing an epistemic disadvantage to the non-oppressed, one also posits a limit on what ignorance (and resulting wrong actions) the non-oppressed are actually blameworthy and responsible for. If the non-oppressed, in virtue of being non-oppressed, just can’t know (or can’t without an unreasonable amount of effort know) various basic things – like that there are troubling class, racial, and gender inequities in our society – then this really limits what we can expect from them, and how we can engage with them. Instead, if we highlight that everyone can, and thus should, put in the effort to learn about (and then fight) systems of oppression, we better point to how we can all collectively work to improve our society, without exempting the non-oppressed from doing their part.
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